Monday, July 27, 2020

Olivia de Havilland and Black/Latinx Fans

In 1939's GONE WITH THE WIND, she played genteel Melanie Wilkes, the Southern lady of unshakeable kindness. Over the weekend, Olivia de Havilland passed away in Paris at age 104. What a life. What an actress. In addition to having won two Oscars for Best Actress, Olivia de Havilland was appointed a Dame thanks to Great Britain and she was bestowed the French Legion of Honor distinction. Olivia de Havilland won my heart when I was a little boy in Los Angeles. The 1935 adventure, CAPTAIN BLOOD, aired frequently on local KHJ TV/Channel 9. I loved the pretty lady in the movie. She was that lady in one of her several movies with Errol Flynn.
Olivia de Havilland helped me in the classroom. KHJ TV/Channel aired another of her 1935 films for Warner Brothers -- A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM. Mom coaxed me to watch that on TV when I was in grade school and I was glad she did. Maybe I didn't understand all the language, but the visuals were dazzling. And there was that pretty lady again -- Olivia de Havilland as Hermia. I watched that movie so many times that I could quote a few Shakespeare lines from it by the time I started middle school. Olivia de Havilland was in my first film introduction to Shakespeare.
I've been living my sister in the Minneapolis area for a couple of years. She came here for work back in the 90s and found happiness. I moved in with a few of my belongings. On her shelves, I noticed rows of DVDs. I spotted her copy of SNAKE PIT, a 1948 Fox mental health drama that brought de Havilland one of her Best Actress Oscar nominations. I'd brought with me my copy of 1949's THE HEIRESS, the 1949 Paramount costume drama that won de Havilland her second Oscar for Best Actress. Her first win came for the 1946 Paramount drama, TO EACH HIS OWN.
My sister and me -- two Black kids who grew up in South Central L.A. and, in their collections of home entertainment, possessed a classic film performance by Olivia de Havilland.

One of my favorite and most memorable party nights in Manhattan involved de Havilland. About a dozen or so of us friends got together at one's apartment in Hells Kitchen for a little birthday party with buffet dinner. Only one guest was Caucasian. They rest of us were Black or Latino. The party was early in the evening. We were all classic film fans. The host asked if we'd like to see a movie. We all agreed on one of his DVDS. We'd watch....THE HEIRESS in which her sweet character evolves from submissive to steely.

If you've seen THE HEIRESS, you will really get this: There we were, a predominantly Black/Latino audience, paying full attention to THE HEIRESS. When Olivia de Havilland, in the final scene, said "Bolt the door, Mariah," we all broke out into cheers and applause as if New York had just won the World Series. Watch this short video I did a few years ago.

Here's a trailer for William Wyler's THE HEIRESS.

My sister, my buddies at the birthday party, and me. This is why I push for more diversity and inclusion, especially on camera, in the field of film arts talk. That includes movie reviews and movie channel hosting. Would a Black film critic or movie historian be tapped to go on TV or give radio soundbites talking about Olivia de Havilland's excellent work in the films I mentioned here? Would we get the equal opportunity to talk about her wonderfulness as Maid Marian opposite Errol Flynn in THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD, her spirited comedy timing in THE STRAWBERRY BLONDE, her brilliant underplaying of scenes in HOLD BACK THE DAWN, her sleek and subtle yet dangerous sexiness in MY COUSIN RACHEL and her strength as the disabled woman alone in Los Angeles who outwits a band of home invaders in 1964's LADY IN A CAGE?

When it comes to movies starring Olivia de Havilland, I've only seen Black film critics and historians get tapped to talk about GONE WITH THE WIND because of Hattie McDaniel's historic Oscar winning performance and Black images in the film.
Olivia de Havilland. There was diversity in her film roles. There was diversity in her fan club. Finally, as someone who served on the New York City Screen Actors Guild board for a year, we are extremely grateful to her for the De Havilland Law of 1944. She challenged the Hollywood studio system by taking a case involving labor rights for actors to court -- and she won the landmark case.

1 comment:

  1. You never know where inspiration will come from. Each movie has a chance to touch anyone.

    I appreciate your thoughts on the stereotypical ideas of which films different critics or fans should be asked about. As a western fan, it would be bothersome when our local TV Guide would save their western movie recommendations for Father's Day. Not the same thing exactly, but an assumption is definitely made.


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