Alden Graves | Graves Registry: From Melanie to Cousin Miriam - Remembering Olivia de Havilland

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"Melanie had qualities that I felt were very endangered at that time and that somehow they should be kept alive, and that's how I wanted to interpret her role." - Olivia de Havilland

Director Robert Aldrich had a big problem. After the enormous critical and financial success of "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?" (1962), it was almost a given that his two volatile stars, who played sisters, would be paired again.

In the new movie, the two legendary ladies would again play characters related to each other. Bette Davis was cast as Charlotte Hollis, a faded Southern belle who had lived her entire adult life under the suspicion of having loped off her lover's head in a jealous rage. Joan Crawford would play Charlotte's suspiciously sympathetic cousin, Miriam.

Davis was often very public with her dislike for her co-star's uppity movie star pretentions. Crawford was a subtler opponent, but she was just as effective. Davis had been nominated for an Academy Award for "Baby Jane" and she wanted very much to win the coveted statuette for a third time. Crawford contacted the other nominees offering to accept the award on their behalf if they couldn't attend the ceremony.

The smile on Crawford's face when she brushed by a crestfallen Davis on her way to accepting the Oscar probably had very little to do with any admiration for Anne Bancroft's performance in "The Miracle Worker."

Davis had her revenge. Using her clout as a producer on "Hush Hush, Sweet Charlotte" (1964) to alienate Crawford from other cast and crew members, she made life so unpleasant that Crawford left location filming in Louisiana and checked herself into a New York hospital where she planned to stay indefinitely.

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That left Aldrich in a serious bind. Katharine Hepburn, Loretta Young, and Vivien Leigh ("I can just about stand looking at Joan Crawford's face at six o'clock in the morning, but not Bette Davis'.") were not interested. Olivia de Havilland thought Cousin Miriam necessitated her playing against type, but she finally agreed to play the part because it gave her another opportunity to work with Davis, her old friend from the Warner Bros. years.

Dame Olivia Mary de Havilland died in Paris at the age of 104 on July 26. Most news articles about her death prominently noted the fact that she was the last surviving cast member of "Gone With the Wind" (1939), but she was much, much more than that.

De Havilland's courage and tenacity dealt what was, in effect, a mortal blow to the so-called "studio system" that virtually indentured actors to their employers. In 1943, she sued Warner Bros. over their arbitrary six-month extension of her seven-year contract to compensate for the time she had been placed on suspension for refusing to appear in a film. She argued that an existing labor law in California forbade an employer from extending a contract beyond the seven years following its enactment. A year later, having spent the 2020 equivalent of $190,000, de Havilland won the suit and emerged as a genuine heroine to her fellow actors.

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Olivia was born in Japan on July 1, 1916. Her sister, Joan, arrived a little over a year later. Their mother, Lilian Fontaine, was an actress and singer. Walter de Havilland, whose nephew founded the De Havilland Aircraft Company, taught at Imperial University in Tokyo before becoming a patent attorney. The couple moved to California in 1919, but the marriage was not a happy one. Walter, a serial philanderer, moved back to Japan and eventually married his housekeeper there.

De Havilland would make 61 films, from a forgettable bit of fluff called "Alibi Ike" in 1935 to a made-for-television picture called "The Woman He Loved" in 1988. In between, she made eight films with Errol Flynn and was very quick to tell interviewers that she thought he was gorgeous, but she never slept with him. She won two Academy Awards (for "To Each His Own" in 1946 and "The Heiress" in 1949). Along with "GWTW" and "The Heiress," she always named "The Snake Pit" (1948), a film that changed the way people with mental illness were treated in America, as her personal favorites.

She made "In This Our Life," an adaptation of Ellen Glasgow's Pulitzer prize-winning novel, with Bette Davis in 1942 and said that the film's director, John Huston, was always the great love of her life. De Havilland married twice, each union ending in divorce. She had two children. Her son, Benjamin Goodrich, died of Hodgkin's disease in 1991 at the age of 42.

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Whether it is true or the stuff of legend, one of the endlessly debated aspects of de Havilland's life was her relationship with her sister and fellow Oscar winner, Joan Fontaine, who passed away in 2003. At its worst, it seemed to mirror — on a very personal level — the intense professional dislike that fueled the Davis/Crawford feud. Fontaine stated that she "never heard a kind word from Olivia." De Havilland often referred to her sister as "The Dragon Lady."

Both, on other occasions, would profess the greatest affection for each other. So, who knows? Who really cares?

De Havilland rarely strayed far from the type of character that she played in her films with Flynn: the good wife, the chaste sweetheart, the devoted friend. Her most memorable performances, however, are more emotionally nuanced, something that speaks to both her talent and her range. She was cast as a woman descending into madness in "The Snake Pit" and played twins — one good and one bad — in "The Dark Mirror" (1946).

Her most memorable transformation was in "The Heiress," William Wyler's beautiful adaptation of Henry James' novel "Washington Square." At the beginning of the film, her Catherine Sloper is a young woman with the awkward innocence and vulnerability that only children possess. A disillusioned woman whom life has treated very badly speaks in an emotionally dead monotone at the conclusion.

"He came back with the same lies" may be the most chilling reminder of the fragility of love as any ever spoken in the movies.

Alden Graves writes a regular column for the Banner.


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