Of all that happened in her eventful life, Olivia de Havilland is best remembered for her role as Melanie Hamilton Wilkes in Gone With The Wind (1939). This is unfair for two reasons. Memorable as she is in GWTW, it is by no means her finest role. Her countless fans will point to the two roles that won her Academy Awards, the two others (besides the supporting role in GWTW) that won her nominations, and more. The second reason is that her legacy goes beyond her roles. Film historians, even law historians and labour activists, will point to the De Havilland Law.
De Havilland, who died this week at age 104, fought the system — and won. In 1943, when Hollywood’s powerful studios controlled the fate of actors, Warner Brothers refused to let her go at the end of their seven-year contract. The studio tagged extra time to the contract to compensate for periods when she had not been working. She sued in a California court, leading to the landmark 1944 ruling — informally known as the De Havilland Law — that the years in the contract mean calendar years. It loosened forever the studios’ grip on actors.
From her life, that is the biggest takeaway. From her death, the big takeaway is sobering: The Golden Age of Hollywood is slipping away. Yes, we will always have the films. But the stars are mostly gone — with due respect to the few who remain, de Havilland was our strongest surviving link to the Golden Age. The era has truly ended.
We are at that stage of history when this was inevitable. Actors who were old enough to play the lead when talking pictures arrived (not de Havilland, who was 11 when the first sound film released in 1927) would have been at least 110 today if it were possible to live that long (Greta Garbo, for example, would have turned 115 this year). Those old enough to have played the lead towards the end of the Golden Age (mid-1960s or thereabouts) will now be at least in their 70s, and more likely in their 80s or 90s. Or gone already.
Ingrid Bergman and Bette Davis, de Havilland’s closest friend in the industry, left in the 1980s. Barbara Stanwyck and Audrey Hepburn died in the 1990s, Gregory Peck and Katharine Hepburn in the 2000s, and Elizabeth Taylor and Lauren Bacall in the following decade. Then Kirk Douglas and now de Havilland have left in the very beginning of the 2020s — both of them past 100.
How many are still with us? An online search throws up long lists that bring a false sense of relief. Most of the names, it turns out, are of actors who played smaller roles, or who were child actors during the Golden Age. Indeed, every link is vital in a vanishing chain, including Mickey Kuhn, now 87, who played Melanie’s young son in GWTW 81 years ago. But it’s the stars we want to count.
I found about a dozen names more familiar than others. Two of the bigger ones are Angela Lansbury and Jane Powell, both in their 90s now. Five others will be familiar to fans of Alfred Hitchcock — six if you count his daughter Patricia, now 92, who appeared in three of his films. Vera Miles, 90, is Marion Crane’s sister from Psycho (1960) and Henry Fonda’s disturbed wife from The Wrong Man (1956). Shirley MacLaine, 86, made her debut in Hitchcock’s The Trouble With Harry (1955). Tippi Hedren of The Birds (1962) and Marnie (1964) is now 90. Kim Novak of Vertigo (1958) is 87.
The most important among them is Eva Marie Saint, who turned 96 on July 4, three days after de Havilland turned 104. Saint was in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959) with Cary Grant (died 1986), and in Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront (1954) with Marlon Brando (died 2004). We saw Saint at the Oscars in 2018, as a presenter. Cherish these moments, for a day will come, inevitably, when we will have only their films.
De Havilland never did a Hitchcock film. Her sister Joan Fontaine (died 2013 at age 96) did two, winning an Academy nomination for Rebecca (1940) and bagging the award for Suspicion (1942). They remain the only siblings to have each won one or more Academy Awards. Joan got there first, beating Olivia in the 1942 race, but this is not the time to reflect on their famed sibling rivalry. For today, we only have their films.
This article first appeared in the print edition on July 29, 2020 under the title ‘The beautiful people’. email@example.com
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