A Midsummer Night’s Dream of Olivia de Havilland (1916-2020)
By Stuart Mitchner
The screen test was shot over the shoulder of a bewigged man in period costume, presumably the title character in Danton, a film of the French Revolution that was never made. The young actress clearly has had experience, her voice and diction are excellent, she projects a spirited youthful appeal (“I want to see the king. I want to tell him how things really are”), but as soon she becomes emotional (“my mother is sick, we don’t have enough to eat”), you’re rolling your eyes, and when the man responds with loud laughter at the idea that the king would care, you think at first he might be mocking her performance. Danton cares enough to give her money for bread, a gesture that surprises and touches her and leaves her struggling for words, she’s choked up, virtually speechless, radiant with gratitude (“Oh you — you’re — wonderful!”) as she bolts from the room.
Put yourself in the place of whoever’s reviewing the test and you’ve gone from feeling judgmental (that bit about the sick mother) to wanting more of her, you’re sorry she left, you’re already missing her. Forget the low grade you’d give her reading of the hackneyed dialogue, forget the French Revolution, forget the test: she’s a delight, the camera loves her (as the saying goes), she matters, she’s there, and in spite of the mob cap and period dress, spirit and energy like hers don’t date, she’s “modern,” the surge of life that briefly filled that space some 80 years ago transcending decades of films, fads, and fashion, something fine and true shining through.
“An Undivided Pleasure”
Reviewing The Dark Mirror (1946) a decade later in The Nation, James Agee writes, “I very much like Olivia de Havilland’s performance. She has for a long time been one of the prettiest women in movies; lately she has not only become prettier than ever but has started to act, as well. I don’t see evidence of any remarkable talent, but her playing is thoughtful, quiet, detailed, and well sustained, and since it is founded, as some more talented playing is not, in an unusually healthful-seeming and likable temperament, it is an undivided pleasure to see.”
Without naming her in his brief review of Devotion, a movie from the same year about the Brontë sisters, Agee finds de Havilland’s Charlotte “the only roundly realized human being” in a “vapid” film. Typically, Agee provides a line that begs to be quoted, describing a little known French actress in a small role as being, in relation to the rest of the film, “like a court dagger dismembering a tomato surprise.”
My first move on learning of de Havilland’s death at 104 last week was to reach for Agee on Film: Reviews and Comments (Library of America). Next move was to watch her as Hermia in the 1935 film A Midsummer Night’s Dream while rereading the play Harold Bloom calls Shakespeare’s “first undoubted masterpiece, without flaw, and one of his dozen or so plays of overwhelming originality and power.” His only regret is that almost every production he’s seen has been a “brutal disaster.”
Most likely Bloom would include Max Reinhardt’s film version, co-directed with William Dieterle, among the disasters. Arriving in Depression Era movie theaters with words by Shakespeare, music by Mendelssohn, and dance sequences by Nijinska, the picture scared off audiences and alienated reviewers like the New Republic’s Otis Ferguson, who observed that any film that runs “well over two hours,” costs “more than a million,” and was “press-agented for months ahead” is doomed to be discussed by “culture clubs” and critics who “will put on their Sunday adjectives.” As for American husbands, as soon as they “get one load of the elves and pixies,” they’ll go back to the sports page. Noting that the humor in Reinhardt’s Dream is based, “like the best of Shakespeare, on people,” Ferguson thinks the “formal comedy element” could have been done “far better by using people who (like Olivia de Havilland) might read the lines with some comprehension of what they were about.”
Although being singled out by a demanding reviewer must have pleased the 19-year-old actress, Ferguson’s faint praise doesn’t do her justice. Rather than merely comprehending her lines (she was born to the task, having been named after Olivia in Twelfth Night by her English professor father), she “suits the action to the word” with spirit and spontaneity. In one passionate exchange with Helena (act III, scene 2), whom she believes has wooed her lover Lysander away from her (“you juggler! you canker-blossom! You thief of love!”), she rises to a pitch of glorious outrage at the thought that the taller Helena has used her small size against her:
Now I perceive that she hath made compare
Between our statures; she hath urged her height;
And with her personage, her tall personage,
Her height, forsooth, she hath prevail’d with him.
And are you grown so high in his esteem … Because I am so dwarfish and so low?
How low am I, thou painted maypole? … How low am I? I am not yet so low
But that my nails can reach unto thine eyes.
Ferguson could be describing de Havilland’s command of the scene when he ends his review by suggesting that the cast would have been better off performing another play than this “product of a poet’s exuberance and youth. Its phrases ring like bells, there is an easy strong vigor and charmed air to the whole. But owing to circumstances and the matter of a few centuries in time, its words are beautiful as words in a book, not in the mouths of fools.”
It’s worth mentioning that this summation directly follows on Ferguson’s lamely worded reference to de Havilland’s “comprehension of what the lines are all about.” It’s her Hermia who offers the exuberance and youth and vigor and charm, who makes the phrases ring like bells, and brings the beauty of the words into the 20th century. In fact, I used the word “modern” about de Havilland’s screen test because she reminded me at times of a modern actress, the Winona Ryder of Night on Earth (1991) and The Age of Innocence (1993).
On the occasion of de Havilland’s 100th birthday, I mentioned her Oscar-winning performance as Catherine in William Wyler’s The Heiress (1949), from the Henry James novel Washington Square. Besides having the year 1916 in common, James died on February 28, de Havilland was born on July 1, the way the actress bravely, forthrightly surrenders herself to the role of Catherine, she could have been reading over James’s shoulder as he wrote: “She was not ugly; she had simply a plain, dull, gentle countenance. The most that had ever been said for her was that she had a ‘nice’ face, and, though she was an heiress, no one had ever thought of regarding her as a belle. Her father’s opinion of her moral purity was abundantly justified; she was excellently, imperturbably good; affectionate, docile, obedient, and much addicted to speaking the truth.”
The words have a quality not unlike Agee’s appreciation of de Havilland: “thoughtful, quiet, detailed, and well sustained … an unusually healthful-seeming and likable temperament … an undivided pleasure to see.”
Wondering if my instinct about de Havilland’s screen test resemblance to Winona Ryder had any merit, I searched online and found this quote from Ryder about the back story of Martin Scorsese’s Age of Innocence: “Scorsese would talk to me about this movie ‘The Heiress’ with Olivia de Havilland. We were talking about this scene in it, and suddenly we were rolling. It was very intentional, and I didn’t realize — because we talk old movies all the time.”
The Last Star
In “The Last Star,” a January 2015 Entertainment Weekly interview, de Havilland talked about being the only surviving cast member of Gone With the Wind and recalls losing the Best Supporting Actress Oscar to Hattie McDaniel, the first African American to win an Academy Award. While entering de Havilland’s name for Supporting Actress was actually studio strategy to avoid splitting the Best Actress vote with Vivien Leigh, Olivia’s Melanie is in the best sense a supporting character (the calm in the eye of Hurricane Scarlett), given the way that her warmth and integrity make a perfect foil for Leigh’s flamboyant Scarlett O’Hara. Having outlived everyone involved with GWTW by almost 50 years, de Havilland had continued fulfilling that role as a supporter and spokesperson for the film and everyone in it (she said she’d seen it “about 30 times”). The fact that she was all by herself didn’t make her melancholy. “Instead,” she said, “when I see them vibrantly alive on screen, I experience a kind of reunion with them, a joyful one.”
Mean What You Say
Interviewed for the Academy of Achievement as “The Last Belle of Cinema,” de Havilland explained what drew her to the character of Melanie: “The main thing is that she was always thinking of the other person … She had this marvelous capacity to relate to people with whom she would normally have no relationship.” No less important in de Havilland’s development as an actress was the simple lesson she learned from James Cagney, who told her, “whatever you say, mean it,” advice she also had from GWTW director Victor Fleming: “Remember, everything that Melanie says, she means.”