The Last Star: An evening with Olivia de Havilland
The petite woman with an elegant swoop of white hair and a neat dash of red lipstick stands to greet her visitor with a hug. “Good evening!” Olivia de Havilland says, leaning in for a Continental two-cheek kiss. It is early January in Paris, and the actress has invited a journalist over for champagne and a chat. She is, of course, impeccably dressed in an embroidered black velvet gown and gold Chanel ballet flats, a strand of pearls knotted chicly at her chest.
The stately town house that has been de Havilland’s home for the past 58 years is undergoing repairs, so she receives her guest in her temporary quarters: a suite in an exclusive hotel that is located, quite fittingly for this grande dame of the silver screen, in a 19th-century château.
An assistant pours bubbly into two flutes. “What are we toasting?” de Havilland asks, raising her glass.
How about the hostess herself?
At 98, Olivia de Havilland is the last great star of Hollywood’s golden age, a woman who began her career during the rise of Technicolor in 1935, formed one of the most indelible screen couples of all time with Errol Flynn, and went on to work with James Cagney, Rita Hayworth, Montgomery Clift, Bette Davis, Richard Burton, Clark Gable, and Vivien Leigh. With her deep brown doe eyes and apple-cheeked smile, the two-time Best Actress winner excelled at playing heroines whose demure bearing belied a feisty core. The most famous of these great ladies was Melanie Hamilton, the tenderhearted foil to Leigh’s scheming Scarlett O’Hara in 1939’s Gone With the Wind. Based on Margaret Mitchell’s best-seller, the beloved epic has sold more tickets in its lifetime than any other film. And 75 years ago it cleaned up at the Academy Awards, winning eight of its 13 nominations.
Having outlived all of her costars (as well as the movie’s mad-genius producer, David O. Selznick, and the three directors he hired to steer the massive ship), de Havilland has been GWTW‘s principal spokesperson for almost five decades, the sole bearer of the Tara torch. It’s a privilege she calls “rather wonderful,” as her affection for the film is genuine and deep. She’s seen GWTW “about 30 times,” she says, and still enjoys watching it for the emotional jolt it brings as she reconnects with those costars—Gable, Leigh, Hattie McDaniel, and Leslie Howard—who have long since passed on.
“Luckily, it does not make me melancholy,” she says via email a few days after our meeting. (Though an expert raconteuse, she’s conscientious about facts—”I want to be a font of truth”—and will discuss the finer points of her career only in writing.) “Instead, when I see them vibrantly alive on screen, I experience a kind of reunion with them, a joyful one.”
Joy seems to be a dominant emotion in de Havilland’s world—at least this evening. Though her vision and hearing are somewhat limited, her mind is sharp. She is witty, warm, and engaged, her eyes bright as she spins yarn after lively yarn over the course of a three-hour conversation. “How’s this for an histoire?” she says in her deep, rich voice before launching into a tale of a slapstick bedpan mishap during a stay in a French hospital. Her speech is peppered with throwback words like golly, marvelous, and splendid. More than once, she summons her assistant by cupping her hands around her mouth and playfully calling, “Oh, dear giiirl!”
Her memory is enviable: She vividly recalls lying in her crib as a baby and hearing the clink-clink of her nanny preparing her bottle. And she is delightfully open about her age. While discussing her day-to-day life at the hotel, for instance, she gets a mischievous twinkle in her eye as she describes the handsome fellows from room service. “How many women in this world are served breakfast in bed every morning by a gorgeous young man? I am,” she says. “So how do I feel about older age? Crazy about it! Wouldn’t trade it for anything!”
Even before GWTW, de Havilland was a star. Born to British expats in Japan, she was raised in Saratoga, Calif., and became a contract player at Warner Bros. at age 18. It was there that she met Errol Flynn, the dashing Aussie playboy with whom she shared the screen eight times, most memorably in 1938’s giddy frolic The Adventures of Robin Hood, in which she played a spirited Maid Marian. Their chemistry was instant, yet despite rumors, de Havilland maintains they were never lovers off screen. “Oh, Mr. Flynn, Mr. Flynn, Mr. Flynn! A cantankerous fate kept us together in films and apart in real life,” she writes. “Much as I have sometimes mourned this, if it had been otherwise I would never have played Melanie” and many others. “And who can say that our union would have lasted?” (Even over email, de Havilland is every bit the dowager of theatricality you want her to be.)
Fun as the Flynn pictures were, the actress felt confined at Warner Bros., which cast her in one stock love-interest part after another. If she turned a role down, she was suspended. “What bothered me was playing one-dimensional parts in films which were really about ‘Boy Meets Girl,’ ‘Will Boy Get Girl?’ (He always did),” she emails. “Those roles were intended simply to fill the routine function of ‘The Girl.’ Little, if any, character development was involved.” For a woman who herself was so much more than just “The Girl” in real life, she needed more.
So when an offer came from Selznick to play a character as fully drawn as Melanie—whose trials include giving birth while Atlanta falls to the Yankees—de Havilland knew it could spring her from her creative prison. “The role was just what I wanted, and just what I needed,” she says. Gentle and sincere, her performance earned de Havilland her first Oscar nomination, for Supporting Actress. But at the ceremony, the name called was Hattie McDaniel, who played Mammy.
De Havilland was crushed. “When I returned home on Oscar night, aged 23 and the loser of the award…. I was convinced there was no God,” she says via email. But when she considered the historical significance of McDaniel becoming the first African-American to win, her loss didn’t seem so dramatic. And she cheered herself up by interpreting the Academy’s decision as vindication that she belonged in the lead category all along. “About two weeks later, I woke up and thought, ‘Oh, how wonderful! I wasn’t a supporting actress, and Hattie was, and she won! Those blessed voters were not misled for one minute…. I’d rather live in a world where someone who is a supporting actress wins against someone who, instead, is a star playing a starring role!… There is a God, after all!’ “
The real disappointment came back at Warner Bros., which still refused to offer her roles that cracked the superficial ingenue mold. So in 1943, de Havilland fought back. When the studio tried to extend her contract beyond seven years, she sued and won. Her moxie—a quality hardly encouraged in women back then—changed the industry. To this day the law that makes such practices illegal is called the de Havilland Decision. (The honor, she says, feels “absolutely marvelous!”)
For her, the ruling meant artistic freedom at last, and she made the most of it by entering into a golden age of her own. In 1947 she won Best Actress for her portrayal of an unwed mother in To Each His Own. In 1949 she was nominated again, for The Snake Pit, in which she starred as a patient in a mental hospital. On a roll, she then closed out the decade with William Wyler’s 1949 masterpiece, The Heiress. For her turn as a naive young woman who falls for a fortune hunter (Montgomery Clift), the Academy rewarded her with a second Best Actress statuette.
It was no less a figure than James Stewart, an ex-beau, who handed her the trophy on Oscar night. “Jimmy, Jimmy, Jimmy!” she writes. “How extraordinary that, almost exactly 10 years after we first met and you escorted me to the New York premiere of Gone With the Wind, it should be you who presented me with that second Oscar and escorted me off stage at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre.”
As the hours glide by on this January evening, de Havilland reassures her guest that she is not overstaying her welcome. Gesturing to the champagne flute (which has been refilled numerous times), she says, “You pay attention to the little glass in front of you. When it’s empty, let that be your signal.” And so we keep drinking and talking.
When de Havilland moved to France in 1953 to marry her second husband, a Frenchman, she was all too happy to bid adieu to Hollywood, where television had begun to eclipse film. “The Golden Era…was dying and I knew that whatever replaced it would not be its equal,” she writes. So she focused on her children, Benjamin and Gisèle, took the occasional job by “commuting to Hollywood,” as her son once put it, and earned an Emmy nomination in 1987 for her role as a Russian empress in the NBC miniseries Anastasia: The Mystery of Anna. Even after her second divorce in 1979, living abroad afforded her a life of great privacy, which she continues to cherish. Tabloids frothed for years over her relationship with her sister, the actress Joan Fontaine, which was famously strained, at least according to Fontaine, who wrote about it in her 1978 autobiography. De Havilland, however, does not discuss it. (Fontaine died in 2013.)
Though she lives alone, de Havilland is far from lonely. She regularly speaks on the phone with Gisèle, who lives in California. (Benjamin passed away in 1991 from over-radiation following his treatment for cancer.) Depending on her energy level, she entertains about once a week. She is still a dues-paying member of the Academy and follows nomination season “with extreme interest,” but because of her declining eyesight, she no longer watches many films and does not vote. She can still do crossword puzzles, though, and in the coming months she hopes to make progress on the autobiography she began a few years ago. She’s written five chapters in the same buoyant style that she used in her charming 1962 book of essays, Every Frenchman Has One. A lover of words, she is enjoying mining her rich, long life for remembrances.
And if she has anything to do with it, she will collect many, many more. Because this formidable woman has every intention of celebrating her 100th birthday come July 1, 2016. “Oh, I can’t wait for it,” she says. “I’m certainly relishing the idea of living a century. Can you imagine that? What an achievement.”