De Havilland biography is truly ‘Triumphant’
OLIVIA DE HAVILLAND: LADY TRIUMPHANT by Victoria Amador. Published by University Press of Kentucky. 406 pages. $34.95 retail.
Not only is Olivia de Havilland one of the great actresses of Hollywood’s golden era, having won two Academy Awards and countless accolades, but she’s also a survivor of that era. Indeed, at age 103, she’s still with us – living comfortably in retirement in France, where she has resided for over 60 years.
Now, author Victoria Amador pays high tribute to the star in Olivia de Havilland: Lady Triumphant, an aptly titled – and aptly respectful – biography that explores the triumphant lady’s life and career, in a comprehensive and thoroughly entertaining fashion. After all, the lady deserves nothing less.
Amador certainly has special insight into de Havilland’s life, having corresponded with her for the better part of 40 years and visiting with her several times. This lends warmth and friendliness to the biography, but although Lady Triumphant celebrates the lady and her life, it’s not merely a fawning fan letter. It’s a well-researched, well-rounded, eminently readable portrait of a great star whose impact went beyond her performances.
In 1943, she filed suit against Warner Bros. after the studio tacked on another six months on her seven-year contract because she’d spent some time on “suspension” for not accepting roles that the studio (or, more specifically, studio boss Jack L. Warner) felt she was contractually obliged to make. The end result became what is known as the “De Havilland Law,” and it exists to this day.
Even de Havilland’s sister, Joan Fontaine, with whom she feuded, said: “Hollywood owes Olivia a great deal.”
Needless to say, that feud with Fontaine is duly covered here, as are de Havilland’s two marriages (both of which ended in divorce) and various romances (including an important one with filmmaker John Huston). Yet, thankfully, they are not depicted in salacious or gossipy terms. After all, Olivia de Havilland is a lady – and the proper measure of decorum is observed, without in any way compromising or diminishing the overall charm or impact of this biography. Actually, it’s rather nice to see that sense of decorum maintained.
As the last surviving cast member of Gone With the Wind (1939), arguably Hollywood’s most beloved film, it’s the film she’s most associated with – and she’s proud of it. But her other screen triumphs – including her Oscar-winning turns in To Each His Own (1946) and The Heiress (1949) – are duly covered, not to mention A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935), Captain Blood (also ‘35), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1939), The Snake Pit (1948), and Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964), to name but a few. The lady made a lot of movies, and a lot of them were good, with many qualifying as classics.
Of course, not every film’s a winner, and such doozies as the bloated Harold Robbins adaptation The Adventurers (1970) and Irwin Allen’s killer-bee farrago The Swarm (1978) are here, too. It’s amusing to note that, on the latter film, de Havilland consented to have bees crawl all over her during her death scene (which actually was cut from the movie). For the disaster epic Airport ‘77, in which a 747 crashes into the Bermuda Triangle (where else?) she gleefully volunteered to be doused with gallons of water during the crash sequence, essentially throwing down the gauntlet for her co-stars. If she was going into the drink, so were they. The lady was nothing if not a trouper.
It’s that aspect that seems to dominate the biography. Olivia de Havilland’s been through a lot, both on and off the screen, but she was never bowed, never cowed. She came through it all, the good and the bad, with class, grace, style, and guts. Triumphant to the end.
For more information, visit the official University Press of Kentucky website.
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