Academy of Achievement Logo
Achiever Gallery
   + [ The Arts ]
  Public Service
  Science & Exploration
  My Role Model
  Recommended Books
  Academy Careers
Keys to Success
Achievement Podcasts
About the Academy
For Teachers

Search the site

Academy Careers


If you like Olivia de Havilland's story, you might also like:
Julie Andrews,
Carol Burnett,
Sally Field,
Whoopi Goldberg,
Ron Howard,
Jeremy Irons,
James Earl Jones,
Sidney Poitier,
Hilary Swank and
Kiri Te Kanawa

Olivia de Havilland can also be seen and heard in our Podcast Center

Olivia de Havilland's recommended reading: Edmund Dulac's Picture Book

Related Links:

Share This Page
  (Maximum 150 characters, 150 left)

Olivia de Havilland
Olivia de Havilland
Profile of Olivia de Havilland Biography of Olivia de Havilland Interview with Olivia de Havilland Olivia de Havilland Photo Gallery

Olivia de Havilland Interview

Legendary Leading Lady

October 5, 2006
Washington, D.C.

Print Olivia de Havilland Interview Print Interview

  Olivia de Havilland

Very early in your film career you were cast opposite Errol Flynn in some wonderful adventure films. What was that partnership like? Were you immediately drawn to Mr. Flynn?

Olivia de Havilland: Yes, I was.

I was called for a test, simply a silent test, just to see how the two of us in costume would look together, and that's when I first met him. And I walked onto the set, and they said, "Would you please stand next to Mr. Flynn?" and I saw him. Oh my! Oh my! Struck dumb. I knew it was what the French call a coup de foudre. So I took my position next to him, and I was very, very formal with him because that is the way you were in those days. We had never met. We had never met, and we just stood there next to each other. Oh!

Olivia de Havilland Interview Photo
A few weeks later, quite a considerable debate had gone on. Bette Davis, for example, had been photographed with him too, and she was the great star on the lot. They had to weigh casting me as Arabella Bishop, because Errol Flynn and I were both at that time completely unknown, and they were going to invest what was then a very large sum of money, $800,000, in this production. Therefore, they decided that we should work on some scenes together, not to be filmed, but just so that the producer and director could see how we performed together.

So one day, we were called together, and we started to rehearse, and then we had a lunch break. We went off to the commissary, and he walked with me to the commissary. I had never been in it before. I got a tray, and he went ahead, and he took his tray to a table, and I filled my tray and I wanted to go and sit over there next to him, and I thought, "No, he will think I am bold, and I can't do that." So I found another place and sat there and ate my lunch in a solitary fashion. But when I turned in my tray, he turned his in at the same time. So...

We walked back to the stage together, and when we got there, no one was there. We were the first, and we sat down on the ramp, which leads from the great open door of the stage to the street, and he asked me -- he was 25 years of age when this happened, and I was still 18 -- he said to me, "What do you want out of life?" and I thought, "What an extraordinary question to be asked! Nobody has asked me that ever." And in fact, nobody ever did in the years that followed, and I said, "I would like respect for difficult work well done." And then I said, "Well, what do you want out of life?" and he said, "I want success." And what he meant by that was fame and riches, both of which he certainly did achieve, but when he said it, I thought, "But that's not enough," and indeed, it proved in Errol's life not to be enough.

Of course, they decided to cast us together, and we made the film, Captain Blood.

Your films with Errol Flynn were highly successful and very popular films, but I gather from about the time of Dodge City, you were beginning to be frustrated at being typecast.

Olivia de Havilland: Oh yes.

The life of the love interest is really pretty boring. The objective is the marriage bed. That's what the heroine is there for, and "Will he win or will he not? Will they finally make the marriage bed?" It was obvious it would be the marriage bed, not any other bed, but it was all about would they in the end get together that way, and the route to the marriage bed -- and that was promised at the end of the film, of course -- was a pretty boring route. The heroine really heroined. She really had nothing much to do except encourage the hero, and at the right moment... and you can't imagine how uninteresting that can be, the route. The objective might have been different, but anyhow the route is very boring. So I longed to play a character who initiated things, who experienced important things, who interpreted the great agonies and joys of human experience, and I certainly wasn't doing that on any kind of level of a significance playing the love interest.

Were you especially low on the set of Dodge City?

Olivia de Havilland Interview Photo
Olivia de Havilland: Oh, I was. I was very depressed by that time. My ambition had been to play difficult roles or to do difficult work and to do it well. I was getting nowhere with that.

Was this a result of the studio system that kept you in a certain track?

Olivia de Havilland: Yes. It was a stock company, Warner Brothers. They had one great dramatic actress. That was Bette Davis. They had a great dramatic actor, Paul Muni. They had another one, Edward G. Robinson. And they had a clotheshorse, marvelous Kay Francis. They had two comediennes, Glenda Farrell and Joan Blondell. And then they had two ingenues, one was brunette, and one was blond, and the blond one was Anita Louise -- who was really I thought marvelous in Midsummer Night's Dream playing Titania -- and they had Olivia de Havilland, the brunette ingenue. Well that's how the casting went, you see. It was either the brunette ingenue or it was the blond ingenue. It was confining in that way. I had no real opportunity to develop and to explore difficult roles, and that was tiresome.

How did you land the part of Melanie in Gone With the Wind? Wasn't that at another studio?

Olivia de Havilland: Oh yes.

One day, I came back from location. In Modesto it was. Dodge City. It must have been early December -- very late November in any case -- of 1938, and the phone rang. The voice said, "You don't know me. We've never met, but I am George Cukor. I have been supervising the preparation of Gone With the Wind, and I will be directing the movie. We are in the process of casting, and I would like to know if you would be interested in playing the role of Melanie." Well, I said, "I certainly would," and then he said, "Would you consent to doing something highly illegal?" Well, I said, "What would that be?" And he said, "You are under contract to Warner Brothers. We have no right to ask this of you, but would you come secretly -- tell no one -- to the studio? We will give you directions to what entrance to go, just a private entrance. Someone will be waiting there for you, and he will unlock the door and let you in and lead you to my office to read some lines, read the part of Melanie." I said, "Yes. I'd be delighted to do this highly illegal thing." So, I did, and I read the lines for George Cukor, and he said, "I think I must call David," and he called David Selznick and said, "David, I think you must hear Miss De Havilland read the part of Melanie."

So it was all arranged that I would go off to David's house -- which happened to be a Southern mansion, by the way -- on Sunday at 3:00, having memorized a scene George then gave me, a scene between Scarlett and Melanie.

I drove myself up in my little green Buick to David's Southern mansion. I was shown into this beautiful drawing room, paneled, wood-paneled, a lovely room, and in came George and David. Now, I have to explain to you that George was very, very rotund. He also had very dark eyes and very dark hair, very curly and very thick, and he wore very thick glasses, thickly rimmed in dark tortoiseshell, very dark, or maybe not even tortoiseshell. They were rimmed in thick black rims. He played Scarlett. He played Scarlett passionately, clutching the porches. There we were in this little bay window with the hangings, and I was pleading with "Scarlett! Scarlett!" over something or another, and he was clutching the porches, and there was David standing three feet from us, watching this scene with rapt attention, enthralled. Well, part of my mind, of course, was saying this has to be the most comic thing to witness that has ever, ever happened, ever been performed in the history of the world.

Olivia de Havilland Interview Photo
Extraordinarily, when this was over, David decided that he had found his Melanie. He couldn't make a screen test with me, of course, Warners would never agree to that, but before making a final decision, he wanted to see the screen tests of the other ladies who had tried out for the part. So I went into the projection room. There was Mrs. Selznick, Irene, a wonderful woman, sitting in a taffeta housecoat in this empty projection room, which abutted on the drawing room. We all sat down, and they began. The projectionists began to run the different tests. Andrea Leeds was marvelous, and Anne Shirley was marvelous. There were at least six. I felt they were all wonderful, and I said so, and then I thought, "Oh Lord, I don't want to convince him. I don't want to convince David and George to choose one of them. I must be more restrained in my reaction." So I sort of calmed down and was much more discreet, and when it was over, unbelievably, David said, "Well, I will start getting in touch with Jack Warner." So I had survived the acid test of the six screen tests. Now...

Jack Warner utterly refused to lend me for Melanie. He wouldn't hear of it. I even went to call on him and begged him. He said no, he wouldn't do it. He would not lend me to Selznick to play the part of Melanie. I was desperate, and I did something, age 22, that really was not correct, but I did it. I called Mrs. Warner, who had been an actress, a lovely, lovely woman -- Ann Alvarado was her name before she met Jack -- and I told her that I would very much like to see her, and would she be kind enough to have tea with me at the Brown Derby, and she said, "Yes." Well, we met. It was raining. I remember that. The Brown Derby, I think, no longer exists. It's a terrible thing that they tore that down. I explained to her how much the part meant to me, and I said, "Would you help me?" She said, "I understand you, and I will help you," and it was through her that Jack eventually agreed, and he says so in his biography. It was Ann who did it. Isn't this wonderful? And finally arrangements were made, an agreement between Selznick and Warner. Selznick had a one-picture commitment with Jimmy Stewart. So he loaned -- he gave up that. He gave that over to Jack Warner who needed him for a film and took me in exchange.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

And so I reported to the set, the first day of shooting. I was not in the scene. It was that opening scene, "War, war, war," you know, Scarlett's scene, and I thought I should go and wish everyone well and pay my respects to the whole crew on that first day, and I was there to play Melanie.

Olivia de Havilland Interview, Page: 1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8   9   

This page last revised on May 05, 2008 13:50 EDT
How To Cite This Page