As we draw closer to July 1, which will mark Olivia de Havilland’s 100th full year on this planet, I started to think back to the most memorable moments of her screen career. She didn’t have the usual run of a Hollywood legend because she went to war with Warner Bros. and stayed off the screen for three years, and then faded from leading lady status in the 1950s, retrenching in Paris, where she has remained for 60 years.
As I detailed in Errol & Olivia, OdeH never rushed into anything in life, and turned down many scripts that became unmemorable pictures. But those she did make, she made well. I thought about doing the top 5, and then the top 10, but they kept coming so I finally decided to stop at 20, realizing that I’m missing many other great moments. I simply haven’t seen pictures like The Great Garrick, The Strawberry Blonde, The Dark Mirror, and My Cousin Rachel in recent times, so I’m depending on all of you to identify the considerable number of great scenes I must be missing. Yes I skew to Flynn-de Havilland just because I’ve seen them most of all.
Here they are, in reverse order, from 20 to down to 1, a list of memorable screen moments courtesy of OdeH—they just happen to include some of the most powerful scenes in motion picture history.
20. Government Girl—Smokey slithers across the floor of the crowded hotel lobby looking for a missing wedding ring, and Ed can’t miss her high-heeled legs under the sofa. Livvie wasn’t a comedic actress, but she does well in this crowded-hotel-lobby sequence, and also plays along to sell the sex. This little picture proved to be a surprise hit at the box office for struggling RKO.
19. Dodge City—On the staircase Abbie yells at Wade, “You can’t boss me!” and he stifles her protests with a surprise kiss and she makes a noise in her throat as if to convey, “Oh! This isn’t so bad!”
18. The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex—Penelope’s big brown eyes light up as if in neon every time she sees Robert Devereaux. This was her worst screen experience, a thankless role in a prestige picture courtesy of Jack Warner. She stood around a lot, but did what she could with the part.
17. The Adventures of Robin Hood—Sir Guy paws Marian’s jewel case and then rips it open to find the written warning for Robin. Awesome sexual tension between jilted Sir Guy and scheming Marian, revealing just a little of Basil Rathbone’s undisguised lust for Olivia de Havilland.
16. Light in the Piazza—After her daughter’s wedding to Italian innocent Fabrizio, Meg says to herself, “I did the right thing.” Even though the picture never made sense as presented, Livvie still owned those last moments and made them powerful.
15. The Snake Pit—Virginia stands in the common room at the sanitarium and her gentle, internal VO likens her surroundings to a snake pit. The camera changes focal length, lifting high above the soundstage until the illusion of all those crazy people is of snakes in a pit. And she remains fixed there, alone and vulnerable and, worst of all for her and for us, returning to sanity so she understands what’s going on.
14. They Died with Their Boots On—George scales the trellis to Libby’s balcony and proposes, and she swoons, and then it dawns on her what he just asked, and she scolds, “Oh, lieutenant!” and then a moment later, “Yes, general!”
13. Gone With the Wind—At the door chatting with Scarlett, Melanie spots Ashley coming up the road to Tara after the war.
12. Captain Blood—Snooty young Arabella decides to buy a pirate for personal use and he turns out to be a sassy, wrongly imprisoned English doctor. (Peter to Arabella, with a bow: “Your very humble slave, Miss Bishop.”)
11. Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte—Sweet Miriam stops the car and ever so slowly turns to Charlotte, revealing pure evil, and smacks her across the face repeatedly. Then she leans close and hisses, “Damn you. Now will you shut your mouth!” It was Livvie’s darkest moment onscreen in a picture seen as pure camp today, even though it received seven Academy Award nominations in 1965 and won three Oscars. Somewhere deep down it must have been fun to slap around Bette Davis after their long history together that includes contentious moments on the set of In This Our Life.
10. Dodge City—At the newspaper office, Wade comes in to taunt Abbie after she takes a job there because a woman working for a living “Tisn’t dignified!” And during their byplay she hints that the natives object to his face. (Wade: “You should be home, doing needlework!”)
9. The Snake Pit—Virginia realizes she isn’t crazy anymore and doesn’t really love Dr. Kik. Then she connects with Hester in a brilliant crowning moment.
8. The Adventures of Robin Hood—Marian lets her hair down and begins to speak of love with Bess, and then Robin Hood barges in and he and Marian both proceed to let their hair down together.
7. Gone With the Wind—After Scarlett shoots the Yankee in the face, Melanie drawls, “I’m glad you killed him.” Then she strips off her nightgown to wrap the bloody dead Yankee in.
6. They Died with Their Boots On—Libby strolls onto the West Point green and engages Custer on guard duty, and they get into a big fight right off the bat. It was her first day of work on the picture, and she unleashed pent-up energy that Flynn matched for a terrific sequence.
5. The Heiress—Spinster Catherine finally locks the door on Morris and turns out the lights. She earned Oscar #2 here–she should have won it for The Snake Pit a year earlier.
4. The Adventures of Robin Hood—King Richard commands Robin to claim Marian as his bride; the king asks if she would like that and she beams, “More than anything in the world, sire.” Slam-bang ending to an epic picture. Livvie wasn’t crazy about playing a damsel in distress, but gave it her all anyway.
3. Gone With the Wind—Weakened Melanie forces herself up the long staircase at Tara to tend to Rhett after the death of Bonnie Blue Butler. Did this scene tip the Oscar to Hattie McDaniel? Both were flawless and completed the dramatic stair climb in an unbroken take.
2. To Each His Own—Through the whole picture, old Miss Norris has been pinch-faced and bitter, but then the Army lieutenant realizes that she’s his mother and asks her to dance. It was the scene that sealed her first Oscar win, and if it doesn’t make you cry, you don’t have a pulse.
1. They Died with Their Boots On—George says goodbye to Libby, both sensing they’ll never see each other again. It was the best moment for both actors, and for director Raoul Walsh, and for the technicians who lit the set. Yikes.
All right, lay it on me. What are some more great de Havilland moments?
For more on Olivia de Havilland and her upcoming 100th, check out Self-Styled Siren’s blog.