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Olivia de Havilland

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Article:

Unchained Melanie

Genteel Screen Legend Olivia de Havilland Flies in from Paris to Puff 'Gone With the Wind'

by Roger Givens

Daily News (New York), June 21, 1998 page 14

One of Olivia de Havilland's greatest scenes took place way, way off the silver screen. It was, in fact, the performance that earned her the role of Melanie Hamilton Wilkes in "Gone With the Wind," coming back to theaters this Friday.

The scene takes place in 1938 at the home of David O. Selznick, the mega-producer who was then putting together the epic film that would premiere the next year. The 22-year-old de Havilland is Melanie and director George Cukor a gay, roly-poly man with a mop of black curly hair and black-framed glasses is Scarlett O'Hara. The audience is Selznick.

"George gave a very passionate performance, clutching the drapes. I thought it was the wildest spectacle imaginable," says de Havilland. "But a part of me kept control and played it as if Scarlett was there. It was a miracle that I managed to do it. And it was because of that scene that I was chosen."

Remembering this audition, de Havilland's eyes light up and she fairly hoots with pleasure. The two-time Oscar winner, who will turn 82 in July, looks positively regal, with her swept-up, silvery coif and her erect, perched-on-the-edge-of- the-chair posture, but she couldn't be more charming and down-to-earth. Before the interview commences, she hops up and moves her chair a little closer to make sure she can hear the conversation clearly.

The high point

She has come to town from Paris, where she has lived since the mid-'50s, to promote the movie that made her a major star. "It was the happiest experience of my career," says de Havilland, whose throaty voice has a way of caressing and projecting language in a sensuous, musical way. "Certainly, there were tremendous difficulties along the way, but it was the happiest."

While de Havilland has some amusing memories of the "GWTW" production during rehearsals of the birthing scene, she was tethered to a concrete block, so that Clark Gable got stuck when he tried to lift her her recollections also turn sad. Victor Fleming, the second director on the project, suffered a nervous breakdown shortly after telling de Havilland that he was contemplating suicide.

And Vivien Leigh, a delicate actress who had the most grueling schedule of all the actors, suffered physical hardship. "On the last day of the production, I went on the set because there was going to be a small reception, and when I passed Vivien Leigh, I didn't recognize her. She seemed diminished by the enormous effort."

The release of "GWTW" made de Havilland a major star. Previously, she had built a solid reputation as an endearing leading lady, mostly in adventure pictures such as "Captain Blood" and "The Adventures of Robin Hood," co-starring in those two pictures with Errol Flynn.

But instead of casting her in more prestigious projects, de Havilland's studio, Warner Bros., put her in run-of-the-mill flicks. "I thought it was so unfair to the public and so dangerous to me to be assigned to that kind of material now that the public really expected a lot out of me," she says. "They wanted to exploit in an inferior way the renown and acclaim of 'Gone With the Wind.' It was such a dreadful trick to play on the audience and on me."

Relations between de Havilland and Warner Bros. became so strained that she sued in 1943, and the case broke the stranglehold that film companies had on actors in Hollywood. It was a risky move. "They did say I'd never work again," she remembers, "but that turned out not to be true at all, and wasn't that wonderful? I got to choose the pictures I wanted to do, and that was thrilling."

She chose well. "The Snake Pit," a wrenching 1948 look inside a mental institution, helped spur changes in the treatment of patients. And "The Heiress," a 1949 adaptation of Henry James' "Washington Square," brought her a second Oscar for Best Actress.

The first Academy Award came for "To Each His Own," a 1946 three-hanky weeper about a young woman who has a baby out of wedlock and suffers for decades because she cannot reveal herself to be the mother. (Nominations also came for "Gone With the Wind," 1941's "Hold Back the Dawn" and "The Snake Pit.")

A dis from sis

The victory for "To Each His Own" became the public low point in the tortured relationship between de Havilland and her younger sister, Joan Fontaine, an Oscar winner for "Suspicion" in 1941 defeating, among others, de Havilland. 

After de Havilland accepted her statuette for the movie in 1947, she crossed paths with her younger sister, the Oscar-winning Fontaine, who had just presented a different award. Fontaine smiled to congratulate de Havilland, and received an icy snub.

Asked about her relationship with Fontaine, now living in Carmel, Calif., de Havilland is demure. "I can't say anything," she says quietly, worrying the hem of her geometric-print business suit. "No, I couldn't possibly say anything."

But de Havilland is willing to discuss the inner conflicts that troubled her for years over her choice of career, saying that she "felt for a long time that there was something else I should be doing." Now, she has no regrets, and took to heart something Danny Kaye told her before he died in 1987: "He said, 'I always thought I wanted to do something that would affect people's lives, and now I feel that I have affected people's lives.'

"And," the grande dame adds, "I realized that was true for me as well. I have affected people's lives."

As she says this, there are tears in her eyes. This is not an act that would win an Oscar. Olivia de Havilland is not performing at all.

İ 1998 Daily News

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