Monday, July 1, 2013

Film Great, Olivia de Havilland

Here's what I wish the Oscars had done this year instead of giving host Seth MacFarlane way too much time trying to make the Academy Awards show as hip as the soulless MTV Awards.  Two-time Best Actress Oscar winner Olivia de Havilland celebrates her 97th birthday today.  For many years now, she has lived in France.  She is one of our oldest living Oscar-winning actors.  I wish there'd been some regard for Hollywood's past in this year's Oscars telecast.  As a contract player, she legally fought her studio for actors' rights and won.  Her lawsuit victory helped future actors under studio contracts.  Look up the De Havilland Law, named in her honor.  She should be remembered -- and thanked.
She is one of my favorite classic Hollywood actresses.  She won her Oscars for two Paramount films -- To Each His Own (1946) and The Heiress (1949).  In my opinion, William Wyler's The Heiress needs to be one of "The Essentials" on TCM.  I'd have picked that over Cat Ballou.  Not that Cat Ballou isn't entertaining, mind you, but The Heiress is all-around brilliant.  The performances.  The original score by Aaron Copland.  Wyler's inspired camera work with Leo Tover.  The screenplay.  It's a masterpiece.
One ironic thing about de Havilland's career is that she worked hard for years as a Warner Bros. contract player.  Starting in 1935, she did Shakespeare, costume dramas, modern dramas, comedies, a musical comedy number, action/adventures -- but all her five Oscar nominations came for work outside her home studio.  Three for Paramount, one for 20th Century Fox and her first came for a Selznick/MGM production.  That was her Best Supporting Actress nomination for 1939's Gone With The Wind.
The winner was, historically, Hattie McDaniel.  She was the first black actor nominated for an Oscar and the first to win.  To me, de Havilland was McDaniel's best co-star.  McDaniel acted opposite the greats -- Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, Barbara Stanwyck, Henry Fonda, Marlene Dietrich, Vivien Leigh.  But there was a special chemistry between Hattie McDaniel and Olivia de Havilland.  They're memorable in the difficult and emotionally-heavy staircase scene in Gone With The Wind.
She and McDaniel were in a lighter, comic mood for their scenes in the Errol Flynn historical action movie, They Died With The Boots On (1941).  Flynn played Gen. Custer.

The best role of McDaniel's post-Oscar career came in John Huston's In This Our Life (1942).  Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland star as sisters and romantic rivals in this drama.  Bette plays the bad girl, Olivia the good one.  But this dysfunctional family story is also, for that era, a fairly bold racial drama about white privilege and superiority in modern times.  McDaniel plays the family's longtime maid.  She's a working mother whose son is getting more of an education than she has.  He also works and he's studying to become a lawyer.  Olivia's character is fond of Minerva, the maid, and proud of Minerva's son, Perry.  Bette's character kills two people while driving recklessly and blames the crime on Perry.  Cops believe her.  The good sister believes Minerva and Perry.  Minerva knows the law is different for blacks and she can only do so much for her innocent son.  The scene in which the good sister hears the truth and does the right thing by believing Minerva is one of the film's strongest.  It's a racially significant and important scene.

Olivia de Havilland's sister, Joan Fontaine, is now 95 and reportedly lives in the posh Santa Barbara, California area.  Fontaine, the blonde star of Hitchcock's Rebecca, won her Academy Award for another Hitchcock thriller, Suspicion, co-starring Cary Grant.  Joan and Olivia are the only pair of sisters who've won Best Actress Academy Awards.

Luise Rainer made Best Actress Oscar history shortly before quitting Hollywood for stage and wartime humanitarian work.  She was the first actor to win consecutive Academy Awards.  Rainer won for The Great Ziegfeld (1936) and The Good Earth (1937).
She's now 103 and lives in London.

If you want a good 4th of July DVD rental starring Olivia, get 1964's Lady in a Cage.  It's a low-budget, black and white suspense movie about a disabled rich lady trapped in her mansion elevator and terrorized by thugs after she's left home alone.
This happens on the 4th of July.  The gentle lady fights back.

The supporting cast includes screen veteran Ann Sothern, and de Havilland matches wits with a criminal played by a hairy-chested new Hollywood actor named James Caan.

In 2008, the actress received a National Medal of the Arts from President George W. Bush.
In 2010, France's President Sarkozy (left) bestowed upon her the French Legion of Honor award.

I wish such surviving Oscar winners had gotten a respectful nod from Hollywood during this year's Oscars -- and I wish a very Happy Birthday to Olivia de Havilland.

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