Three Great Olivia De Havilland Films

A Legend, and a Remarkable Artist

Three Great Olivia De Havilland Films
Olivia de Havilland in her second Oscar winning role-The Heiress 1949. (Source: TCM)

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Three Great Olivia de Havilland films

Olivia de Havilland, the last of the great stars from the 1940′s, the oldest living Oscar winner, passed away last week. She died peacefully in her sleep in Paris at 104 years of age. Can you imagine! Sleeping in Paris-who wouldn’t want to go that way.

Olivia won two Oscars and gave many memorable performances.  Her most famous film was the blockbuster Gone with the Wind (1939) – never heard of it.

TCM is paying tribute to her with a day of her movies on August 23.  They are showing both films for which Olivia won Oscars, (To Each His Own 1946) and (The Heiress 1949) as well as Gone with the Wind.  Olivia won her second Oscar for her lead performance in “The Heiress”- this is perhaps my favorite de Havilland film, if not film, my favorite de Havilland performance. I know the play that this movie is based on well, and it has always been one of my dreams to direct the stage play.  One of the most difficult feats to orchestrate in the story is Catherine’s (de Havilland) transformation from shy, insecure, wall flower to a woman who takes full charge of her life and who finds tremendous strength. It happens rather abruptly in the script, so it is up to the actress to “sell it” – here is where Olivia de Havilland excels. She has always had the ability to look homely even though she was a beautiful woman.  In the Heiress, she makes an incredible transformation, without very little histrionics.  A surprisingly physical actress, surprising, because she was known for her diction, Olivia uses her body so effectively in the film.  She seems to have dubious, hang dog posture at the beginning of the film, but as she harnesses her strength and wits, she seems to grow taller and stronger, physically.  

An underrated De Havilland film, is The Light in the Piazza (1962) – At only 46, Olivia plays a doting middle-aged mother – who is still beautiful by the way – of a daughter, played by the gorgeous Yvette Mimeaux.  Yvette’s character is afflicted with a vague condition that makes her simple, and intellectually disadvantaged, but she falls in love with a young Italian Lothario played by the handsome George Hamilton, who despite the awkward casting, is believable as the Italian. Olivia is totally credible as the protective mother who both wants her daughter to be happy and doesn’t want her to get hurt.  She brings such integrity and passion to a role that could have been played with shrill or worse, vagueness. The film inspired the Broadway musical which has become well known, but the original film certainly holds up.

Arguably de Havilland’s greatest performance is in The Snake Pit (1948) a role for which she was nominated for an Oscar, but unbelievably didn’t win. She did, however, win the coveted New York Film Circle Critics Award – unanimously! She plays an ordinary woman who suffers a nervous breakdown and undergoes the grueling process of recovery. The film, although 70 years old, depicts realistically and bravely mental illness.  Olivia has incredibly expressive eyes and here they work their best magic as she deals with the confusion and pain of her world crumbling around here.

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