The last piece of gold

Lubna Abdel-Aziz
Tuesday 11 Aug 2020

She was the epitome of the most perfect woman on earth.

Beautiful, sweet, self-sacrificing, soft-spoken, patient, gentle, giving, and forgiving. Her selfless love and deeply feminine qualities endeared her to the public. They may be scoffed at today, but undoubtedly she symbolises the dream of every man and every woman.

A paragon of dignity and morality, even Margaret Mitchell, author of the immortal novel Gone with the Wind, did not picture her as stately and sublime as Olivia portrayed her. The budding actress’ great characterisation gained her movie immortality.

Her very name and bearing suggested a kind of aristocracy in the kingdom of Hollywood.

Olivia Mary de Havilland passed away quietly in her sleep on 26 July in Paris, where she has resided since 1950. She was 104.

A movie legend, a classic beauty, and an honoured actress, she was the last surviving star of what is referred to as “the Golden Age” of Hollywood. She was the last piece of the gold.

Unlike most stars of the time, knocking on a hundred doors in search of stardom, de Havilland was intent on being an English teacher. Hers was not a traditional background.

She was born in Tokyo in 1916 where her father, British lawyer Walter de Havilland was appointed professor of English at the Imperial University. Her mother, Lillian Fontaine, a graduate of Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London, had to settle for giving drama and elocution lessons instead of pursuing an acting career.

If the name de Havilland rings another bell, it is due to her uncle, Sir Geoffrey de Havilland, aircraft designer and founder of de Havilland Aircraft Company.

Sister Joan was born in 1917. She called Olivia Livvie and the nickname stuck. Sibling rivalry however kept the sisters apart. Their feud was legendary and never healed.

How did the family get from Tokyo to Hollywood?

By 1919, the girls were growing and Lillian wished to give them a traditional English upbringing, but destiny had other plans. When their boat embarked in San Francisco, Olivia was severely sick and needed urgent treatment. They were forced to stay. Walter was bored and the marriage was not going well anyway. He returned to Tokyo and married his Japanese housekeeper. Do not underestimate the geisha groove.

To cut a long story short, the family settled in California. Lillian married executive Marcus Goodrich and Olivia joined Mills College to study education in hopes of becoming a teacher, but was always associated with the theatre. Following a performance as Puck after graduation, she was noticed by Austrian director, Max Rheinhardt, who wanted her for a major production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Livvie had her mind set on becoming a teacher, but finally and reluctantly, she signed a five-year contract with Warner Bros in 1934. Thus she started her screen-acting career that would span half a century.

In 1935 she was cast opposite bad-boy heartthrob Errol Flynn in Captain Blood. Flynn, a former extra, objected to playing alongside a little known de Havilland. However, her spirited hauteur and his playful braggadocio became an instant hit. They went on to make eight films together, including the original Adventures of Robinhood, thus starting the great romantic pairing on screen. Did they fall in love?

It is always a temptation, wavering between the work and the private life of the artist. Fans wish to know and gossip media is abundant. Here we have to pause as she did admit having a crush on him and he was swept away by her grace, but he was married then, and elegant Olivia chose to part ways.

Jack Warner of Warner Studios was a stubborn boss and could only see his star as the pretty ingenue, while she sought meatier roles and refused to remain always the love interest.

When casting for MGM’s Gone with the Wind started, she begged Jack Warner to lend her to out to try for Melanie. Jack would hear nothing of it, but Livvie had a will of steel. She went to his wife and pleaded her case. Little did she know that she was pleading for her everlasting image on the silver screen.

 Jack gave in, allowing her to create the embodiment of true femininity, never to be duplicated. They are both one and the same.

When her five-year contract with Warner’s was up, Jack demanded six more months, time spent when she refused certain parts, because they were not suited to her. That will of steel sent her to court, where she won a battle that helped push Hollywood into the modern era of human rights. It is recorded as the de Havilland law.

She built an illustrious career and won two Oscars. Her first for To Each His Own (1946) and her second for The Heiress (1949). Snake Pit won her Best actress at the Venice Film Festival.

She appeared in 49 features and was showered with honours and accolades.

In case you did not know, this elegant and refined lady was also a dame. Dame Olivia, Commander of the Order of the British Empire at age 101.

In 2010 she was awarded the Chevalier of the Legion d’Honneur from her adopted country, France. In 2017 George W Bush awarded her the US National Medal of Arts.

None garnered those movies gold and immortality as the perfect portrayal of Melanie by the perfect Olivia de Havilland.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 13 August, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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