Olivia deHavilland passed away over the weekend. At age 104, she was officially the eldest “celebrity crush” I’ve ever had.
Looking back, I probably first saw her in Airport ’77, a lame film even by the low standards of 70s disaster flicks. As the middle-aged “Worried Passenger #28” or whatever, she made far less of an impression on 12-year-old me than a drowned Christopher Lee floating past the window of a sunken 747. It wasn’t until the 90s that I “discovered” Olivia in all her youthful glory, opposite Errol Flynn in Captain Blood, and THAT made an impression. It’s a cliche to say a performer “lights up the screen,” but in her case it fit, as there was a genuine luminance to her features and perfomance, all the more remarkable given she was only 19 years old at the time.
If Flynn was, on screen anyway, the perfect hero — dashing, honorable, courageous, a leader of men, then Olivia was his ideal match: beautiful, elegant, virtuous and in her own, less flashy way, heroic as well. Their chemistry was undeniable; whether in medievel Sherwood, 1700s Jamaica or 1800s Dodge City, they were drawn together as if reincarnated through the ages to continue a love affair that stretched over multiple lives. It was only in 20th Century real life they couldn’t make it work, although Flynn at least seemed to wish it.
Of course, Olivia would go onto much bigger and better things than playing “The Girlfriend,” winning two Academy Awards (for whatever that’s worth), no thanks to studio boss Jack Warner, who would’ve been happy to keep her in period epics and romantic comedies as “the girl” forever, if he could. Loaned out to MGM for Gone With The Wind, she finally had a chance to show greater range, and like everyone else associated with that film achieved a level of immortality. Even now, she may be best remembered as “the last surviving star of Gone With The Wind,” which is ironic as I find her “Melanie” character as maddeningly “goody-goody” as Scarlett O’Hara was insufferably rotten. Scarlett may have been conniving and selfish, but at least she was a survivor. Melanie, in comparison, was too sweet and pure and angelic to survive the harsh realities of Earth.
The real Olivia was made of sterner stuff, outliving all her peers from the Golden Age of Hollywood (more than twice as long as Flynn!) and going toe-to-toe with Jack Warner — a guy who’d successfully shoved around the likes of Jimmy Cagney and Bette Davis — to win her freedom from an unreasonable contract, in the process driving a stake through the studio system and empowering generations of performers to act as free agents. At 103, she was in the news again, suing a production company for defamation and striking a blow, in her way, for all her old comrades who are “fair game” for any scriptwriter to slander now that they’ve passed on.
So yeah, I know Olivia was formidable, and super-competent, and feisty to the end. But I confess I’ll always love her best as “the girlfriend,” provided the “boyfriend” was Flynn. Over his career, Errol was paired with fine leading ladies like Anne Sheridan, Rosalind Russell, Barbara Stanwyck, Bette Davis and Alexis Smith, but for most of us, there was Olivia and then there was everyone else. When Errol and Olivia were on screen together, you believed they were meant for each other, and when Errol went into battle, you believed Olivia was the woman he’d risk everything for.
In fact, my favorite on-screen moment between the two comes in a pre-battle scene in They Died With Their Boots On. Technically an “action picture” (which does have great action scenes) and a “bio-pic” (which isn’t even remotely close to historically accurate), in the end what holds the film together is the romance between George and Libby Custer, from their first meeting at West Point through a humorous courtship and a loving, sometimes difficult marriage to their final, heartbreaking separation on the eve of the Little Big Horn. This was the last of Errol and Olivia’s eight films together, as Olivia was anxious to move on to other things. In a weird nexus of fact and fiction, their characters’ goodbye scene was the last scene the stars ever filmed together, and it’s hard not to read extra layers into it: it was “meta” before “meta” was a thing.
Errol as Custer puts on a brave face as he heads out on a mission he knows he’ll never return from, while Olivia as Libby plays the role of dutiful wife to the end, equally certain of what’s ahead but knowing her husband needs her to be brave one last time. It’s a masterful performance of a great script, where what’s not said is as important as what is. Again, it has a “meta” feel to it, as the stars say goodbye to each other through scripted lines, speaking as other people. Legend has it that even decades later, Olivia had to excuse herself from a screening of the film as this scene approached, unable to watch it without breaking down. I can sympathize; I never get through it with a dry eye, either.
104 years is a great run, but there are certain folks you dread to read that last headline about, even though all logic tells you it’s coming. There was a certain comfort knowing that somewhere out there (usually France) was a living link to the Golden Age of film, the girl who inspired heroes to great deeds and the woman who struck bold blows, herself. Plus, it was an odd kind of fun, crushing on a centenarian. Godspeed, Dame Olivia, and thanks.