It was the 65th anniversary year of “Gone With The Wind.” Olivia de Havilland, long the sole surviving major cast member, and nearly 90 in April 2004, flew to New York from her home in Paris to talk about GWTW and the swashbucklers she had made with Errol Flynn (indelibly Maid Marian to his Robin Hood), for commentary extras for special edition DVDs.
I was assigned to shoot portraits of Miss de Havilland and stills of her reminiscing about her life, her time in Hollywood starring in some of the most well-known films of Tinseltown’s golden age and her famous co-stars. She sounded exactly like Olivia de Havilland (it was thrilling and a bit unsettling) and was funny, forthcoming and frank, her memory (and eyes) undimmed. She was still beautiful.
The shoot took place in a well-appointed (as they say) suite in the Pierre Hotel. The video crew claimed the large living room and I was dismayed (but not surprised) that the emptied bedroom we’d been promised by hotel staff was full of overstuffed furniture and an oversized bed. I called the front desk, who promised that maintenance would pop by immediately.
Photography is often about rearranging the furniture and it was easy to relocate the chairs and desk to the hotel corridor but the bed was larger than the doors. Sean (I was so lucky he’d been available to work with me) brandished his Leatherman and effortlessly (or so he made it seem) dismantled the frame. Its pieces and the mattress and boxspring were also moved to the hallway. Maintenance never arrived.
We set up the seamless and lights. I had met Miss de Havilland while she was having her makeup done and when she entered the room, I introduced her, “Miss de Havilland, this is Sean Sime.” She responded, “Pleasure, young man.” He was crouching to the right of the tripod and he, too, a bit unsettled by her presence and beautiful voice, nearly fell over.
The great Olivia de Havilland is 100 today. Born on July 1, 1916 in Tokyo to British parents, she grew up in California. She was discovered by an associate of Max Reinhardt’s in a college production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and began acting professionally at 18, working steadily in Hollywood for three decades. She won the Best Actress Oscar twice–for “To Each His Own” (1946) and “The Heiress” (1949).
For Babette and me, she’s Mellie (playing plain–against type), the almost impossibly good one (but no one’s fool), to Scarlett’s selfish and impetuous beauty. Often cast in demure and “ladylike” parts, she was empowered (long before that word, like too many others, became a marketing favorite) to refuse frivolous roles and to demand challenging work.
Olivia de Havilland sued Warner Brothers in 1943 and won, in a decision that has become a cornerstone of entertainment law. The studio was prevented from extending her contract to reflect the period she was suspended for turning down unsubstantial parts, and the balance of power in Hollywood shifted to the actors.
She left Hollywood for Paris in 1955, where she continues to live. In 1965, she was first woman president of the Palme d’Or jury at the Cannes Film Festival.
Asked during a 2006 interview if she missed acting, Olivia de Havilland said, “Not at all. Life is too full of events of great importance. That is more absorbing and enriching than a fantasy life. I don’t need a fantasy life as once I did. That is the life of the imagination that I had a great need for. Films were the perfect means for satisfying that need.”