Olivia de Havilland

Actress (National Medal of Arts recipient)
Olivia de Havilland

Photo courtesy of Olivia de Havilland

Transcript of an audio interview with Olivia deHavilland

[Take Five theme woven in and out of a montage of voices talking about the arts]

Kay Ryan: I demand a lot of sound from a poem.
Joe Haj: The arts are filled with people who are nontraditional thinkers.
Jo Reed: The arts are a wonderful window onto the soul of America.
Stan Lee: I started ending my columns by saying Excelsior!
[ Brubeck fades to piano piece by Todd Barton ]
Azar Nafisi, writer: Reading awakens your senses.
Kay Ryan, poet: If you write well, you are utterly exposed.
Olivia de Havilland: A voice said, "This is George Cukor."
Brenda Wineapple: Its value will never be diminished.
Marilynne Robison: The oldest art we have is narrative literature.
Lee Childs: The arts are what makes us human.
Tim O'Brien: There is a reason that fiction exists.
[Piano fades to Rain by the Birmingham Sunlights]
David Newell: Theatre can really change people's lives; it can be profoundly about human experience.
[Rain fades into Zydeco by Queen Ida]
Queen Ida: They crowned me Queen Ida, queen of the zydeco music.
<"Take Five" theme music playing in background>
Announcer: The National Endowment for the Arts presents Artworks.
<"Take Five" music fades out>

Olivia de Havilland: I had this conviction. That was another reason I wanted to do the film. I had this conviction that Gone With the Wind would have an unusually long life as a film, and by golly it did, and it has, and it's having it to this day.

Jo Reed: That was actress Olivia de Havilland, arguably most famous for her role as Melanie Wilkes in the film Gone With the Wind. Welcome to Art Works, the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation's great artists to explore how art works. I'm your host, Josephine Reed. Winner of two Academy Awards for best actress, Olivia de Havilland is quite simply a Hollywood legend, and at the age of 93 she's also one of the few who remembers first hand Hollywood's golden age. A natural beauty with refined elegance, de Havilland was an accomplished actress who wasn't afraid to tackle roles that would make her look unattractive, from a woman struggling with insanity in the Snake Pit to a plain unassuming girl in The Heiress, for which she won an Academy Award. In 2008, Olivia de Havilland was presented with The National Medal of Arts, the highest honor bestowed on an artist by the Federal Government. I spoke with Ms. de Havilland about her career and asked her about its auspicious beginning on the stage directed by the legendary Max Reinhardt.

Olivia de Havilland: Well this, of course, was beyond my wildest expectations, that I actually was a member of the company of the great maestro Max Reinhardt, just for the summer, of course, but nonetheless, and only as an understudy, needless to say, in four weeks time. Now, incredibly the actress cast as Hermia could not come to the rehearsals because she was in a movie, Warner Brothers, and this meant that this school girl named Olivia Mary de Havilland brought up in Saratoga, California, became an essential member of Max Reinhardt's company. It couldn't function without me. Somebody had to play Hermia in the rehearsals in all those scenes with the four lovers, Lysander, and

Demetrius, and Helena, and Hermia. So I took all the rehearsals and Reinhardt began to give me direction. Five days before opening night Jesse Wadsworth, who was the actress's agent, came to see Reinhardt and said, "I am very sorry, but her film will not be completed in time for the opening night and she will not be able to perform." So Reinhardt came up to me and he said, "You will play the part" and that I did.

Jo Reed: And you went on to play Hermia in the film as well, and that was the role that launched your career at Warner Brothers.

Olivia de Havilland: Yes, because I was required not only to sign for the film, but also for a long-term contract, which I didn't want to do, frankly. That may seem odd to you, but in those days there was a different emphasis, and it was the theater that had the greatest renown and prestige, and all young actresses aspired to a theater career rather than a movie career. This is a curious thing, but it was true, and I also felt the theater training would be invaluable.

Jo Reed: You were paired with Errol Flynn in eight films?

Olivia de Havilland: Yes.

Jo Reed: And that came pretty early in your career.

Olivia de Havilland: Yes, very soon after having completed Midsummer Night's Dream I tested with Flynn for the film.

Jo Reed: And it was Captain Blood.

Olivia de Havilland: Yes, in April, early April of 1935, and it was just a test to see how we looked together in costume. And I walked on the set, and saw him in his costume and I thought, "Oh." Well, it was love at first sight, but of course in those days, women -- females -- never, ever indicated their interest in a man. That was absolutely forbidden.

Jo Reed: But then, when he wrote his autobiography he confessed that he had been in love with you.

Olivia de Havilland: I can't tell you what that meant to me. I really cannot tell you how much it meant to me, especially as I had started to read his autobiography and I got to the point where he said at one point in his life he thought he was in love with Olivia de Havilland and I just closed the book. I couldn't go any further because he only thought it. Years later, coming back to the United States to do a kind of documentary about working with Flynn, I took the autobiography with me and I read it and I got up to the painful place where he said he thought he was in love with Olivia de Havilland, and the next sentence said, which I had not seen before, "Then, I knew I was." I couldn't believe it. You know, Flynn and I'd never spoken to each other on the set, I mean, only very casually. Well, most actors, if they know what best, do not talk on the set because you need your vocal energy, all the energy you can possibly garner and save for the work. So you don't waste that energy in casual talk, if you're wise. And I <laughs> I was wise and in any case I was hiding my feelings from Errol Flynn and he was hiding his feelings from me so <laughs> so there was not apt to be any conversation between us, and in fact there wasn't.

Jo Reed: The part of Melanie Wilkes, was that a part you knew you wanted?

Olivia de Havilland: Oh yes, very much, very much. I thought that she symbolized all kinds of feminine attributes, or just universal attributes that were worth valuing and preserving. And I thought they were always in danger, generation after generation, and so I thought, "Well, what can I do about this?" And I thought, "Well, one of the best ways of helping to preserve these qualities and values is to play Melanie." It was very difficult to obtain the part. I didn't even know that I would be considered for it being under contract to Warner Brothers until one day the phone rang and a voice said, "This is George Cukor. You don't know me. We've never met, but I am the assigned director to Gone With the Wind for Gone With the Wind, which we are now preparing and coming close to a shooting date." He said, "Would you be interested in the role of Melanie?" and I said, "I certainly would." And he said, "Would you agree to doing something quite illegal?" After a moment's hesitation I said, "Well, it depends on what it is." And then he told me <chuckles> and I agreed heartily to do something quite illegal.

Jo Reed: And what was it?

Olivia de Havilland: He said, "We can't test you. Warner Brothers wouldn't let you go, and because they're so difficult to deal with we can't test you, but we would like you to read for the part, a film test is out. And it has to be done very secretly. Tell absolutely no one. Come to a certain entrance -- it'll be locked, but someone will let you in. Say nothing to anyone, and they will lead you to my office and we will meet and you will read there." And this is exactly what happened. Selznick came in and George came in and we prepared to play the scene. Now, George was assigned the role of Scarlet. I had to play the scene with George. He wore very thickly rimmed spectacles. He had very dark curly hair, and he was vastly overweight. Part of my brain was saying, "This is the most comic scene ever witnessed by anyone. How David Selznick is going to <chuckles> re- react to it is beyond my imagination." So I played the part passionately and George played the part of Scarlet passionately clutching the drapes, and when it was over David Selznick was standing within three feet of us while this was going on. Incredibly he said, "I think we found our Melanie."

Jo Reed: It was a rocky road getting it made. You had three different directors. It started off with George Cukor, but...

Olivia de Havilland: Yes.

Jo Reed: ...very quickly...

Olivia de Havilland: Yes.

Jo Reed: ...he was let go. What happened?

Olivia de Havilland: It's possible that he was known as a woman's director. Of course that's nonsense, because two actors under his direction won the Academy Award. Jimmy was one of them and Ronald Colman was the other. So that was nonsense, but that was the belief, and it's possible that to protect Gable, who had the most to lose. Gable was The King. That is a title given him by Spencer Tracy who was a huge star himself, and he had never worked with George before, but he had worked with Victor Fleming and that had been a very good association. So it was Victor who took over. And that, of course, distressed Vivian and me because our characters had been set with George Cukor, and we didn't see how under another director we would be able to maintain our characters with an alien hand in charge. It was very distressing. That, as you can imagine, could have been more troubling than it was.

What softened the experience for me was that I had dinner, I think that very night, with Howard Hughes. Now, this is very unexpected, and I told him about my anxiety, and he said with an amazing insight and so kind to understand how I needed to be reassured, he said, "Don't worry, with George and Victor it's the same talent, only George's is strained through a finer sieve." So I went on the set knowing that it was the same talent and sure enough Victor proved this true, because on the first day of shooting with him it was a scene where Melanie meets Scarlet for the first time at the barbecue, at Twelve Oaks, and Melanie speaks to her and says something about being so pleased to see her, and I said it because it was sort of a social occasion, in a kind of social way at the first rehearsal. And then when that was over Victor said, "Beckon to me," and took me aside. Look at the sensitive and the politeness of this man. And he said, "Just think of this one thing. Everything that Melanie says she means," and so he gave me a wonderful key to the whole character, Victor Fleming. So it all turned out all right.

Jo Reed: Were you surprised by how successful that film was?

Olivia de Havilland: Not at all. I had this conviction that Gone With the Wind would have an unusually long life as a film. I thought maybe five years because in those days a film would play first for the houses, then the second run houses, then the third, then it'd disappear, and studios would even burn the films. Can you imagine? Destroy them? They didn't conceive that they could have a continuing life and I thought that was a terrible thing. All that you invested in a film, an actor would invest, all the others too that contributed to a wonderful film, all the other crafts, that it should have such a short life. And I thought, "This one is going to have a longer life," and by golly it did, and it has, and it's having it to this day. Isn't it wonderful?

Jo Reed: It's so true, yeah.

Olivia de Havilland: Isn't it marvelous?

Jo Reed: You know, I think it comes as a surprise to some people that the actress who played the gentle Melanie Wilkes was also the one who challenged the studio system, brought a case against Warner Brothers and you won at a great professional risk, a victory for actors.

Olivia de Havilland: Yes, that's true. Awfully glad I did it <chuckles>, awfully glad. I went back to Warner Brothers, and I was often given roles that didn't fit comfortably and I knew would not turn out well. I knew the films wouldn't turn out well, but I thought it was so unfair to exploit the things that had gone well like usually on loan out. Hold Back the Dawn, that was another film and I was nominated for that and nominated for Melanie, as you know. And they would just kind of cheaply exploit the success I had by putting me into inferior material, which would be disappointing to an audience that had come to expect something of me. And so I took suspensions rather than play these roles. I took a number of them, and a suspension meant the contract was suspended for the time that it took another actress to play the role.

And that time and of course you couldn't work for anybody at that time and you were off salary, and I didn't care about that but the time was added to the end of the contract. That was the bad part. So a lawyer came to me and he said, "I think that you are not bound any more by that contract because of the California law." He said, "No actor has ever tried to gain release from a contract under this law, but I think it can be done." He said, "The issue was that the California law said that no employer could enforce a contract against an employee for more than seven years." Now the issue was what did seven years mean? Did it mean seven years of actually performed work, or did it mean seven calendar years, just elapsed time? Well, and he said, "What you have to do is ask for what they call declaratory relief. You ask a judge to interpret the law." So I said, "Let's go. Let's go forth with this." And he explained that I would probably lose in the first court. I had a better chance in the Appellate Court where there would be three judges and they would judge the case on the basis of pure law. Then if I lost there we could always appeal to The Superior Court of the State of California.

Well, we went to court and unbelievably I won in the first court, Superior Court Judge Charles Pernell. I was so thrilled and so proud.

Jo Reed: And that decision led to you getting meatier roles including two that you won an Academy Award for.

Olivia de Havilland: That's right, because I could choose them you see.

Jo Reed: Exactly. And we need to talk about those roles, the first one where you played the wonderful Jody or Josephine, To Each His Own.

Olivia de Havilland: Oh, I'm so glad you like that film.

Jo Reed: Oh, I do. I love that film.

Olivia de Havilland: Oh, I'm so pleased.

Jo Reed: Oh, it's a wonderful film.

Olivia de Havilland: It is a wonderful film, isn't it?

Jo Reed: And what is so remarkable about you in that film is how old are you, 16 when the film begins?

Olivia de Havilland: Yes.

Jo Reed: And you have to age some 20 years.

Olivia de Havilland: About 20 years, yeah, yes. I loved the part. I loved the role. I loved the character, and what was so interesting for me was that it did cover such a long period of time in a young woman's life. And there was character development. And that's what's interesting about this profession, to be able to interpret a human being as a human being develops and responds and reacts to events that usually are tragic in their lives. And this suited me perfectly.

Jo Reed: That's a wonderful film. And what's so interesting is the way you show the different kinds of love in that film. The first when you're the young Jody and you're just so in love with this - he was a pilot wasn't he?

Olivia de Havilland: Yes, he was pilot.

Jo Reed: Yeah, you're so in love with this pilot and then as the older woman showing a very different but no less deep love for the son that she couldn't raise or acknowledge.

Olivia de Havilland: Yes. And then what was so interesting is that when -- and by this time she's, you know, a successful business woman and she's in London, she's very successful with her cosmetic line and she is doing fire watching at night, you know, during World War II in London, and she shares her responsibility with a rather testy Englishman and they bicker at each other and they're short and tempered with each other. Well, very slowly you see that relationship change, and they soften, and he becomes instrumental in bringing her together with the fact that the son finally understands who she is. He comes to London as a pilot, and he thinks of her only as Aunt Jody, and then this charming Englishman just puts the thought in the son's head that perhaps there's more to this relationship than he has heretofore thought. And the son gets the point.

Jo Reed: And that wonderful ending.

Olivia de Havilland: And that is the most marvelous moment at the end of that film.

Jo Reed: Oh, I cry and cry every time I see it.

Olivia de Havilland: <laughs>

Jo Reed: The Heiress got you your second Academy Award, and what a cast that had.

Olivia de Havilland: Yes, yes, wonderful.

Jo Reed: Your father played by Ralph Richardson.

Olivia de Havilland: Yes.

Jo Reed: Morris played by Montgomery Clift.

Olivia de Havilland: Yes.

Jo Reed: Aunt Lavinia, Miriam Hopkins.

Olivia de Havilland: Oh, yes.

Jo Reed: And directed...

Olivia de Havilland: By...

Jo Reed: William Wyler.

Olivia de Havilland: William Wyler.

Jo Reed: What was it like to work with William Wyler?

Olivia de Havilland: I had the greatest respect for him, more than that. Oh, just admiration. He was not always easy to understand, and I realize there was...it was just sometimes he was rather inarticulate. But I knew he was right, and the idea was to listen to what he meant not <chuckles> necessarily what he was saying. And that was the whole idea to sense what he meant, and you couldn't go wrong. He was a marvelous man, and I knew he was just the right director for The Heiress, and he was. And I think it turned out to be a masterpiece.

Jo Reed: Oh, it's a wonderful film.

Olivia de Havilland: Yes, and adapted from Henry James, a great classic writer, American writer.

Jo Reed: And a beautiful adaptation I think.

Olivia de Havilland: Yes. Ruth and Augustus Goetz and they did the play first.

Jo Reed: That was one of Montgomery Clift's first films, wasn't it?

Olivia de Havilland: Well, it's his second film.

Jo Reed: How was he to work with?

Olivia de Havilland: Well, not really easy because he had a great friend, a Polish lady who was a sort of a coach and they go over their scene, his scenes with me every night together, and then he would start rehearsing with me on the set in the morning, and I knew that he wasn't playing to me at all. He was playing <chuckles> to the Polish lady. It was the most confusing experience. But then I found a way, a point of view to use that in the scene in playing the part and it worked out all right. But it meant making quite an adaptation, shall we say. But he cared about his work very, very much or he wouldn't have gone to so much trouble after all. And when he would finish a rehearsal, for example, he'll talk to the corner of of the stage where she would be slightly disguised in the dark, but evident nonetheless, to see how she reacted. I don't know what their signals were, whether she just nodded or shook her head. And then of course we would rehearse it again at his request if she did that before we shot, but that wasn't easy to deal with. But, well, you have to adapt and so you just do deal with it.

Jo Reed: Your career spans decades, but the heart of it was during Hollywood's golden era.

Olivia de Havilland: Yes, that's true.

Jo Reed: Why do you think so many good films were coming out of Hollywood at that time?

Olivia de Havilland: That is a fascinating question, and I wish I knew the answer, excect that our country was going through a tremendous trial at that time. It had recovered from the First World War, and then we had some years of prosperity. I remember those years. I grew up in them and I can remember the terrible night of the stock market cash in 1929 because it affected my stepfather very much, and changed our lives. And I remember very vividly the Depression which followed. But so our nation was going through very, very difficult times and the interesting thing is that movies seem to give people something they desperately needed in a bad time. We were all united as a country in surviving these eras of great seriousness.

Jo Reed: Finally, when you were told, I assume they rang you up when you were told you got The National Medal of Arts.

Olivia de Havilland: Oh...

Jo Reed: What was your response to that?

Olivia de Havilland: I couldn't believe it. I simply couldn't believe it and I'm not sure I believe it now. It's just so thrilling. It really is, and I thought, "Oh, people should live longer. The longer you live the more wonderful things can happen to you." It's certainly true in my case.

Jo Reed: Oh, well thank you for giving me your time and congratulations, many congratulations. It is so well deserved.

Olivia de Havilland: Thank you. You're very kind to say that.

Jo Reed: Oh, it's very true, thank you so much. <music playing>

That was Academy Award winner and National Medal of Arts recipient, Olivia de Havilland. You've been listening to Art Works, produced by the National Endowment for the Arts. To find out more about the NEA, go to www.arts.gov. That's ARTS dot GOV.

Artworks theme music is Paul Desmond's "Take Five" performed by the Dave Brubeck Quartet and used courtesy of Desmond Music and Derry Music Company.

For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

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One of America's most beloved stars spills some backstage secrets while discussing career highlights. [27:52]