It had to happen sometime, but with the passing of Olivia de Havilland today at the age of 104 the curtain rings down on the golden age of Hollywood. There are other survivors of that era but none can match the stature of this two-time Oscar winner—or her game-changing refusal to abide by an unfair contract with Warner Bros. Her victory benefited working actors of every rank and is still celebrated today.
I had one opportunity to interview her, on a rare trip from her home in Paris to promote the 1998 reissue of her most famous film, Gone With The Wind. I had about twenty minutes to pack in as many questions as possible while trying to avoid the obvious ones.
We discussed the glittery opening of GWTW in Atlanta, where her date was man-about-town Jock Whitney, and New York, where her escort was James Stewart. “I met him for the first time at the airport, LaGuardia I think it was. It was a very cold day when I arrived. Irene Selznick, David’s wife, thought it was very important to select ‘Melanie’s Wilkes’s’ escort and it was decided it should be Jimmy Stewart, who had just done Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. He met me at the airport with the longest, blackest limousine you ever saw, and was very tall, wearing a long black overcoat and a hat. We were both wildly shy, so I went toward him and we shook hands and said how do you do. I got in the back of the limousine and I sat in one corner and he sat in the other. We tried to make conversation and it was extremely difficult, but then we saw each other several days in a row. I think he introduced me to a bourbon old-fashioned. It was the first I had ever tasted, and that was at the 21 Club. I enjoyed it and we had a happy time together. Then he looked me up when I got back to Los Angeles and we began to see something of each other.”
I asked if he had proposed to her, as I’d read. “No, he didn’t. I waited and he didn’t. And I waited some more and he didn’t…and finally I decided not to wait any longer.”
Stories have varied over the years about Miss de Havilland’s relationship with Errol Flynn, with whom she costarred ten times, most memorably in Captain Blood and The Adventures of Robin Hood. She told me, “I thought him extremely attractive, extremely charming, beguiling, touching, moving. I felt a deep attachment toward him but I suppose I never really knew him well. You can get very attached to someone with whom you play these relationships and scenes, and I felt a profound attachment to that man. When I got the news that he had died, it was in Paris…I went out and walked, it was in the autumn, and—well, I just cried. And I cried a long time. I had a tremendous sense of loss because in an odd way, our destinies had been interwoven. We began at the same time and we were part of each other’s lives through our work.”
I was curious about her relationship with the tempestuous director Michael Curtiz, who piloted many of the films she made with Flynn. How did she get along with him? “Not very well. I thought he disliked me intensely, or that’s the impression he gave me. I found him terribly, terribly difficult to work with. But to my great surprise, years after we did the films with Flynn, the telephone rang in Paris and it was Sam Goldwyn Jr. and he wanted to talk to me about The Proud Rebel. He said the director insists that you play the feminine role with Alan Ladd. And I said, ‘Who is the director?’ He said, ‘Well, he’s right here beside me.’ I said, ‘Who could it possibly be?’ and he said Mike Curtiz. I couldn’t believe it. But he insisted that I play the part and we got along quite well. There was a slight moment of friction there, but aside from that, we got along very well.”
I wondered if she thought the director was tougher on women than men. “I think he was tough on both. He was awfully tough on Errol,” she told me. “I can remember on Elizabeth and Essex he had been goading Errol in some way and Errol couldn’t stand it one more minute. He went for Mike and they had to separate them.”
She had more positive things to say about William Wyler, who steered her thorough her Oscar-winning performance in The Heiress—despite his penchant for shooting take after take. “I can remember doing 45 with him,” she said, “but it didn’t bother me. I thought what he’s after is perfection, and so am I, so I’m not going to complain, I’ll do it 45 times. But the curious thing is, he would often pick take 2.”
I asked her what she thought was so appealing about Howard Hughes, whom she got to know in the late 1930s. “Perhaps it was the shyness,” she replied, “the shyness coupled with his extraordinary accomplishments. You sensed a lot of courage and immense ability, and the shyness combined with that is quite a powerful combination.”
Hughes consoled her at dinner the day that Victor Fleming replaced George Cukor as the director of Gone With The Wind, a turn of events that upset Vivien Leigh as well. Hughes was “very comforting and reassuring. He said, ‘Don’t worry, between George and Victor it’s the same talent, but Victor’s is strained through a coarser sieve.’ Sure enough, he was a very sensitive man, and after the first rehearsal of [a scene] where you first see Scarlett and Melanie together, I said the line in kind of a social way, polite. And he said, ‘Remember, Melanie means everything that she says,’ and of course, that meant approaching the meeting in a very different way. Complete sincerity.”
A few months ago I revisited Hold Back the Dawn (1941), which Arrow Academy released in a beautiful Blu-ray edition. It features one of de Havilland’s finest performances, as a prim American schoolteacher who falls under the spell of a scheming Charles Boyer during a visit to Mexico. She makes the character vividly real, or to put it another way, sincere. That was always her stock in trade—in costume dramas, romantic films, and comedies alike. What a marvelous career she had…and how lucky I feel that I got to meet her, even if it was just once.