When I heard the news last month that Olivia de Havilland had died at 104, I remembered back to 2006 when I attended her 90th birthday celebration at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Beverly Hills, California. She was the most radiant nonagenarian I had ever seen. I felt strangely proud to be in her company, not only because of her iconic career but also for something about which few outside the film business had been aware: The demure Melanie of “Gone With the Wind” had instigated a lawsuit in 1943 forever changing the way actors were controlled by the studio system.
Known as the de Havilland decision, it freed Hollywood contract players from the indentured status many of them had endured. It greatly expanded their creative opportunities. In terms of artistic freedom, the actors’ lot in Hollywood has much improved since de Havilland’s time, but not overwhelmingly so for Black women, who still experience marginalization, or for all those women who routinely receive less money than their male counterparts. When I read de Havilland’s obituaries, my first reaction was: What a fighter. May she inspire others. My second response was a desire to give a shoutout to her, and a few other barrier breakers, past and present, in this column.
Olivia de Havilland in “The Heiress”
The court case certainly had a salutary effect on de Havilland’s own career. Not long after, she racked up two best actress Oscars. In “To Each His Own” (1946) she played an unwed mother who, riven with regret, has given up her son for adoption. In William Wyler’s “The Heiress” (1949), drawn from a Henry James novel, she’s Catherine, a shy spinster denigrated by her uncaring father (Ralph Richardson) and wooed by an unscrupulous fortune hunter (Montgomery Clift).
In writing about great Hollywood literary adaptations recently for the Monitor, I singled out the Wyler film as a prime example, but it’s worth returning to in this context because I think it’s de Havilland’s best and in many ways most characteristic performance. It shows off her astonishing emotional range.
De Havilland was capable as few other actors have ever been of expressing a kind of supernal grace and guilelessness. She could also convey the forbidding core of a woman wronged and scorned. Both of these fierce dualities come into play in “The Heiress.” I hesitate to extrapolate the real-life woman from the role, but the righteous persistence responsible for the de Havilland decision should not come as a shock to anyone who witnesses this film’s final moments. Catherine turns the tables on her caddish suitor and bars him from her life. When asked by her aunt, just prior to this, how she can be so cruel, Catherine, with a look of pure steel, answers, “Yes, I can be very cruel. I have been taught by masters.” (Unrated)
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Viola Davis in “Fences”
For much of Hollywood’s history, the experience of being a Black actor – especially for women – was a litany of loss. Denied for so long the serious dramatic opportunities afforded white actors, major talents such as Ruby Dee, Diana Sands, Lena Horne, Ethel Waters, Dorothy Dandridge, and so many others had compromised careers. And yet often these actors are what we remember best about the movies they appeared in.
This unequal opportunity situation is still much in need of remedy, but one can take heart in the career of, for shining example, Viola Davis, the only Black woman to win the Oscar, Emmy, and Tony acting triple crown. Her presence in a movie is almost invariably a certification of quality.
Her finest screen work is in the adaptation of August Wilson’s “Fences” (2016) where, repeating the role of a beset wife and mother that won her a Tony on Broadway, she confronts her philandering husband (Denzel Washington) with the resounding, unforgettable wail, “What about my life? What about me?” (Rated PG-13)
Barbra Streisand in “Yentl”
Barbra Streisand is the only woman who has ever directed and starred in a Hollywood film – “Yentl” (1983) – that she also co-wrote and co-produced and sang in. She transforms herself into a turn-of-the-20th-century Eastern European young woman with such a relentless desire to study the Talmud that she dresses up as a boy in order to train in a yeshiva. Superficially “Yentl” resembles a cross between “Fiddler on the Roof” and “Tootsie,” but it has a look, a tone, and a feeling for people trying to understand themselves that’s completely its own. (Rated PG)
Peter Rainer is the Monitor’s film critic.
“The Heiress,” “Fences,” and “Yentl” are available on at least one of these platforms: Amazon Prime Video, YouTube, Google Play, and iTunes.