By Dennis Bartok
I was very saddened to hear of the passing of Olivia de Havilland, and it immediately brought to mind memories of a wonderful and unexpected afternoon I spent touring old Hollywood with her in June, 2002.
At the time I was head of programming for the American Cinematheque, and I’d spent several years (unsuccessfully) courting her long-distance to appear for a retrospective tribute at the Egyptian Theatre, with the help of my friend Marvin Paige, a former casting director who was something of a Broadway Danny Rose and go-between for Golden Age Hollywood stars. De Havilland lived in Paris, and although Marvin and I had tried to convince her by phone and fax to attend a Cinematheque tribute, she always managed to artfully evade us – until the morning of June 25th, when Marvin called and said, “I’m having lunch with Olivia de Havilland at the Beverly Hilton in a few hours – do you want to join us?” De Havilland had flown into Los Angeles from her home in Paris for the 90th birthday party of an old friend of hers, the former wine critic for the L.A. Times who had acted with her decades earlier in a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (more on that later.)
I put on the best suit I had at the time and met Marvin in the lobby of the Beverly Hilton – he’d already anxiously scoped out the quietest and most unobtrusive table at the poolside restaurant before I arrived. The elevator doors opened, and suddenly Olivia de Havilland was standing there smiling radiantly, with a great crown of snow-white hair. She was in her mid-80s then and still breathtakingly beautiful, and also every inch a grand dame and Hollywood legend. We took the elevator a flight down with her, and when it got momentarily stuck, she quipped that she was reminded of her 1964 thriller Lady In A Cage. We sat at the table, and while de Havilland sipped coffee, she listened patiently as Marvin pitched her on writing a note to be read at an upcoming AMPAS screening of Gone With The Wind. She deferred giving him a definite yes or no answer at the end of his pitch. We finally got around to talking about presenting a Cinematheque tribute to her – she couldn’t commit to that coming November, because “I’ve just turned down an invitation to appear at a fundraiser for a medical college near Philadelphia at that time, and it wouldn’t look right for me to appear anywhere else in the U.S. around that time.” She mentioned that her daughter Gisele, who lived near Santa Fe at the time and wrote for Paris Match, was urging her to come to Los Angeles in January so that was “a possible” date for her tribute: “There’s a gray, flat lid that just lays over all of Paris for four weeks in January,” she mused. But that was her daughter’s notion, not hers. In the end she seemed to think mid-March might be best to join us.
We moved on to discussing the list of films for her proposed tribute: A Midsummer Night’s Dream (“the first film I did in Hollywood”) … Captain Blood (“I’m not sure about that one”) … Adventures Of Robin Hood (“If we have to show just one of the Errol Flynn movies, that would be it”) …. Gone With The Wind (“Oh, of course!”) … Princess O’Rourke (“they stole the plot of that for Roman Holiday”) … Hush Hush, Sweet Charlotte (“Robert Aldrich was wonderful to work with, he had a very good sense of what the film should look like”) ….plus To Each His Own, The Heiress, The Snake Pit and Light In The Piazza.
“I think the films should all be run in chronological order, don’t you?” she asked me. I suggested that we open the retrospective with either Robin Hood or a double feature of her two Oscar-winning performances in To Each His Own and The Heiress. She finally proposed screening Gone With The Wind as a gala event: “Would you like me to wear a long black gown and gloves for it? I think I should, shouldn’t I?,” she said, smiling.
We got to talking about the Cinematheque’s Egyptian Theatre, which had been restored and re-opened in 1998. She had quite an interest in the theatre and recalled walking with her mother from her first Hollywood apartment on Franklin Ave. down to Hollywood Blvd., having dinner at The Pig & Whistle restaurant next door to the Egyptian and catching a movie afterwards. She’d even heard good reports of our screening of an original nitrate Technicolor print of Robin Hood several years earlier and had sent a friend of hers to meet with our then-executive director to take a tour of the restored theatre. She started to ask very specific questions about where she would enter and exit the theatre for the best dramatic effect. I responded by trying to describe the layout of the Egyptian, and then her eyes lit up excitedly: “I think we should see the theatre right now!” she exclaimed. Apparently she hadn’t left the Beverly Hilton since she’d arrived in L.A., and a car was coming in a few hours to take her to the airport and back to Paris – but now, now, was the time Olivia de Havilland wanted to see old Hollywood.
I drove my dirt-encrusted Honda CRV out of the hotel’s self-park and mumbled apologies for all the dog hair on the seats as she and Marvin climbed inside. As we headed east along Sunset through Beverly Hills and West Hollywood towards the Egyptian, she recognized a small church where she used to go and light candles. “And then I found out it was only open on Sunday mornings,” she said with a little disappointment, implying it was a shame the church wasn’t open the rest of the week. Clearly inspired by seeing her old haunts, she related the story of how she first came to Hollywood in the 1930s: she’d grown up in northern California and had appeared in an amateur production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, playing the role of Puck. She’d enrolled at Mills College for Women in Oakland, and heard about rehearsals in San Francisco for famed Austrian theatre director Max Reinhardt’s upcoming production of the play. She managed to talk her way into the rehearsals – “I just wanted to watch because I knew the play so well – I never thought about auditioning for a role,” she remembered. She said Reinhardt picked her out, had her read, and told her she could understudy for the role of Hermia – if she could be in Los Angeles in four weeks.
When de Havilland arrived in L.A. several weeks later, she learned that the actress originally cast in the part, Gloria Stuart (of The Invisible Man, and later, Titanic fame) had to bow out because of production delays on a film she was shooting. So de Havilland was bumped up from understudy and wound up performing in Reinhardt’s legendary production of Midsummer at the Hollywood Bowl.
Afterwards, when Warner Bros. decided to do a film version of the play, they offered her a contract – which she promptly turned down. “I was such a snob! I only wanted to act on stage,” she told me. Luckily she was cornered by Reinhardt and William Dieterle (who co-directed the feature film version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream) and they convinced her to sign with Warners and do the film.
As we drove east, I asked about her family, casually trying to make conversation. A sad look came across her face. She began to talk about her son Benjamin, who’d been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in his late teens. She said the doctors had used radiation treatment on him and while it cured the lymphoma, they’d used too much radiation and it had damaged the lining around his heart. He’d eventually died in 1991 in his early 40s from heart disease related to the treatment. She clearly still carried a deep mother’s love for him.
By this point we’d arrived at the Egyptian Theatre. After finding a parking space next to it (a minor miracle), she took a quick peek inside The Pig & Whistle Restaurant next door and was delighted to see it open for business again after so many years: “They had a big organ inside here originally, and a pond in the middle with goldfish,” she remembered. Marvin and I led her inside the Egyptian and gave her a quick tour of the auditorium. She insisted on checking out the left hand aisle where she planned to make her grand entrance: “I can sneak in during the movie, but the audience shouldn’t know I’m there,” she said. “It’s much more dramatic that way, and you wouldn’t want someone asking for my autograph in the dark.” She took great interest in examining the front stage area where the Q&A would take place, and carefully tried out one of our director’s chairs. “What will the lighting look like?,” she suddenly asked. When I replied that it would basically look like what we had on, just the house lights, she shook her head in horror: “Impossible! You can’t use those side lights, they’re terrible. Sit right here and I’ll show you.” She forced me into the chair and then sat herself in the front row of seats, studying me very critically. “You look ghastly! Horrible! Depressive!,” she finally declared, and leapt up and grabbed me by the arm. She insisted – and I do mean insisted – that we get spotlights for the balcony the night she appeared, and then proceeded to go into startling detail, saying we’d need bastard amber gels for the spots and a low riser as a stage so the audience could see her better. “I did a lecture tour for six years so I know what I’m talking about,” she said firmly. “Believe me, you’ll thank me for this advice.” It was clear that age and absence from Hollywood had taken none of the determined star out of her. As we left the auditorium, she looked around the vintage theatre happily: “I’m so glad I came here today,” she sighed. “This will be much better.”
Pulling away from the Egyptian, I drove up Las Palmas, intending to turn west on Franklin, but de Havilland suddenly asked if I could turn right instead. I bit mystified I did as she asked. She rolled down the passenger’s side window and began peering around. “I’m looking for the Chateau des Fleurs, the first apartment I stayed at in Hollywood in the 1930s with my mother,” she finally explained. We drove for about a block and a half, and then de Havilland excitedly squealed, “Stop! That’s it!!” I looped around the block and pulled up in front of the French-style building with wrought-iron gates and a tree-lined courtyard. Cars began beeping their horns and pulling around my car as Olivia de Havilland leaned out the window, traveling back in time 70 years to when she first came to Hollywood, hoping to understudy in Max Reinhardt’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Bowl a short walk away. “There,” she finally said, pointing up. “That’s the apartment I lived in with my mother.” We lingered there another minute, and then I finally pulled away to drive her back to the hotel, and from there to Paris.
In the end, sadly, Marvin Paige and I never managed to pin her down on appearing for a Cinematheque tribute. But we did get to spend one unforgettable afternoon showing her the old town.
(Please look below for many photos, magazine covers, trailers, clips, and articles.)
Olivia De Havilland passed away on July 26, 2020 at 104 years-old.
The Los Angeles Times says farewell.
Leonard Maltin remembers his visit with the star.
Dennis Bartok is a filmmaker, distributor, art-house exhibitor and author. He directed the Irish horror film Nails in 2017 which recently streamed on Netflix and wrote the non-fiction book, A Thousand Cuts: the Bizarre Underground World of Collectors and Dealers Who Saved the Movies, hailed as one of the “Best Film Books of 2016” in the Huffington Post. He was recently Acting Executive Director and formerly head of programming for the American Cinematheque in Los Angeles, and is also co-founder of the distribution + restoration companies Arbelos Films and Cinelicious Pics which released Satantango, Gangs Of Wasseypur and Belladonna Of Sadness.
Listen to a podcast with Dennis and his co-author Jeff Joseph about the book..
A Thousand Cuts generated lots of fascinating stories about the underground world of film collectors and you can follow on Facebook. The book is available in print and ebook format. Order from your favorite independent book store.
Dennis and Jeff interviewed collector and archivist David Shepard in EatDrinkFilms
The Daily Dead interviews Dennis about Nails.
Turner Classic Movies features Olivia as part of the annual “Summer of the Stars” on Sunday, August 23. All times below are EST.
|6:00 AM||The Male Animal (1942)|
|8:00 AM||Princess O’Rourke (1943)|
|10:00 AM||Light in the Piazza (1962)|
|12:00 PM||In This Our Life (1942)|
|1:45 PM||Captain Blood (1935)|
|4:00 PM||Dodge City (1939)|
|6:00 PM||The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)|
|8:00 PM||Gone with the Wind (1939)|
|12:00 AM||The Heiress (1949)|
|2:15 AM||To Each His Own (1946)|
|4:30 AM||Hard to Get (1938)|
Olivia de Havilland’s Iconic Life in Photos from Bazaar.
A remembrance for a screen legend who did not suffer fools but once took the time to be kind to a young oddball. by Sadie Stein for Town & Country.
Olivia de Havilland and the Most Notorious Sibling Rivalry in Hollywood by William Stadiem in Vanity Fair.
Sisters in life but not always as happy as these photos portray. Scott Feinberg’s New Details About the Joan Fontaine-Olivia de Havilland Feud Revealed in The Hollywood Reporter (2013).
“Olivia has always said I was first at everything — I got married first, got an Academy Award first, had a child first. If I die, she’ll be furious, because again I’ll have got there first!”– Joan Fontaine
Another kind of sisters with a double dose of Olivia as twins in A Dark Mirror.
Listen to the radio dramatization of The Dark Mirror.
More radio dramas here.
Listen to a radio dramatization with Olivia and Errol.
Listen to more radio shows with Olivia and order collections of 38 more here.
Michael Sragow’s Victor Fleming: An American Movie Master has a fascinating chapter (22) on the director replacing George Cukor on Gone With The Wind.