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Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Olivia, Interrupted

This is Part 1 in a three-part review of the book Sisters: The Story of Olivia De Havilland and Joan Fontaine (1984) Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

I have been a great admirer of Ms. de Havilland since I was 15, when her example inspired me to cope with an illness I had been battling for quite some time. The impression her talent, beauty, and charisma left was one of great dignity and kindness. When I began reading "Sisters" by Charles Higham, I had every confidence that his research would support my image of Olivia.

I was sadly mistaken. Mr. Higham painted a rather ugly portrait of her; and though he was quite brutal in his presentation of both women, Olivia seems to have gotten the shorter end of the stick.

The woman I had thought to be sweet, delicate, and demure (and don't forget "innocent") was nothing of the sort. In all reality, at least the way Charles Higham writes it, Olivia Mary de Havilland is a hot-tempered, impatient, overly dramatic diva. In shorter words, she is a b----.

According to this book, she was frequently late to her sets, difficult to work with, and prone to throwing tantrums of epic proportions. While her talent makes up for her character (or, rather, lack thereof) on-screen, it does very little to help her off. In her personal life, she seems to have exhibited the same selfish patterns: from allegedly subjecting Joan to various tortures, including breaking her collar bone when the girls were in their late teens; to alienating family and friends; to getting her "slut" on with writer/producer Luther Davis in 1964, much to her second husband's chagrin; to ruling her household with an iron hand, subjecting her children to strict discipline remminiscent of her own childhood.

Still, Charles Higham shows a more tragic side of this fiery woman, especially in reference to her childhood.

Her biological parents parted ways while she and Joan were still toddlers, and from then on her father remained undoubtedly estranged; once the girls grew older, he began exhibiting increasingly peculiar behavior, even holding press conferences and writing to newspapers about Olivia's selfish behavior and unfair treatment of him.

The stepfather who joined their mother in raising them was no ray of sunshine either. He allegedly (and even according to Joan's own account) punished the girls by way of almost animalistic beatings, leaving welts and bruises on their bodies. And, probably the most harrowing of all, in 1924 he engaged in sexually abusive behavior, molesting both young girls (then 7 & 8) in the bathtub, as he washed their bodies. Though his outrageous, borderline abusive, discipline went on to bear fine results, it is clear, at least to me, that such events left deep psychological scars in the hearts and minds of both sisters.

Completing the cycle of tyrannical men in Olivia's life was Marcus Aurelius Goodrich. Her first husband, whose son she bore in 1949, treated her rather unkindly throughout their relatively short marriage. According to Olivia's court testimonies, he was not only incredibly tempermental (birds of a feather...), but physically abusive as well. Shortly after the birth of their son the couple engaged in a verbal disagreement that resulted in Goodrich smacking Olivia across the face. (It seems to me like it's basically old school protocol for a woman to take it in the face every once in a while. That's pretty f----- up.) On another occasion, he assaulted her to the point of quite serious bruising, threatening her life and scaring her to the point that she fled their vehicle and ran down the street to escape his rage. Though he chased her into the bushes, she managed to find refuge in a neighbor's house until she felt she was safe.

Clearly Olivia's life was never just rainbows and Butterfly McQueen. And everyone is human, we all have our faults- even those men and women we like to idealize. I was quite disappointed with who Olivia turned out to be, at least from Charles Higham's perspective. But when I ponder this I realize that if one were to write a book about me, there would be a lot of things that could make me look like a total psychopath, too.

What I know for sure when it comes to Olivia is this: She is one of the greatest actresses to grace the big screen, and one of the most beautiful to boot. Throughout her life she has exhibited great strength and resillience, as well as an indomitable determination to succeed. These qualities have allowed her to leave an astounding legacy, one that will be remembered for decades to come.

No matter her personal flaws, Olivia Mary de Havilland is a legend.


Anonymous said...

You can't believe everything Charles Higham wrote. The book is full of inaccuracies, sloppy typos and bad editing. In describing the plot of "Hold Back the Dawn," for example, he gets it mixed up with a Claudette Colbert film!

Olivia had to be tough to survive a Hollywood career that lasted so long. She always said she wished she could be Melanie, a woman who could forgive anyone for anything. But she accomplished so much against great odds (Jack Warner wasted her talent at Warner Bros. during her contract there), and she is, as you say, a living legend among the great actresses of the Silver Screen.

Anonymous said...

No Olivia is not an angel. I have done a lot of research and found out that she is feisty. She does not let anyone control her or tell her what to do (with the possible exception of a brief slip with her first husband). Sometimes that has meant she has had to be tough some might even say hard. She is very ambitious and she has a hard time forgiving herself for her own stuff ups. I believe this is largely due to her childhood where both sisters had to fight for every scrap of recognition and love they could get. She does have a temper, she is incredbly intelligent and like many intelligent people she does not have much patience with idiots. The great thing though is that Olivia is very aware of all this and is very open and honest about it. One of the very things that I love about her is that she is human, we all have our faults. Look at all her good qualities. I believe she comes across as sweet and charming because she is. She may have high expectations for them but I have read her own book as well as other articles and interviews which make clear that she is a deeply loving mother who would do anything for her kids. She has an incredible amount of integrity and a very strong moral code. In regards to getting her slut on she and her second husband were legally separated in 1962 though they did not get divorced and remained living together until 1979. So by 1964 she was completely free to be with whoever she wanted. And all of this is assuming that what Charles Higham writes is true and he is certainly not an author with a reputation for high levels of accuracy.

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