Written by Patrick Pilkington.
Olivia de Havilland, the last of the great female stars of the classical Hollywood era, celebrated her 100th birthday on July 1st 2016. Despite a career spanning five decades that includes fifty films, two Oscars, and a history-making legal victory, the enduring image of de Havilland will probably always be as the personification of humble virtuousness Melanie Hamilton in Gone With the Wind. Yet little attention has been paid to how de Havilland and her films exploited and complicated this essential good girl image over the course of her star career. I wish to trace the development of de Havilland’s on-screen persona by identifying and exploring three distinct phases of her star career. The first, spanning roughly her first half dozen years on screen, has de Havilland recurrently serve as a model of good, genteel femininity who is juxtaposed with an opposing “bad girl” characterisation performed by another actress. The second phase spans de Havilland’s post-war emergence as a heavily-lauded Serious Actress in the wake of a three-year absence from the screen; here, a number of films continue the theme of juxtaposing the star’s good girl image with opposing types of femininity, but now situates these juxtaposed feminine images solely within the characters played by de Havilland. Finally, I jump ahead to the mid-1960s, by which time the subversion of the good de Havilland image is taken to extremes in line with the emergence of the hag horror subgenre and the broader transitions taking place in the Hollywood cinema.
Despite the popularity of these swashbucklers, de Havilland’s persona was not to be cemented until the end of the decade, with her turn as Melanie Hamilton in the Civil War epic and reigning all-time box office champ, Gone With the Wind (1939). Naturally, given the film’s success, Melanie Hamilton remains the enduring screen image of de Havilland, one which would hang over all of her subsequent films to some degree. For those somehow unfamiliar with the narrative, Melanie is the sweet, sincere, endlessly virtuous sister-in-law of and unwitting love rival to the southern belle lead Scarlett O’Hara (played by Vivien Leigh). Scarlett’s primary motivation for much of the narrative is her desire for Melanie’s husband, Ashley Wilkes (Lesley Howard), to whom the passionate, fiery Scarlett presents an erotically charged alternative to Melanie. The set of contrasts between the two women are drawn from their very first scene together at the Twelve Oaks barbecue, in which Scarlett, clearly less than thrilled at the prospect of speaking with Melanie, greets her with an exaggerated and insincere enthusiasm laced with passive-aggression. When Melanie expresses her admiration for Scarlett, she is hypocritically upbraided for flattery and “saying things you don’t mean”, to which Ashley counters that “nobody could accuse Melanie of being insincere”. Everything we need to know about the dynamic between these two women is played out in this scene. Whereas Scarlett is characterised as manipulative, selfish, and proactive, her strength lying in her willingness to “lie, cheat, steal and kill” in order to survive, Melanie is depicted as entirely sincere and kind-hearted. Similarly, the fun-loving and flirtatious Scarlett is differentiated from Melanie’s less glamorous, more domestic brand of femininity, instigating a pattern in Olivia’s career, post- the glamour of the Flynn films, that repeatedly plays down the star’s good looks in casting her as women deemed everyday or even plain.
The basic set of contrasts between Scarlett and Melanie in Gone with the Wind exemplifies a pattern that reoccurs during this portion of de Havilland’s star career, in which the “good” genteel woman played by de Havilland was contrasted with an opposing “bad” female, whose less virtuous antics inevitably commanded greater attention. In this vein, she was cast as the “good” sister to Bette Davis’ sociopathic sibling in In this Our Life (1942). She earned her second Oscar nomination (she was nominated for Supporting Actress for Gone With the Wind, but lost to her co-star Hattie McDaniel), and her first for Lead Actress, for playing an innocent American schoolteacher who Charles Boyer cons into marriage as a way of gaining U.S. citizenship in Hold Back the Dawn (1941). Here, the naively trusting de Havilland character is contrasted with Boyer’s co-conspirator, a glamorous gold-digger played by Paulette Goddard. Although this film maximised the screen time of the good girl, giving de Havilland a chance to really shine as the female lead, she was still playing to type: naïve, sincere, and all-American in a way that renders inevitable Boyer’s charmer genuinely falling for her by the final act.
De Havilland truly excelled at these roles, imbuing these characters with enough charm and nuance that they didn’t become cloying. But as the decade continued, two things became obvious: there was much more to Olivia than the good girl image suggested, and the actress herself was not eager to play out this image forever. By the early ’40s, her rocky relationship with her sister, fellow star Joan Fontaine, had become widely publicised; the two competed for the same lead actress Oscar the year de Havilland was nominated for Hold Back the Dawn, and this sibling competition was deemed so remarkable that the announcement of Best Actress was saved for the end of the ceremony, even after the Best Picture honours. Fontaine won, which presumably didn’t do too much to pacify any existing rivalry. Not long after that, in 1943, de Havilland filed a lawsuit against the studio seeking freedom from her Warner Brothers contract, exasperated by the poor roles she was being offered and the complete control studio contracts handed executives over their star players. The landmark decision ruled in de Havilland’s favour, freeing her from her seven-year contract and effectively changing the history of Hollywood through its expansion of performers’ creative freedom, significantly denting the studio system in the process.
The lawsuit kept de Havilland from the screen for three years, and together with the longstanding sibling feud, created a tension between the essentially compliant image of femininity evoked in de Havilland’s on-screen roles and the evidently more autonomous and confrontational figure off-screen. This tension is reincorporated into many of the subsequent roles that marked de Havilland’s re-emergence to the screen as a major female star with a pick of dramatic roles from 1946 onwards. De Havilland took on a number of characterisations that embody this split between the star’s familiar image of sweetness and sincerity and other images of femininity that challenge or complicate the former. She finally won an Oscar with To Each His Own (1946), a maternal melodrama in which she gets to age a quarter of a century as a woman who pines for the son borne out of wedlock that she was forced to give up for adoption. The age range offers exactly the type of physical transformation female stars have continued to win Oscars for ever since, demonstrating a beautiful young actress’ ability to play dowdy and middle-aged. But the overall effect is reliant as upon its juxtaposition of flashback scenes in which de Havilland appears to type as a lovestruck innocent with framing scenes that cast her as the bitter, jaded woman of twenty years later. The film uses de Havilland to demonstrate the tenuousness of the good girl archetype when projected on to a narrative of lifelong longing and disappointment.
The Dark Mirror set the template for much of her notable later screen work, which draws upon this template of good, normal womanhood engrained in the de Havilland persona, and typically affirmed by classical Hollywood narrative structures, in order to complicate or subvert it outright. She gave another highly-lauded performance in The Snake Pit, one of the first Hollywood films to deal with mental illness as a serious issue, and which once again presented a dual image of de Havilland as both an emblem of “normal” femininity and its sick double within the same character.
Duality, in the form of opposed qualities being represented within a single character, became a recurrent feature of de Havilland’s characterisations. She would win her second Oscar for arguably her greatest screen performance in The Heiress, an adaptation of a play that was itself adapted from Henry James’ novella Washington Square. Here, de Havilland plays a meek spinster, a characterisation that, at first glance, seems to be in line with her persona. However, instead of the “normal” good woman of Hold Back the Dawn who is just waiting to be brought to life by a man, Catherine is painfully withdrawn. Under the thumb of an emotionally abusive father, her meekness becomes servility, her compliance psychological victimisation, her sincerity a flailing awkwardness in all social situations. This is reflected in de Havilland’s performance: she raises the pitch of her usually resonant voice to a barely-there squeak, and her eyes widen in terror whenever she is asked to engage with the handsome Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift). By the film’s end, Catherine has transformed, but not into the loved woman of so many romantic dramas. Morris, long revealed as a fortune hunter who abandoned Catherine at the first hint of her disinheritance, returns to resume contact after she does inherit her father’s wealth. But Catherine has been hardened by her experiences, and exacts an unforgettable revenge on her former beau. In these climactic scenes, de Havilland plays Catherine as not simply altered but as almost as a completely different person entirely, lowering her melifluous voice an octave for the final scenes as she intones with an almost malevolent calm “He came back with the same lies, the same silly phrases.” This play with her vocal register is a consistent element in her dramatic performances from 1946 onwards, but is especially pronounced here. In the gulf it opens up between two impressions of the same character, it once again reveals the earlier model of femininity associated with de Havilland’s persona as itself a performance, one contingent upon the impossible avoidance of personal trauma or life experience.
Following her second Oscar win, de Havilland’s appearances on the screen began to slow down, exacerbated by her decision to move to Paris. Playing the titular character in an adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier’s mystery romance My Cousin Rachel (1952), de Havilland enacts a noirish mutation of Melanie Hamilton’s placid inscrutability as a potential murderess whom Richard Burton finds himself uncontrollably drawn towards. The possibilities explored here and in The Dark Mirror anticipate the use of de Havilland in two thrillers of the following decade. With the collapse of the studio system in full effect by the mid-60s, and the female stars of that system up against an ageist and sexist film industry, a subgenre emerged that cast classical female stars as both perpetrators and victims of the violence now increasingly visible on the screen. Known as hag horror (or the slightly less offensive Grande Dame guignol), a cycle of such films followed the unexpected box office success of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962). De Havilland made two forays into this territory, Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte and Lady in a Cage (both 1964). The former went into production as a reunion of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? stars - and sworn enemies - Bette Davis and Joan Crawford and, it was only when Crawford either dropped out or was fired (the answer to this varies depending on who you ask) that de Havilland came on board to play opposite Davis.
This casting is especially fortuitous given the clear resonance of her role here to her existing persona, and to her association with Gone With the Wind in particular. Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte once again has de Havilland play a Southern woman whose goody-goody personality sticks in the craw of her decidedly more scandalous female relative, in this instance the eponymous Charlotte (Bette Davis). Charlotte is an eccentric recluse who has been holed up in her crumbling Southern mansion since a decades-prior murder, long-attributed to her. Faced with eviction, she calls upon her sophisticated cousin Miriam (de Havilland), who arrives from the big city ostensibly for support, but who rather seems to precipitate Charlotte’s descent into madness. Expectations accrued around de Havilland’s and Davis’ respective personae may lead the viewer to anticipate the ladylike Olivia be menaced by Davis in Baby Jane (or even In This Our Life) mode. But the film subverts expectations by revealing Miriam’s de Havilland-esque sense of propriety and sincerity to be a mask for pure menace, as the twisty plot exposes Miriam as a schemer intent on driving Charlotte insane for her inheritance. By the final act, the film is clearly getting a lot of mileage from the shock value of subverting de Havilland’s persona, and the star is surprisingly game; when Miriam repeatedly slaps a hysterical Charlotte into submission, de Havilland hisses her decades-old grievances in a frightening series of line readings, intoning “I’m nevvvverrr going to suffer for you again, not evvvveerrrrrr” to a suitably terrified Davis.
Lady in a Cage also uses de Havilland’s trademark gentility to subversive ends, its very title promising us the spectacle of seeing one of the great ladies of the screen degraded. Unlike many of the other hag horrors, which are primarily enjoyed today for their camp value, Lady in a Cage remains crudely effective, anticipating in its brutal violence, themes and content the home invasion subgenre that would fully emerge in the more permissive 1970s. De Havilland plays Cornelia Hilyard, a wealthy widow with a broken hip, who becomes trapped in her home elevator during a power outage and has her home set upon by a series of criminals (led by a young James Caan doing his best Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire impression). The film never quite convinces as an intended critique of the savagery masked by bourgeois society, but it achieves a great deal of its blunt force from its use of de Havilland. It strips its star of the qualities fostered by her screen image, presenting a spectacle of the ladylike Grande Dame as increasingly sweaty, dishevelled and hysterical, and (largely ham-fistedly) critiques the hypocrisy underlying her image of upper-class gentility, having Cornelia make the realisation that she herself is a “monster” who has smothered her grown son to the point of possible suicide. It is not until Cornelia is stripped of this veneer of civilization that she is able to fight back against the forces in her home that cannot be bought or reasoned with, exclaiming “Stone Age here I come!” in voiceover before gouging Caan’s eyes with makeshift tools stripped from the elevator’s interior.
Nobody could accuse Lady in a Cage of much subtlety, but the film remains shocking and influential. Its final image of de Havilland, having barely survived the ordeal, hysterically crying and laughing, precedes the almost identical final moments of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre by ten years. Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte and Lady in a Cage both jump upon a star image of their ageing female star as a bastion of decency and gentility, one that they gleefully and perhaps cruelly subvert for the sake of shock. But anyone who had been playing close attention to the star’s career would have seen these characterisations as continuations, rather than deconstructions, of de Havilland’s existing body of screen work. De Havilland’s characterisations, particularly as her star career flourished, gesture to a feminine ideal of the era that is shown to be exactly that - an impossible ideal - by constructing opposed and more complex representations of women. De Havilland often embodied this duality, demonstrating that the ideal of womanhood hinted at in Melanie Hamilton was doomed, like Melanie herself, not to make it to the final act intact. Many of de Havilland’s male screen contemporaries - think James Stewart or John Wayne - have been lauded for decades for performances in the latter-half of their star careers that complicate the essential features of their persona. On the centennial of her birth - and with her still alive to receive the recognition! - it is about time that we commended de Havilland for her comparable achievement.
The BFI are celebrating De Havilland’s centenary with a number of screenings throughout July. Further details can be found here
This article was published on July 07, 2016.
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