By Rudolph Lambert Fernandez
This year Hollywood legend Dame Olivia de Havilland turns 104 – a tribute
Olivia de Havilland first appeared on movie screens 85 years ago.
If you’ve watched her in David O. Selznick’s “Gone with the Wind” (1939) you can’t be faulted if that’s how you remember her – as Melanie. If you haven’t watched her as Melanie, perhaps you should be faulted, after all. She was vital to GWTW’s success.
Remember Mammy pouring out her grief to Melanie as she walks up that staircase in the mournful Rhett-Scarlett household?
Seconds of grumbling. That’s all it took. Unlike the rest of us, Melanie didn’t find it just mildly annoying. She found it unbearable. She saw the world through a clean, clear lens. She wouldn’t let her own dark thoughts – she did have those – or the dark words and actions of others, cloud that lens beyond a point.
One way of appreciating Melanie is to watch GWTW again. There’s another, if you’re willing to try it – when she appears on screen, turn the volume off; watch other characters watch her.
Scarlett envied and scorned Melanie’s naivete and gentleness. Every other character – man or woman – looked at Melanie with the same incredulity and awe, as if seeing an angel.
It seems that Olivia de Havilland who turns 104 this year, took that immortality to heart! But longevity isn’t greatness. It merely implies greatness. And only indirectly. You’re great not because you’ve lived but because you’ve endured.
Well before Olivia and Errol Flynn were a ‘duo’ they’d once just finished lunch and were alone at the cinema set before shooting. Flynn seized that quiet moment and asked her, “What do you want out of life?’’ Olivia replied, “Respect for difficult work, well done.”
Born in 1916 amidst the First War, Olivia de Havilland rose to stardom through her role in GWTW in 1939, amidst the Second War. Of British descent, she spent her early childhood in Japan, rose to stardom in America, won two Academy Awards and two Golden Globes. During the Second War she cheered wounded Allied troops and helped sell war bonds.
Through the de Havilland Law Olivia won for all of Hollywood, men and women, a victory for creative folk. Still young she took the giant studios to court, dared a system that many men didn’t. And won.
“It seems that Olivia de Havilland who turns 104 this year, took that immortality to heart! But longevity isn’t greatness. It merely implies greatness.”
In “The Snake Pit” (1948) her stirring portrayal of a mentally ill person led to reforms in the conditions of America’s mental health institutions. Her first book, on the French and her adopted country France, was a bestseller. And she was the first woman to serve as jury President at Cannes.
When contract-obsessed Warner Bros wouldn’t free her to play Melanie, she asked Warner’s wife out to tea at the Brown Derby. More on that later. Eventually Warner, persuaded by his wife, loaned Olivia to Selznick for GWTW but he seemed sure that she should play Scarlett. Olivia? She insisted on playing Melanie.
Olivia’s reasoning, mentioned in her remarkable Academy of Achievement interview 5th October 2006, should interest all women, young and old. For four years she’d been a career woman, earning her own living, supporting others. “That’s what Scarlett did. Scarlett was self-absorbed, she had to be, career women have to be, that’s all there is to it.’’
“I knew about being Scarlett, but Melanie…….’’, Olivia’s eyes lit up.
“Melanie had very deeply feminine qualities which I felt were very endangered at that time and they are from generation to generation and that somehow they should be kept alive. And one way I could contribute to that, was to play Melanie.”
On these “feminine qualities” Olivia didn’t talk about silken hair, sensuous lips, soft skin, small chin, slender neck, sultry voice, sexy gait, shapely figure.
What did she consider so distinctively feminine?
“Melanie was other-people oriented. She was always thinking of the other person.”
That wasn’t enough. It wasn’t enough that Melanie was unselfish, forgiving.
“The interesting thing to me is that Melanie was happy. Scarlett wasn’t a happy woman, all self-generated and preoccupied. But there’s Melanie, loving, compassionate. She had this marvellous capacity to relate to people with whom she would normally have no relationship. Look at her behaviour with Belle, absolutely astounding.”
The ‘disreputable’ Belle Watling of course is GWTW’s ‘hooker’ with a heart who saves Melanie’s husband from humiliating arrest. She comes to see her at night, in a discreetly enclosed horse carriage.
Melanie: Oh, Miss Watling won’t you come in the house?
Belle (aghast at Melanie’s lack of discomfiture): Oh no I couldn’t do that Mrs Wilkes; you come in and set a minute with me.
Melanie (taking Belle’s hand): How can I thank you enough for what you did for us?
Belle: I got your note saying you were going to call on me and thank me. Oh, Mrs Wilkes you must have lost your mind! I come up here as soon as it was dark to tell you, you mustn’t even think of such things.
Belle scoffs at Scarlett: If it had been that Mrs Kennedy’s husband by himself, I wouldn’t have lifted a finger…She’s a mighty cold woman…. She killed her husband, same as if she shot him.
Melanie: You mustn’t say unkind things about my sister-in-law.
Belle: Oh…Mrs Wilkes, I forgot how you liked her. But she just ain’t in the same class with you and I can’t help it if I think so………I gotta be goin. I’m scared somebody’ll recognize this carriage if I stayed here any longer. That wouldn’t do you no good…… And Mrs Wilkes if you ever see me on the street……you don’t have to speak to me……I’ll understand.
Melanie: I shall be proud to speak to you, to be under obligation to you. I hope we meet again
Belle: Oh no, that wouldn’t be fittin.
Olivia was drawn not only to Melanie’s attitude to life but also to its fruit. Everyone around her – Ashley, Rhett, Scarlett – wanted happiness. And tried to clutch on. To what? The good life, a house, estate, cash, status, another man’s wife, another woman’s husband, a child; whatever or whoever they were certain would win them happiness.
Strangely, it was Melanie who won what everyone wanted – happiness. Stranger still, she received it not by holding on, but by giving away, by letting go.
Melanie didn’t need to win happiness. She had it all along.
The more she gave away, the more she seemed to have, to give.
“Olivia de Havilland was no saint. But like the character that she made immortal, her often mischievous worldliness had a touch of royal or saintly aloofness. Hollywood’s permissiveness didn’t seem to taint her.”
GWTW’s critics continue to point out its less than flattering depiction of blacks. However, in my opinion, they’re missing its albeit flawed attempt to portray an age gone by. An age gone with the wind, as it were. They miss its broader message of humanism that Melanie embodied. Her tiny embrace enveloped everyone: men, women, blacks, whites, rich, poor. Conservative as ever, she was more radical than the bunch of them.
Olivia de Havilland was no saint. But like the character that she made immortal, her often mischievous worldliness had a touch of royal or saintly aloofness. Hollywood’s permissiveness didn’t seem to taint her. She stood all of 5’4” high but for her sheer strength of conviction she was every bit like a stately Cathedral, unsullied by the goings on in the pews. It’s so trite to refer to Hollywood’s Golden Age that we forget that it’s endearing stars like her, who made it golden.
Back to the Brown Derby. Just before she talks about that triumphant tea with Mrs Warner, Olivia pauses. Then with a wistfulness that comes only to someone who has created – and so cherished – much of Hollywood history she says, “The Brown Derby, I think, no longer exists. It’s a terrible thing that they tore that down”.
Rudolph Lambert Fernandez (@RudolphFernandz) is an independent writer writing on pop culture.