Hollywood legend, Olivia de Havilland, once said, “I like life! I want to have more of it. To venture more, create more, experience more. Oh, I want to go on for a very long time”. Having celebrated her 100th birthday this year, she has done just that. Dr. Victoria Amador explores the actress’s life, career, and the strength behind her spirited disposition in research originally presented at The Asian Conference on Film & Documentary.
In August 1943, Olivia de Havilland took Jack Warner to court. The head of Warner Brothers had refused to release the actress from her seven-year contract on its designated ending date, and instead had extended the contract twenty-five weeks. This add-on was due to de Havilland’s choosing of suspension quite frequently –over ingénue roles in predictable programmers. It was standard procedure by the studios to tack on the time missed to a performer’s contract, making actors a highly paid species of indentured servant.
Other Warner Brothers performers and indentured servants had also taken on Jack Warner. James Cagney continually went on suspension, and when his contract ran out, he became one of the first Hollywood stars to negotiate roles as a free agent, negotiating from film to film rather than signing on to a major studio. Unwilling to wait out her seven years, Bette Davis went to court over this issue in 1936. Davis had shared de Havilland’s frustration at being molded as a type rather than an artist, also going on suspension rather than appearing in weak films; she too wanted to direct her career more independently and successfully. Davis, despite trying her case in the London courts in the hope of a fairer hearing, had failed. However, fortunately for Davis, Jack Warner recognized her value to the studio in terms of box office as well as her artistry (she had won her first best actress Oscar in 1935 for Dangerous); after her attempt at rebellion, she was given better roles and began her ten-year run as the queen of the studio.
“She of the heart-shaped face, liquid diction, warm brandy voice, and doe eyes.”
Enter Olivia de Havilland. The sweet heroine of the Errol Flynn epics. Melanie Hamilton Wilkes in Gone with the Wind, for which she received her first Oscar nomination (as best supporting actress), “as simple as earth, as good as bread” (Mitchell, 1936 ). She of the heart-shaped face, liquid diction, warm brandy voice, and doe eyes. An actress described by Molly Haskell as one of a group who were “the sunny side of a decade” (Haskell, 1974). A performer James Agee called “one of the prettiest women in movies” (qtd. In Shipman, 1970). A star “whose delicacy and daintiness were enormously winning” (ibid.). A lady.
This delicate actress, creating a persona as a spirited lady in her screen performances, charming and gracious and a recipient by 1943 of two Oscar nominations (the second for 1941’s Hold Back the Dawn at Paramount) earned for work done away from her home studio, hauled Jack Warner into court to challenge his and other studio moguls’ contract policies. Her decision cost de Havilland $13,000 of her own money and kept her off the screen until 1946. Not only couldn’t she work during the litigation, but Warner sent a letter to 77 studios and production companies, effectively blacklisting her from appearing in other vehicles at other studios.
However, with a resourcefulness befitting Melanie (or, more appropriately, Scarlett O’Hara), de Havilland worked in radio and toured with the USO, and in May 1944 the Superior Court of California found Warner Brothers in violation of that state’s anti-peonage laws. Now known as “the de Havilland decision,” this ruling contributed to the end of the contract system and the rise of the actor/agent relationship. It is even recalled today by such actors as Oscar winner Jared Leto, who with his music group Thirty Seconds to Mars is involving the decision in a music company battle and has actually spoken to de Havilland about it (O. de Havilland, personal communication, 5 May 2014). The ladylike Olivia had conquered the only mountain that tough Bette Davis, nicknamed the fifth Warner Brother (Here’s Looking at You, 1991), couldn’t climb.
“Olivia should be thanked by every actor today”
Davis saw the titanium strength behind the genteel exterior. She spoke of de Havilland in her autobiography, The Lonely Life, as an “artist who had integrity, [and] the will for holy battle” against “the medium which stupidly resisted its own enrichment” (Thomas, 1962). Davis also contributed a foreword to Tony Thomas’s entertaining career overview, The Films of Olivia de Havilland. She noted that “Olivia should be thanked by every actor today” for breaking the “potential contract for life” system, and also commented that de Havilland “after her Warner contract was over…overcame her beauty to triumph as an actress” (Thomas, 1983).
De Havilland’s triumph is, well, almost like a movie. After leaving Warner Brothers, she signed a three-picture deal with Paramount and scored an Oscar in 1946 for To Each His Own as an innocent illegitimate mother turned hard-headed business woman, the soft exterior belying a steel spine. In 1948 she made 20th Century Fox’s The Snake Pit, a landmark film about the horrors of mental institutions, and won another Oscar nomination as well as the New York Critics Circle Award. Her run of retributive good roles culminated in her performance as Catherine Sloper in Paramount’s The Heiress (an adaptation of Henry James’ Washington Square) for which she won her second Best Actress Oscar and another New York Critics Circle Award in 1949. Oh, to have been a fly on Jack Warner’s wall that year.
This period was without question the pinnacle of de Havilland’s career. However, the actress worked steadily in film, on stage, and on television until 1988, receiving her last major industry award in 1986, when she won a supporting actress Golden Globe and an Emmy nomination for her role in the television film Anastasia: The Mystery of Anna at age 70. She raised two children, wrote a memoir of her second marriage entitled Every Frenchman Has One (referring not to the obvious but rather to “the French liver” (De Havilland, 1962), suffered through a lengthy, ultimately unsatisfying love affair with John Huston, and reportedly endured a long feud with actress/sister, the late Joan Fontaine, which only ended with Fontaine’s death in December 2013. Such strength demonstrates the “enterprising” (Haskell, 1974) woman within.
One always thinks of Gone with the Wind’s iconic heroine, Scarlett O’Hara, as the tough survivor whose moral compass goes awry in lieu of her need to survive the harsh years of the American Civil War. Yet Melanie Hamilton, the sweet sister-in-law whose fragility and marriage to Scarlett’s desired Ashley Wilkes provokes Scarlett more than the damn Yankees, gives birth as Sherman approaches, provides succor to virtually all of the novel’s characters, and dies a martyr’s death. Her toughness matches Scarlett’s, and in the characterization supplied by Olivia de Havilland in her most enduring role, Melanie’s unconditional love and ineffable strength center the film.
To moviegoers worldwide, de Havilland remains frozen in time as Miss Melly, the soft-spoken woman who put love and loyalty above all else, in a role the actress has described as her favorite. Olivia de Havilland’s screen/star identity replicated that career-defining role, with the actress presenting over the years a palatably sincere Coventry Patmore-esque “Angel in the House” in many of her ingénue pairings with Errol Flynn, and in later film roles. Equally, in interviews, de Havilland always presents herself with elegance, the ultimate uber-lady. An announcement in The New York Post in October 2013 that she would make an appearance at TCM’s 75th anniversary screening of GWTW (sadly reconsidered as a taped interview with Robert Osborne due to her ill health) further reiterated the legacy of Melanie, which she has created and encouraged.
“Olivia de Havilland has proved at every turn in her life to have just as much gumption and steel in her character as her Melanie and the feisty, fiery Scarlett O’Hara”
There is an irony in this, for Olivia de Havilland has proved at every turn in her life to have just as much gumption and steel in her character as her Melanie and the feisty, fiery Scarlett O’Hara. She may have looked the prototype of the sweetly appealing film heroine, but at heart she has always been a maverick with a flinty streak and the courage and determination to fight for her independent viewpoint.
It is de Havilland’s uncharacteristic roles, which provide viewers with an insight into the actress who won two Oscars and five nominations, whose lawsuit against Warner Brothers changed forever the studio contract system, and whose remarkable internal strength has brought her to her 98th birthday with her wit and memory intact. This paper will explore several films, which afforded de Havilland challenges to her proper persona, demonstrating an intriguing ability to explore dark, dangerous characters. Specifically, her performances in The Dark Mirror as twins, one good and one homicidal; as a decidedly prickly Charlotte Bronte in Deception; in My Cousin Rachel as the eponymous femme fatale; and in Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte as a sugary foil to Bette Davis offer another perspective upon de Havilland’s career. These are not the heroines for which the actress is remembered, yet they demonstrate her artistry as vividly as her better-known, gentler incarnations.
Devotion – ‘They called them free souls!’
This film was the last de Havilland made under her Warner Brothers contract before she took the studio to court, but it was not released until 1946, not only because the film was not particularly strong, but also as a way of keeping de Havilland off screen during the trial. This highly romanticized story of the Brontes had been planned for years, and “the studio believed [it] would be in the same league with their successful biographies about Emile Zola, [and] Louis Pasteur” (Thomas, 1983). But by the time production began in November 1943, rather than starring Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins as originally planned, the film gave Ida Lupino the lead, as a sensitive and dreamy Emily, over de Havilland’s pushy, unsympathetic Charlotte. Arthur Kennedy played the doomed, drunken Branwell; contract player Nancy Coleman was a pallid Anne; and Paul Henreid appeared as Arthur Nicholls, the curate who eventually married Charlotte. In this version, Emily and Charlotte are fighting for Arthur’s affections, a radical departure from the truth. De Havilland was given what should have been the plumb role of Jane Eyre’s author, but she disliked the screenplay by Theodore Reeves, Keith Winter, and Edward Chodorov, and the supporting nature of the role. While the trailer of the film declared, “They called them free souls!” that irony could not have been lost on the unhappy actress. That her sister, Joan Fontaine, was portraying the eponymous heroine of Jane Eyre in a prestigious production with Orson Welles could not have made matters easy.
This version of the Brontes makes Charlotte a bully, an “unscrupulous ruler of the Bronte ambitions” (Katz, 1976), despite her sisters’ retiring nature. Conscious of her screen persona, this could not have made the actress happy. Although she wrote in a recent e-mail, “I do not remember that any of the characters in this film were dark or enigmatic” (de Havilland, personal correspondence, 8 January 2015), her Charlotte was certainly the former in her unsympathetic badgering of her sisters and her brother. Additionally, de Havilland was extremely contentious during the making of the film, and co-star Henreid mentioned her difficult behavior in his autobiography: “Stars are not vulnerable women,” he wrote. “To get to the top you must have an aggressive nature. But of all the women I worked with, Ida Lupino seemed the most vulnerable. She was a soft person with a great sense of sweetness about her, but anything that might have developed between us was destroyed by Olivia’s machinations” (qtd. in Arnold, 2014).
The director, Curtis Bernhardt, was also frustrated by de Havilland’s attitude on set. Jeremy Arnold notes, “Bernhardt found Olivia de Havilland (Charlotte Bronte) much more difficult to work with, describing how she fought him on the simplest staging instructions. “‘Lupino,’ he said, ‘was more accessible artistically than de Havilland during the making of the film. De Havilland became really obnoxious’” (ibid.).
In defense of the actress, she had two Oscar nominations at this point. Ida Lupino was considered, however, the greater star at Warner Brothers. This after de Havilland’s string of eight box-office successes with Errol Flynn was a bitter pill for her. She was also given third billing, after Lupino and Henreid, and that too could not have been easy. De Havilland was coming off of a string of pleasant but unremarkable films; even Princess O’Rourke (1943), which won Norman Krasna an Oscar for best original screenplay, cast her as an ingénue, nothing more. Her ongoing love affair at the time with John Huston may also have contributed to her frustrations, as not only was the maverick director a free soul, he was also married and proving to be difficult to entice into a commitment. He had also directed her in 1942’s In This Our Life with Bette Davis, guiding her to a mature performance as a long-suffering but invincible sister to Davis’s spoiled protagonist. Hence all of this contributed to the creation of a disagreeable actress who was about to sue her employer, to whom she referred in private as “‘Jack the Warden’” (Katz, 1976).
De Havilland was known also for becoming ill when she was frustrated at the studio. During the wardrobe and makeup tests, she “was also afflicted with an odd sickness in her legs, which broke out in large swellings that made it almost impossible for her to walk” (Higham, 1984). It is difficult to ignore the metaphor of being unable to run away from the studio and the film.
To give Jack Warner credit, he changed the script so that de Havilland would get the closing shot with Henreid after Lupino’s death; “he wanted to have de Havilland end up with Henreid at the film’s climax because winning the leading man’s heart would help build de Havilland’s stardom, and her future box office power” (ibid.). However, Lupino had been told she was to have the closing shot, and when she learned the truth, she was devastated. She cried to her co-star Henreid, who pronounced, “‘Olivia is a troublemaker’” (Henreid, qtd. in Arnold 2014). It is ironic that in a scene as Arthur Nicholls with de Havilland’s Charlotte, Henreid intones with complete sincerity, “There are two ways of dealing with young ladies of your perverse temperament, Miss Bronte. It is fortunate for you that I am not a woman beater” (Devotion, 1946)! The kiss that follows that declaration is not only unromantic; it looks as though the actor wants to shatter de Havilland’s mouth with his teeth.
So Olivia’s Charlotte may not have had top billing and may have been written—and acted—as a bitch, but she did get the all-important closing scene. And even though the film is disparaged by most scholars because of its Hollywood-ized view of the Bronte family, de Havilland is gripping in the role. Going against her usual persona of rational, bemused, intelligent spirit, she is strident, needy, bossy, and deliciously unpleasant.
At the age of 27, her young and rather soft prettiness is settling into more interesting angles and planes. The ringlets she wears thanks to Perc Westmore do not mirror the simple, smooth style worn by the real Charlotte in the portraits we have of the author, but they frame the actress’s face becomingly. Her flowing, hoop-skirted costumes, designed by Milo Anderson, are tremendously flattering to her figure. Vocally, de Havilland is also more interesting, utilizing a lower register in the romantic scenes with Henreid, further contributing to a Charlotte with a dark edge. The great Ernie Haller photographs de Havilland flatteringly, so if she must be cast as a perverse heroine, a real/reel life Becky Sharp, she certainly commands her scenes with her beauty and intelligence.
In fact, one of her best scenes features the fabled meeting between Charlotte and author of Becky Sharp, William Makepeace Thackeray. As portrayed by Warners contract star and fabled “Fat Man” from The Maltese Falcon, Sydney Greenstreet, Thackeray is like a Father Christmas with great appreciation for the young writer, and their exchange is spirited and lively, both enjoying their witty repartee.
Yet why Charlotte is so unpleasant is never clearly articulated in the script. She seems flighty, wanting one minute to publish and the next to pursue the legendary M. Heger, the Brussels school principal who oversaw the real Charlotte and Emily’s training as future governesses. Charlotte’s motivations aren’t clearly developed, yet de Havilland makes something of the woman. Her desires are built on a need to see the world, just as Emily’s are built on a need to enclose her own. She feels the weight of her siblings’ fortunes on her shoulders, particularly given the tragic failures of Branwell. There is fierceness in de Havilland’s portrait of Charlotte, and the steel backbone of the actress shows through in the character she plays.
The film was not reviewed particularly well. Bosley Crowther wrote in The New York Times that “Olivia de Havilland plays Charlotte with a vast deal of pretty arrogance” but that the film [p]resented as the story of the Brontës…it is a ridiculous tax upon reason and an insult to plain intelligence” (Crowther, 1946). Today, however, we can view the film as a romanticized but occasionally intriguing view of a mythic family, told through the black and white lens of 1940s studio filmmaking, featuring some of Warner Brothers’ finest contract players.
The Dark Mirror
The first important film de Havilland made after her lawsuit win was her 1946, Oscar-winning triumphs, To Each His Own. However, before that triumph, the actress was working again despite her legal battle with Jack Warner. She returned first to movie audiences thanks to Paramount’s 1946 tepid romantic comedy The Well-Groomed Bride. Originally scheduled to star Paulette Goddard, who became pregnant, de Havilland agreed to make the rather predictable programmer because Paramount agreed to work with her, even though the Supreme Court of California hadn’t yet made a decision on her legal clearance from Warner Brothers. While her co-star was Oscar winner Ray Milland, the film is hard work for actors and viewers alike.
Also in 1946, she made The Dark Mirror for Universal, and while this was not a particularly huge box office success, nor an Oscar-winning opportunity, it offered de Havilland “the challenge of playing two roles in a film…no red-blooded actress can resist” (Thomas, 1983). In fact, this film replicated once again her friend Bette Davis, who in the same year portrayed twins in A Stolen Life (brilliantly parodied on The Carol Burnett Show as A Swiped Life, complete with foghorn bellows), and again in 1964’s Dead Ringer. The film allowed de Havilland to stretch her acting chops with two roles in one film, portraying one good sister and one who is described by psychiatrist and shared love interest of the twins Lew Ayres as “completely insane” (Dark Mirror, 1946).
Psychiatry and psychological exploration in films was increasingly popular after WW2; Alfred Hitchcock’s 1945 Spellbound, with the dream sequence designed by Salvador Dali, established the template for such films. It was logical that de Havilland’s search for roles to establish herself as a serious actress would lead her to films addressing the rising American interest in psychotherapy. Vladimir Pozner’s original story was nominated for an Oscar, and the actress insisted that all of the cast members meet with a psychiatrist. The script was written by Nunnally Johnson, a triple-threat screenwriter, director and producer whose interest in psychological issues mirrored de Havilland’s. She received her fourth Oscar nomination for 1948’s The Snake Pit, and Johnson not only wrote the screenplay for My Cousin Rachel but also wrote and directed 1957’s The Three Faces of Eve, based on the true story of multiple personality sufferer Chris Costner Sizemore, which resulted in Joanne Woodward’s best actress Oscar. And despite mixed reviews, the film was remade for television in 1984 with Jane Seymour.
De Havilland’s twin sisters, Terry and Ruth Collins, refuse to incriminate each other when an acquaintance of both is found stabbed in the heart. While one of the women was seen by neighbors, neither will compromise the other’s alibi, so it is up to psychiatrist Lew Ayres and detective Thomas Mitchell to concoct a way to determine the true murderer. While Ayres examines both sisters, determining the madness of Terry rather simply—through the use of Rorschach ink blots—the subtle and growing differences between the sisters develop thanks to the artistry of de Havilland and her director, Robert Siodmak.
De Havilland reminisced about her preparation for the role and said, “[W]hen the dialogue director and other members of the company joined me for an informal appointment with a psychiatrist to gain insight into Terry’s psychotic condition…we asked her about the Rorschach Test, to which Terry had submitted.” And the result? “The doctor…swore us to secrecy and then divulged the key to that test. This secret…I have kept all this time” (O. de Havilland, personal communication, 7 January 2015).
“[Director Robert Siodmak] guided de Havilland into a new persona—complex, sexual, and lethal.”
Siodmak directed the great psychological thriller The Spiral Staircase, still chilling despite its now-primitive diagnosis of the mentally disturbed. Utilizing a “film noir technique… [t]he nuances emphasized by Siodmak’s lighting enable de Havilland’s divided sisters to assume complexities not evident in their earlier scenes” (Kass, 1976). He guided de Havilland into a new persona—complex, sexual, and lethal. While her Ruth is sweet and charmingly feminine and feisty, not unlike the Errol Flynn heroines of yore, she employs a lower vocal register to demonstrate that at 30 years old, Ruth and Terry and Olivia were independent working women, and that these ladies were not for burning by anyone—not the psychiatrist or the police in the film, nor Jack Warner.
De Havilland brings a new maturity to the role of Terry particularly, the murderess. She smokes, while Ruth doesn’t. De Havilland does smoke occasionally on film, but this is something unusual for the actress. Her Terry is also confrontational, manipulative, and ruthless (pun intended). When she is interviewed using the Rorschach cards, she notices psychiatrist Ayres watching her, and her responses to his questions about what she is seeing are cold and clever. She wants to date the doctor and she makes the first move—“Will we see each other outside of your office?” Her posture is stronger and her figure shapelier, almost in anticipation of the transformation she will undergo as Catherine Sloper three years later in The Heiress. There’s a subtle sexuality in her gaze as Terry, and her overall subtle shifts in two twins who must be close enough in appearance to fool a wise policeman are effective and fun.
Bosley Crowther, the legendary film critic for The New York Times and a notoriously crotchety reviewer, didn’t enjoy the film. He particularly criticized her performance, saying, “Olivia de Havilland is the dual lady, and for the life of us we never were sure when she was being Ruth, the good sister, and Terry, the evil one. Or, was it the other way around” (Crowther, 1946) But to play them as extreme characters, or with wildly different personalities, would be an absurd choice. Siodmak guides her to a very complex depiction of two sisters who are too tied to one another and yet too different to be truly sisterly. De Havilland herself said of playing a bad sister, “Terry…was so dark and so evil that playing her was an extremely painful experience for me—one I would never, ever, want to repeat” (O. de Havilland, personal communication, 7 January 2015).
On the other hand, critic James Agee wrote in The Nation, “‘I very much like Olivia de Havilland’s performance….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 likeable temperament, it is an undivided pleasure to see’” (Qtd. in Kass, 1976). Jeanine Basinger, in her insightful book A Woman’s View, notes that the bad sister, Terry, is a frightening portrayal of “a domineering menace, full of anger, and a murderess” (Basinger, 1993). Coldly staring out from behind the lovely de Havilland eyes, Terry portends the actress’s graceful movement from one potentially malevolent manipulation to the next in her incarnation six years later as a nineteenth century temptress.
My Cousin Rachel
Although her late sister, Joan Fontaine, earned a reputation as a Daphne du Maurier screen heroine for her work in Rebecca (1940) and Frenchman’s Creek (1944), de Havilland earned her opportunity in 1952’s My Cousin Rachel for Twentieth Century Fox. This was to be her return to the screen after her 1949 best actress Oscar for The Heiress. Preoccupied with Broadway roles in Romeo and Juliet and Candida, raising her young son, and divorcing his father and her first husband, author Marcus Goodrich, her return to the screen “is notable for providing de Havilland with one of the few interesting roles she would have in the next three decades and as Richard Burton’s American film debut” (Kass, 1976).
The film was troubled. George Cukor, her great friend and original director on Gone with the Wind (who famously directed de Havilland and Vivien Leigh on the sly, away from the set, after he was fired and replaced by Victor Fleming), had read Nunnally Johnson’s adaptation of du Maurier’s film, and first he tried to lure Garbo out of retirement. Failing that, Cukor visited du Maurier in Cornwall and realized a good film of the novel had to be filmed on location. But Darryl Zanuck at Fox refused to do this. Next Vivien Leigh turned down the picture, so Cukor dropped out of the project.
Then Mitchell Leisen, whom de Havilland adored and who had guided her to her 1946 Oscar for To Each His Own was supposed to direct, and de Havilland signed on enthusiastically. But Paramount wouldn’t loan him. Another director who was considered was “Carol Reed…who was… chosen to direct the movie and then was unable to fulfill the assignment because of a conflict of dates” (O. de Havilland, personal communication, 7 January 2015). He was replaced by contract director Henry Koster. While Koster provided “sympathetic direction” (Higham, 1984), one can’t help but wonder what the film would have been like with Cukor or Leisen or Reed in charge.
While the screenplay by Johnson successfully condensed the highlights of du Maurier’s disturbing study of a lethal woman, the presence of Richard Burton, Fox’s new star on the rise, dominated the film’s story. And although her appearance as the black widow Rachel Sangalletti Ashley intrigues the audience, providing a 36-year-old actress with a new sensuality and grace, her appearance twenty minutes into the film, and the uncertainty at the end of the film concerning her real motives leave the film somewhat unsatisfactory. When de Havilland was asked “whether the central figure of the story was guilty or innocent, she smiled and declined to answer” (ibid.).
Recently, she discussed her preparation for the role of Rachel:
“In preparation for My Cousin Rachel, I had to know whether Rachel was guilty or innocent before I could portray her. After reading the book twice, I still had no idea, which she was. I read it a third time, and this time I thought I knew. It was now my task to play every scene so that she could be interpreted either way, thus fulfilling du Maurier’s intention.
Some years later I met du Maurier’s great friend, Carol Reed, the brilliant British film director….I asked Carol Reed if du Maurier had confided to him the secret of Rachel’s guilt or innocence, saying that I had read the book three times before perceiving what I was sure was the truth, and was eager to know if I had guessed correctly. He swore me to secrecy and then let me know what du Maurier had told him. To my great delight it was the same as my conclusion. This is the secret I have kept all these years” (O. de Havilland, personal communication, 7 January 2015).
As the title character, de Havilland offers viewers and inscrutable “heroine.” Is Rachel simply the sophisticated, continental widow of Richard Burton’s dead uncle, or is she a poisonous Borgia who murdered one rich man and then seduced his heir? Jeanine Basinger, in her insightful book A Woman’s View, comments, “Burton is Eyre to Olivia de Havilland’s Rochester”. Her Rachel is a mysterious temptress who allows herself to be draped with jewels by her young lover while brewing a tisane for his health. And we never know whether that special tea is aphrodisiacal or arsenical.
De Havilland’s Rachel displays her credentials as a possibly lethal aunt when we see her continental seduction of Burton’s Philip. She invites him to her boudoir, where she has befriended his pet dog. In fact, as she pets the dog, he takes to chewing on her fingers, and she handles the over-friendly canine with affection while at the same time focusing solely on Philip. She tells him he’s welcome to smoke. Her Rachel, through feminine maturity, insinuates herself into the lonely young man’s heart with her candor, her smiles, her flirtations, and her link to his dead uncle. De Havilland’s demeanor, her slight smiles, and her ironic brave helplessness make her the perfect conqueror of foil Burton.
When we see them kissing (always long, passionate embraces), when he places jewels around her neck, when he gazes at her lovingly and she returns affection with a brief, slight smile, we see a new actress. She’s with the new heartthrob of the screen. She’s winning his affection—believably–from the young, fresh Audrey Dalton as Louise, the ingénue in love with Burton’s Philip. She entertains her old friend and Philip’s perceived rival Guido Rainaldi (George Dolenz) in Philip’s country home and despite the obtuse nature of their relationship—are they merely friends? Lovers? Did she cheat on Philip’s uncle with Rainaldi?—she retains Philip’s devotion.
In a wonderfully romantic dream scene, when Philip is ill with fever (or did Rachel make him ill and then restore his health?), the young man dreams he has married her, and de Havilland is beautiful in this soft-filter scene as his bride. To use contemporary colloquial language, she is the ultimate cougar in this scene, desirable and mature.
This scene follows Rachel’s dramatic turnabout after Philip’s 25th birthday, when he comes into his majority and immediately signs his entire fortune over to his uncle’s widow. She’s very grateful to accept the money, but when he announces they are engaged, after what has obviously been a passionate affair, she turns icy and dismissive. From thence forward, the idyll is over. Did she seduce him to get the money? Or did she find his assumption insulting? Philip’s uncle was Rachel’s second husband. Did she also kill the first?
Whether or not her Rachel is saint or sinner, we see a new de Havilland in the film. Dressed in black as a widow for most of the action, her weeds are off the shoulder, chiffon confections, which make her look like a woman of the world. During the film the actress was divorced, and she was now a single mother of a young son, contributing certainly to a new sensual receptiveness in her performance.
Her dark eyes flash a bright intelligence, and the actress emanates a soignée quality, offering her traditional warmth along with something else—an enigmatic sexual elegance. The voice is still melodious but, as in The Dark Mirror, another register lower, incorporating a slight British intonation which “she uses…to add a further note of mystery to the “Olivia de Havilland does a dandy job of playing the soft and gracious Rachel with just a fain suggestion of the viper’s tongue.” When she dies at the end of the film because of crossing a condemned bridge, which Philip has not warned her about, after he finds a letter from Rainaldi reaffirming her love for “that boy,” she asks poignantly before she dies, “Why?” Yet she’s been sending money out of the country. She is leaving for Italy, the country of Machiavellian, Borgia-esque women. Is it to allow Philip to have a proper marriage to Louise? Or is it to continue her free life as a merry and Warner brother, Bette Davis, in this follow-up to the camp, grotesquely memorable 1962 production, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? De Havilland recently explained, “After Joan Crawford fell ill playing a dark character, Miriam, in Hush…, and it appeared she would never recover, the film’s director, Robert Aldrich, brought the script to me in the Swiss Alps, where I was vacationing with my children. Once I had read it, I said to him that Miriam, like Terry, was all dark and that I could not submit myself again to playing a character so unremittingly malevolent” (O. de woman who explains so little about herself, letting her actions speak for her” (Kass, 1976). Her hair is styled elaborately for her social appearances, but when it is long, loose and flowing down her back while she wears a white nightgown and kisses Burton passionately, we have an actress who is a true femme fatale; “this single kiss by one of the world’s great actors was the most erotic she ever received on screen” (ibid.).
All of the tension of a du Maurier thriller requires a good anti-heroine, and de Havilland enjoys the challenge. This time, Bosley Crowther applauded; “Olivia de Havilland does a dandy job of playing the soft and gracious Rachel with just a fain suggestion of the viper’s tongue” (Crowther, 1952). When she dies at the end of the film because of crossing a condemned bridge, which Philip has not warned her about, after he finds a letter from Rainaldi reaffirming her love for “that boy,” she asks poignantly before she dies, “Why?” Yet she’s been sending money out of the country. She is leaving for Italy, the country of Machiavellian, Borgia-esque women. Is it to allow Philip to have a proper marriage to Louise? Or is it to continue her free life as a merry and now wealthy widow? Those questions are unanswered, and when Burton is pictured in the last shot of this film staring out at the sea, murmuring, “Rachel, my torment,” we see that de Havilland’s Rachel, rather like du Maurier’s Rebecca, has not been conquered, even by death.
Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte
So who better to replace the ailing Joan Crawford in the 1964 shock horror flick, Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte? Who better to co-star with, and almost drive mad (as a character, not as a colleague), the fifth Warner brother, Bette Davis, in this follow-up to the camp, grotesquely memorable 1962 production, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? De Havilland recently explained, “After Joan Crawford fell ill playing a dark character, Miriam, in Hush…, and it appeared she would never recover, the film’s director, Robert Aldrich, brought the script to me in the Swiss Alps, where I was vacationing with my children. Once I had read it, I said to him that Miriam, like Terry, was all dark and that I could not submit myself again to playing a character so unremittingly malevolent” (O. de Havilland, personal communications, 7 January 2015). While de Havilland was interested in working again with her friend Bette Davis, she’d taken critical heat for appearing in Lady in a Cage in 1964, one of a series of 1960s shock/horror films which seemed to violently exploit the fading careers of once great Hollywood actresses.1The party scene offers one of the problems of many ’60s “period” films—the costumes work, but all of the extras look like Nancy Sinatra. Incidentally, the blonde debutante looking for Charlotte at the party is none other than Bette Davis’ daughter dearest, B.D. De Havilland didn’t want to be limited by identification with that genre and thus initially rejected the offer.
Additionally, de Havilland didn’t like the role of Miriam Deering in the original script, as she recounted recently: “Undaunted, Aldrich then posed several questions which he knew would pique my curiosity: ‘Weren’t you attracted by the dichotomy? Intrigued by the ambiguity? By the ambivalence?’ I replied that I saw no dichotomy, no ambiguity, no ambivalence whatsoever in Miriam’s character, but that I would read the script again that night” (ibid.).
After the years of battling for a stronger career and more considered roles, de Havilland was not about to accept a script she didn’t like: “When I met him the next morning, I said, ‘I still don’t see any dichotomy, any ambiguity, or any ambivalence in Miriam; but I think I know how you can achieve this: give her perfect manners. As written, in her very first scene Miriam [was] abominably rude to Agnes Moorehead, a ‘slavey,’ leaving no doubt whatsoever as to Miriam’s villainy. By giving her perfect manners the audience will be mislead regarding her true character—which ought not to be revealed until the last possible moment” (ibid.).
Fortunately, “Bette Davis…liked this idea; a re-write was arranged, and the script was altered accordingly” (ibid.). Aldrich agreed to change the role’s concept from a patently evil woman to that of a “refined and charming and apparently sympathetic lady… [which] gave the character an ambivalence that no actress could resist” (Thomas, 1983), and thus de Havilland enthusiastically accepted.
That duality of the divine and the dark permeates Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte, which, while occasionally exploitational and Grand Guignol, earned seven Oscar nominations and garnered generally good reviews. Rather than being as a film in which de Havilland and Davis are “turned into complete travesties of themselves” (Haskell, 1974), Hush…Hush demonstrates that the actresses were having a grand time “playing out their campy roles, taking the old melodramatics of their Warner Bros. heyday and going over the top” (Matthews, 1995).
Several critics at the time of its release recognized the film for what it was: a thriller whose notable cast raised the script to deliciously melodramatic heights. Arthur Knight called de Havilland “properly oversweet as the solicitous Cousin Miriam” (Knight, 1965). And Time captured the tone of the film in its review entitled “Dragon Ladies”: “To make clear that the fright is all in fun, this monster rally offers not two but four seasoned movie queens–three of them ready to let down their hair….The tidy one is actress de Havilland, who flings away her composure but retains her chic” (Knight, 1965).
“Blackmailer, killer, poseur, seducer, avenger–and all done with that honeyed de Havilland allure.”
De Havilland’s performance, however, offers a bit more subtlety than that statement implies. Her ladylike cousin Miriam Deering, sweetly named, substitutes charm for curare, tipping her intentions like poisoned arrows and delicately letting them fly at poor Charlotte. De Havilland explained her approach to the characterization as follows: “’It’s always the charming ones of evil intent who are the dangerous ones; the other ones you can see coming. But you can’t see Miriam coming, and she’s really dangerous’” (Thomas, 1983). She certainly is. Blackmailer, killer, poseur, seducer, avenger–and all done with that honeyed de Havilland allure.
A view of this aspect of de Havilland’s lethal sweetness had appeared in earlier films. One must consider de Havilland’s last half-hour as Catherine Sloper in 1949’s The Heiress, in which duality again rears its duplicitous head. Her cool, calculated revenge upon golddigging Montgomery Clift, culminating in that long walk up the dark stairs into permanent spinsterhood, is bone-chilling. It took an effective actress to believably walk away from Clift’s pre-car accident beauty, no matter how manipulative his Morris Townsend was.
So Miriam Deering continues the elegant tightrope of characterization of satin and steel often found in de Havilland’s performances. Her southern softness in this role reminds us of the spine of her famous Melanie. Scarlett got everyone back home to Tara, but Melanie had the baby while the Yankees were storming Atlanta, suggested Scarlett rifle the pockets of the Union deserter, comforted a weeping Rhett Butler, and kept her weak Ashley faithful to her. After all of that, de Havilland’s dainty belle-cum-ruthless avenger in Hush…Hush menaces as creamily as a cyanide teacake.
What separates Hush…Hush from other William Castle-ish genre classics, and what places it only slightly below Baby Jane for pure camp delight, is the tone of the acting. Aldrich’s directing style, informed in part by the uneven script of Henry Farrell and Lukas Heller, is wildly inconsistent in Hush…Hush–is it a comedy? A tragedy? A tragicomedy? A parody? It’s almost as though everyone wandered onto the same set at the same time and appears in their own strange southern Gothic film. Yet the veteran actors are riveting and somehow it all works, the participants playing off each other in true ensemble tradition, their collective years of studio training resulting in a delightfully broad, macabre entertainment.
Bette Davis careens from being wildly bitchy to disturbingly vulnerable as the not-quite-mad Charlotte Hollis, who may or may not have cut off the hand and head of her married lover, John Mayhew, back in the 1920s, when he ended their affair. Bruce Dern plays the unfortunate John in yet another incarnation of the creepy antagonist he played in numerous ’60s B-films. Noblesse oblige kept Charlotte out of jail, but thirty-some years later, she is the local crazy woman whose family manse is about to be destroyed by the county to build a new highway, and she will have none of it. Reminiscent of William Faulkner’s eponymous southern belle-cum-murderer in “A Rose for Emily,” Davis gives us a memorably vulnerable heroine.
Other Hollywood greats have a wonderful time in this spirited, spooky tale of revenge. Joseph Cotten portrays manipulative lawyer Drew Bayliss as an aging, slurring, drunken southern doctor and gigolo. Mary Astor is Jewel Mayhew, the widow of John, a frail old lady with grande dame dignity. Cecil Kellaway invests his compassionate insurance investigator with gentle English charm. Agnes Moorehead (who won a best supporting Oscar nomination and a Golden Globe award for her efforts) is utterly hilarious and scene-stealing as the white trashy Velma Cruther, Charlotte’s maid and strongest ally, legendarily crass ‘n crude, a Flannery O’Connor nightmare, the woman for who the word “slattern” was invented.
And in the center of these varied styles stands the eye of the storm. De Havilland plays Miriam as a normal, poised woman, an outsider to the rather extreme goings-on way down South. Yet the poise gradually, impalpably becomes transparent. Beneath it we see the need to avenge the past which set the “tragic” events in motion, and that anger and hurt surfaces in some high dramatic moments. There is also however the cool sociopath whose elegant restraint masks an empty heart. Those scenes are eerie, efficient, chilling. Amidst a gathering of gargoyles, de Havilland gracefully insinuates her romantic evil, a true femme fatale. As she says, “[P]ortraying Miriam became a game for me, thus saving me from undergoing the dark experience which had so profoundly and negatively affected me on The Dark Mirror (O. de Havilland, personal communication, 7 January 2015).
The plot is appropriately convoluted, albeit a pale mirror of the equally convoluted but much smoother vehicles created for stars like de Havilland and Davis and Cotten and Astor during the golden age of films. In 1927, on a warm southern evening in New Orleans, in a grand mansion (the beautifully preserved Houmas House between New Orleans and Baton Rouge), a party is roaring for Miss Charlotte Hollis. She is the beloved daughter of her Big Daddy, Big Sam Hollis, played by Victor Buono doing a wonderful Burl Ives impersonation.2The little boy who breaks into the house to startle Charlotte is actor John Megna, who played Dill in To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s another Boo Radlemoment.
However, unbeknownst to Miss Charlotte, Big Sam is hopping mad at Charlotte’s secret lover, John Mayhew (Bruce Dern). Not only is John currently married to Jewel Mayhew (Mary Astor), but if he marries Charlotte he’ll someday get his hands on her daddy’s money, and that ain’t about to happen. Big Sam orders him to cancel their planned elopement from the summer house and then skedaddle.
John reluctantly breaks the news to Charlotte, who screams at the cad, “I could kill you” (Hush)! And just a few minutes later, someone efficiently chops off John’s head and hand in the summer house. Then into the party walks La Somnambula Charlotte, her pretty white Jezebel-ish dress drenched in blood.
Jump ahead to 1964. Charlotte still lives in the mansion, Baby Jane in a ball gown, haunted by her memories of John and her belief she killed him. She managed to beat the rap but she is no longer the belle of the ball. She’s become isolated, the town crazy woman living in a haunted house, tormented by local little boys.3Interestingly, Aldrich photographs de Havilland through the bars of the staircase in this and other scenes, as well as in bar-like shadows throughout the film. Not only does this add to her black-or-white characterization, but it also reminds us of the Warner Brothers days of great lighting effects. Charlotte’s only “friend” is her hired woman, Velma Cruther (Agnes Moorehead), a raw but loyal southern servant.
To make matters worse, the county plans to bulldoze Charlotte’s ancient family home to make room for a bridge. She will become a madwoman without an attic. Her doctor Drew Bayliss (Joseph Cotten) advises her to leave, but she will not listen. Who can help Charlotte retain her refuge?
Who else but her last remaining blood relative, Cousin Miriam Deering? Now an urban public relations person, Miriam’s mother was a northerner, but Miriam was raised in the mansion after being orphaned. Out of familial loyalty, despite her outsider/Yankee status, Miriam returns to Louisiana and to her “home” to fight the county and save the house, or so Charlotte believes.
But with Miriam’s fashionably late entrance onto the scene (37 years after John Mayhew’s murder and 28 minutes into the film), the conflict becomes far more complicated than a mere standoff between a crazed, aging Southern belle and the “guvmint.” It becomes Miriam’s conflict; she is an avenging angel balancing the scales of justice, ruthlessly, in her favor.
De Havilland’s initial screen appearance in the film is timed perfectly to establish that “dangerous” edge between what seems to be and what is in her character while also giving the star a grand entrance. Miriam appears, shot literally in sunshine and shadow, in the back of a taxi, wearing a sailor hat variation and a boat-necked sheath, looking thoughtfully out the windows at the land that time forgot. The soundtrack score by Frank De Vol accompanying her entrance is as lush as the foliage, all piano and harps, ladylike music for the ladylike killer.
De Havilland plays the early scenes of the film with a kind of wide-eyed, gentle glissando. The delicate line between her eyes seems permanently furrowed in concern and amazement at Charlotte’s condition. Her false eyelashes tilt up at the edges like wings, and the rest of her makeup is restrained. She holds the gaze of the person to whom she speaks. She wears gloves and the Dior-like (de Havilland’s private couturier of choice) tailored dresses of an elegant woman. In fact, her wardrobe is quite sexy – halter chiffon dresses, high heels, and bare arms. Her hair pertly frames her face; she’s petite and slim with continental carriage. Her voice is warm, her vowels long and soothing, and her timbre young and light one moment, low and wise the next. Miriam at first glance is how we expect a worldly woman of a certain age to appear.
But at this early stage, there’s the suggestion of the serpent in the garden. Miriam’s attire is a genteel disguise; de Havilland’s soignée presence, while trim and chic, costumes a carpetbagger in sheep’s clothing. And she shows up a day early and catches everyone off guard, commenting casually that she had to catch an early plane while removing her gloves (prepared for battle) and not making eye contact with Velma, who’s not happy to see her.
Miriam also doesn’t suffer masculine braggadocio gladly. For example, she meets Drew Bayliss (Cotten), apparently for the first time since he dumped her years before over the Charlotte scandal. Drew tries to insinuate himself into her good graces by complimenting her awkwardly and aw shucks-ing, “You know I never was any good at expressing myself.”
Miriam hasn’t forgotten his fickleness and reminds him sibilantly, “Oh, that’s not so at all, Drew. You were always very quick with your compliments. It was just your inten—tions. They were sometimes…a little vague” (Hush). De Havilland phrases that line by holding the “n”, by theatrically pausing between thoughts. She coos her lines. She’s flirting with Drew and with the audience, obviously performing, obviously controlling the moment. While friendly, her delivery of the line also offers a preview of the character—she is restrained, no one’s fool, and very, very clever.
Winning, control, and vengeance are key elements to de Havilland’s Miriam Deering. We see those elements in the reunion between Miriam and Charlotte, Olivia and Bette. The acting styles of the actresses in this scene, and throughout their scenes together, are reminiscent of their characters Roy and Stanley in In This Our Life. De Havilland is calm, poised, warm, and radiant; Davis is manic, ragged, imperious, and large.
This consciously mannered graciousness begins to fray at the hem, however, at the reunion dinner that evening between Charlotte, Miriam, and Drew. Charlotte appears at first relaxed, sane, as she sips a fine vintage and rattles on about how Miriam’s going to save the day and the mansion. All the while Charlotte’s chatting away, Miriam is shown in half-shadow, shot by Aldrich from a menacingly low angle. Everything’s pleasant until Miriam interjects a note of reality into Charlotte’s high hopes. Using a literally musical tone of voice with her cousin, and approaching her as one would a child, de Havilland melodically states, “There isn’t anything we can do about the house. You have to leave” (Hush). This pronouncement of doom is delivered prettily by the pretty Olivia in iambic beats, her eyes wide and dark, her diction restrained, her eyebrows daintily arched.
Of course, the diva battle begins. Charlotte stares at Miriam with contempt and explodes, hitting every consonant in that Bette Davis way, “What do you think I asked you here for? Company” (Hush)? This scene gives de Havilland the opportunity to “act back” at Davis, literally renouncing Charlotte’s father’s “generosity” towards her as she hisses at Davis, “Yesssss, I remember he took your poor up north cousin downtown for a whole new wardrobe. Down to a sleazy store he wouldn’t even let you set foot in” (Hush)! There is a luxuriousness of consonants in de Havilland’s delivery of these lines.
And when Charlotte plays her trump card, telling Drew and the audience that it was Miriam who told Jewel and her father about her affair with John Mayhew in the first place, we experience the full fury of Miriam. In her icy, calculating style of delivery, the anger and the pain of Miriam unfolds in the unrestrained explanation de Havilland offers: “Yes, I told Jewel. And I told your father, too. Why wouldn’t I? After all, I wasn’t much more than a child then. And all I ever got in this house was people telling me how lucky I was. And your father always favoring you and holding you up as an example. Why wouldn’t I tell him that his pure darling little girl was having a dirty little affair with a married man” (Hush)? De Havilland begins the speech slowly, building to a crescendo of hatred, emphasizing the most vitriolic adjectives. Director Aldrich closes in on her tightly, her eyes becoming black dots of fury, her face a tight mask of hatred. Clearly, Miriam has her own agenda.
One by one, de Havilland’s Miriam thwarts anyone interfering with her plan to shuttle Charlotte away and take control of the Hollis fortune. However, there’s one primary roadblock between Miriam and driving Charlotte mad—the sly, white-trashy housekeeper and true friend of Charlotte, Velma Cruther. The acting styles of Agnes Moorehead and de Havilland are worlds apart in this film, and that difference is wildly entertaining in their two major scenes together, culminating in Miriam’s brutal murder of Velma. De Havilland’s chic beauty and brisk efficiency could have been swallowed up by Moorehead’s delicious Tobacco Road parody. It would be difficult for most actresses to hold the screen against that kind of outrageous playing. Yet once more de Havilland uses the frozen heart of Miriam as counterbalance to her compatriots’ juicy slices of ham. She is the again still point, the eye of the storm. De Havilland allows the balance of cruelty and craftiness full sway, and in her brutal killing of Moorehead’s Velma, we see that divine duality of murderous brightness in its gothic glory.
Velma has gone to insurance adjustor Mr. Willis and expressed her fears for Charlotte and her suspicions about Miriam, and now she’s sneaked back into the house to rescue her beloved Miss Charlotte. Just in time, too because Charlotte’s been drugged by Drew and Miriam, who as it transpires are in cahoots to drive Charlotte mad, commit her, and control her fortune. Velma rushes upstairs to Charlotte’s room and tries to haul the catatonic Charlotte out of her bed, but Miriam slowly enters. The look on her face is terrifying – cold, impersonal, bitter. De Havilland’s eyes in her close-up betray icy loathing as she intones to Velma in a flat disgusted, class-conscious voice, “You just can’t keep hogs away from the trough, can you” (Hush)? Starting to descend the stairs, Velma makes the mistake of turning her back to Miriam who grabs a chair, raises it high above her coiffed head, and slams it down onto Velma, who naturally tumbles down the stairs dead. De Havilland’s murderous intent makes her look ten years older, her face kabuki-like, white, almost inhuman. It’s a satisfyingly ghoulish scene and a freeze-frame of the moment suggests the depths available to the actress, which she releases sparingly, in this film and in her later career.
This is all building to the climactic, Dynasty-like confrontation between the two. Drew and Miriam stage his murder, convincing Charlotte he’s dead and that his body must be disposed of. Miriam takes charge—how many bodies has she hidden before? —and drives, unblinkingly, back to Hell House while Charlotte whimpers by her side. Miriam’s last nerve just sprung. She stops the car, does her trademark slow, lethal turn, grabs Charlotte’s gown, and then backhand slaps her six times.4 De Havilland actually slapped a stand-in; after all, she and Davis were friends as well as stars. Pity the poor stand-in’s face, though; these aren’t love taps. Delivering her epithets in a hissing, guttural voice, and showing her of bottom teeth and unfurled lower lip, de Havilland intones in a low octave, “Damn you. Now will you shut your mouth? You’ll do as I tell you and if I tell you to lie you’ll do that too. I’m never going to suffer for you again. Not ever. Do you understand” (Hush)? She looks like she’d like to tear her throat out with canines, and the moment is genuinely, brutally chilling, ending with a drugged, babbling Davis and a soothing, cooing de Havilland stroking her mad head.
Of course, there must be retribution, and it is divine. And de Havilland looks divine in her last scene. She descends the staircase down which she dispatched Velma rather like Loretta Young. Dressed in a sleeveless, low cut black evening gown, she pats her hair into place (a casually evil touch) and joins her partner Drew in a champagne toast. With a jaunty spring in her drink, mature sexuality on display, quaffing one glass and having another, she reveals to Drew, who is trying to control their future, the full force of her vengeful heart.
Chastising his masculine preening, she notes, “Are you sure you have the brains to be the senior partner” (Hush)? She then reveals to Drew that she sent Charlotte dozens of harassing letters for years, convincing Charlotte that Jewel Mayhew was behind them. She also confesses that she caught Jewel red-handed, so to speak, in the murder of John and blackmailed her until her money ran out. Even Drew is shocked by this cruelty and wonders that she could make both women suffer for so long. Miriam pertly replies, “Yes darling, that’s exactly what I did…You joined this game later than you thought” (Hush). De Havilland’s cool intelligence makes this plot development almost believable.
But murder will out. While Miriam and Drew chatter mockingly about their plans to each other (and the audience), Charlotte creeps to the balcony above them and listens in. She seems stunned as Miriam drawls in mock-southern tones that she’ll have to pretend to be upset that her cousin Charlotte has gone bonkers. Her fire returns however when Miriam and Drew chuckle over her impending institutionalization and impugn the character of her beloved father and her lover. Miriam proclaims in a high, sugary voice, “All that lovely money that Big Sam sweated to get his hands on. While we’re spendin’ it like water, Charlotte will be weaving lots and lots of little baskets” (Hush). This line is delivered in a soprano mocking tone, sing-song-ed by de Havilland almost too grandly, as though Aldrich directed her to be as evil as possible so she deserves what she gets. That does it. Charlotte pushes a concrete planter over the railing of the balcony, and Miriam looks up in time to shriek before she dies. Of course, in death de Havilland looks glorious, laid out open-eyed in that glamorous gown and staring up at the woman who has triumphed over her one final time.
Olivia de Havilland spoke of Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte as being “full of traps, it was a delicate tight-rope walking assignment. I found that very interesting. Aldrich gave it…a kind of dark glittering style which fascinated me” (Thomas, 1983). That notion of the “dark glittering style” perfectly describes the approach de Havilland took in portraying her character—a brightness haloed by darkness, a shadow dimming the light.
While Olivia de Havilland may have been troubled by creating the dark ladies she portrayed in Devotion, The Dark Mirror, My Cousin Rachel and Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte, she enhanced the catalogue of her film performances by showing viewers her potential to play anti-heroines which suggested the depths of her talents. Had the actress not moved to France after her marriage to Paris Match and Coco Chanel biographer Pierre Galante in 1955, focusing upon her family and her new Parisian life, and wisely eschewing a Hollywood which was undergoing radical transformation due to the rise of television and the fall of the studio system, she might have pursued additional roles which elaborated upon her unique gift for portraying sunshine and shadow.
In an e-mail received from the Tokyo-born actress, on November 8, 2014, when she learned this essay would be presented at the IAFOR conference in Osaka, Japan, she wrote: “[Y]our listeners may, or may not be interested in the fact that I can still count to eight in Japanese! Of course I send my special greeting to them.” With the graciousness and enduring enthusiasm she still displays in her private life, with its own rewards and regrets (as Dotson Rader titled an interview with de Havilland), the actress expressed an energy which could create a gentle Melanie Wilkes and a steely Miriam Deering. Almost thirty years ago, she proclaimed, “I like life! I want to have more of it. To venture more, create more, experience more. Oh, I want to go on for a very long time” (Rader, 1986)! At the age of 100, alive, well, and living in Paris, Olivia de Havilland is doing just that. Even Jack Warner would be proud.
Image | Wikipedia
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References [ + ]
|1.||↑||The party scene offers one of the problems of many ’60s “period” films—the costumes work, but all of the extras look like Nancy Sinatra. Incidentally, the blonde debutante looking for Charlotte at the party is none other than Bette Davis’ daughter dearest, B.D.|
|2.||↑||The little boy who breaks into the house to startle Charlotte is actor John Megna, who played Dill in To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s another Boo Radlemoment.|
|3.||↑||Interestingly, Aldrich photographs de Havilland through the bars of the staircase in this and other scenes, as well as in bar-like shadows throughout the film. Not only does this add to her black-or-white characterization, but it also reminds us of the Warner Brothers days of great lighting effects.|
|4.||↑||De Havilland actually slapped a stand-in; after all, she and Davis were friends as well as stars. Pity the poor stand-in’s face, though; these aren’t love taps.|