What a Dame

Errol & Olivia: Ego & Obsession in Golden Era Hollywood by Robert Matzen

I don’t think any photo ever better captured Livvie than this one taken in 1942. Beautiful, brooding, determined and remote, she was then at war with Jack Warner. Ultimately, she would win.

“Though she be but little, she is fierce.” The character Helena uses this description of her friend Hermia in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Not coincidentally, the description fits Olivia de Havilland, who portrayed Hermia in the 1935 Warner Bros. film adaptation of the play.

I first corresponded with Miss de Havilland in 1978 and have been in and out of touch with her ever since, although off for several years now. I fell head over heels for her as Maid Marian in The Adventures of Robin Hood as many a male has and have been smitten ever since. I’m also her most recent biographer with my book, Errol & Olivia: Ego & Obsession in Golden Era Hollywood (GoodKnight Books, 2010), which is to say I know something of the little and fierce human known as OdeH, who turns 101 today as I sit here and write this.

Happy Birthday, Miss de Havilland!

Errol & Olivia: Ego & Obsession in Golden Era Hollywood by Robert Matzen

An Oscar in each mighty little fist. Take that, Jack Warner.

She is indeed little if five-three soaking wet qualifies as little. In my book it does. She is indeed fierce for having thrived in Hollywood for 20 solid years after not really wanting to become a film actress in the first place. She sort of backed into her career but then played by her own rules, earned two Academy Awards (for To Each His Own and The Heiress), and should have won two others (for Gone With the Wind and The Snake Pit). She was, simply put, a tremendous, underappreciated Hollywood home run hitter. A real slugger while in her prime.

You’d have to remind me of a time when OdeH ever grandstanded for publicity. And I mean ever, from 1935 to present day. It wasn’t her style to do that. She was and I’m sure remains a sober, serious, even brooding introvert, measured always in actions and delivery. A pro’s pro as an actor, a stand-up human, and a two-fisted brawler when backed into a corner.

During World War II, more than 70 years ago now, OdeH and Jack L. Warner went to court over the rights of studios and actors. Warner was then one of the two or three most powerful men in a town that respected only power. He was also a loud, uncouth bully and the “little girl” as she was known to the Warner front office kicked his ass in court. There’s no other way to put it. Warner lost and de Havilland won and “freed the slaves,” breaking the back of the studio contract system. Freedom from Warner Bros. led to those Oscars because prior to leaving Burbank, she wasn’t being assigned to Academy Award-caliber pictures. Courtroom combatant Jack Warner has been under the sod nearly 40 years while courtroom combatant Olivia de Havilland (born an English subject) just received, within the past two weeks, appointment by the Queen of England as a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire.

In other words, never underestimate the little girl. Seventy-two years after defeating a Hollywood mogul, the fierce one is back in court, this time with a suit against Ryan Murphy Productions for their portrayal of “Olivia de Havilland” in the FX TV series Feud, which is based on real people and real events.

Said the attorneys for Dame OdeH in The Los Angeles Times, “Miss de Havilland was not asked by FX for permission to use her name and identity and was not compensated for such use.”

What bothers her more is what bothered me about Feud’s depiction of de Havilland by Catherine Zeta-Jones: “…the FX series puts words in the mouth of Miss de Havilland which are inaccurate and contrary to the reputation she has built over an 80-year professional life, specifically refusing to engage in gossip mongering about other actors in order to generate media attention for herself.”

The Zeta-Jones presentation doesn’t ring true; at least not in the episodes I saw, and in fairness I didn’t see all 18. My accusation against Ryan Murphy Productions is that they didn’t bother to research the real de Havilland or they wouldn’t have presented her as an insincere, trivial, gossiping, clichéd “movie star.” She deserves so much more credit than that and by God, she’s about to claim it in court because though she be but little, Olivia de Havilland, our birthday girl, is the fiercest of Dames.

Errol & Olivia: Ego & Obsession in Golden Era Hollywood by Robert Matzen

6 comments

  1. I watched a couple of episodes only. It was strange; I am such an Old Hollywood fan and Feud had all the elements I should have appreciated, but it left me cold. I have no idea why…

    You gotta give it to de Havilland though: celebrating her birthday by announcing a lawsuit! Amazing!

    1. Like you, Priscila, I watched the first 3 episodes of Feud and lost interest. Or rather, I barely had interest to go as far as I did. As someone who has always found Joan Crawford to be a compelling character, I didn’t buy the impersonation of her, and I certainly didn’t buy de Havilland. I remember exclaiming, “THAT’S Olivia de Havilland??” the first time I saw her as presented.

      I’m told that things really heated up in episode 4. And the next time I have absolutely nothing else to do, maybe I’ll give it a try.

      But I doubt it. And yes, OdeH is proving to be as admirable as ever; a fighter through and through.

  2. I didn’t see Feud and have no opinion on the presentation or accuracy of the series. But casting glamourous Catherine Zeta Jones as Olivia made me scratch my head in wonder.

    However, there’s something about the indomitability of Olivia’s spirit in filing a lawsuit at age 101 that makes me smile. She’s been with us over a century and she’s still a force of nature.

    Nobody pushes this dame around.

    1. It’s great to hear from you, Tom. You say it perfectly–she’s a force of nature. She never seeks the spotlight; nor does she avoid the spotlight when she needs to pass through it.

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