An Era Ends: Golden Age of Hollywood Star Gone at 104.
Like many, my introduction to Olivia de Havilland was Gone With the Wind—we’ll get to that.
My most recent experience with de Havilland was earlier this month when Turner Classic Movies honored her with a birthday tribute for her 104th (!!). The Charge of the Light Brigade, with her frequent onscreen paramour Errol Flynn, was much of what I expected as she flirted her affections between Flynn and his brother (Patric Knowles) while reenacting the Tennyson poem. Government Girl was a new side of the actress for me. A romantic comedy, of all things! While the film itself wasn’t a genre peak, she was more than capable in a role requiring charm and intelligence. I’ve set her 1941 rom-com The Strawberry Blonde to record when it airs on TCM this week so I can hopefully enjoy that kind of performance again.
De Havilland wasn’t known for her comedies like she was for dramas and adventure flicks, but what she brought to Government Girl was the same thing she brought to the other genres. Like a Tom Hanks or Jimmy Stewart, de Havilland had that rare charisma telling you she’s honest, kind, and respectable, something she inhabited most in Melanie Wilkes.
Gone With the Wind is going through an understandable reevaluation of its legacy, which means de Havilland’s most iconic role is, too. As such I’m also reevaluating my relationship with a book and film important to me at a young age. Yes, I was quite proud of myself for reading the thick tome in seventh grade (all those Accelerated Reader points!), and after the lengthy book came the lengthy movie, which, in de Havilland and Vivien Leigh, brought to life the goodness and wickedness I had imagined. As an adult, I realize some underlying assumptions of the film were lost on me as a naïve kid in the Midwest, and while the grand spectacle of filmmaking and romance still hold up, separating them from its depiction of history is knottier than when I first encountered the story.
De Havilland is the least of the film’s worries regarding its modern reevaluation. The actress’s innate sense of virtue counters the disregard for human dignity Leigh’s Scarlett O’Hara repeatedly shows; she brings layers to a character that could easily have been schmaltzy. But if her passing has piqued your interest in her career, I recommend another film as a showcase for her talent. For a wider range, watch the movie that delivered her second Oscar a decade later, The Heiress. In this Henry James adaptation, she transforms a lonely woman from vulnerable to vindictive in less than two hours. It’s a role that could make you wonder if this is the response to masculine abuse that made Charlize Theron’s Furiosa or the heartbreak in a gilded cage of Natalie Portman’s Jackie Kennedy. All that to say, Olivia de Havilland will be remembered not just as Melanie Wilkes or as a star of her generation but one of the all-time greats.