Archive for Olivia De Havilland

FORBIDDEN DIVAS RIP

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 3, 2020 by dcairns

Certainly, what we’ve been missing here at Shadowplay is an Olivia de Havilland appreciation, and who better to provide it than David Melville Wingrove?

Who Killed the Black Widder?

“A halo can be a lovely thing – but you must be able to take it off now and again.”

  • Olivia De Havilland, My Cousin Rachel

In 1952, Olivia de Havilland stood at the pinnacle of everything an actress in Hollywood could reasonably hope to achieve. She had made her screen debut at eighteen in the classic Warner Bros extravaganza A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935) and was the one actress in it not to be upstaged by the costumes. In her eight films with Errol Flynn, she had formed half of the most enduringly popular on-screen couple of the 30s. She had played a leading role in Gone with the Wind (1939) – the most commercially successful film of all time – as the ‘good girl’ Melanie Hamilton to Vivien Leigh’s ‘bad girl’ Scarlett O’Hara. When Warner Bros tried to prolong her contract illegally, she had taken the studio to court and won her freedom. She had rounded out the 40s by winning two Oscars for Best Actress, one for To Each His Own (1946) and one for The Heiress (1949). She was not, to put it mildly, what anyone could ever call an underachiever.

On a personal level, de Havilland had grown out of the shadow of her loving but controlling mother and her jealously competitive sister Joan Fontaine. Having been linked romantically to James Stewart and Burgess Meredith, John Huston and Howard Hughes, she had finally got married at the age of thirty to the writer Marcus Goodrich. In 1949, she had given birth to her son Benjamin and taken three years off from movies. Not that she had stayed at home washing nappies. Instead she had fulfilled a lifelong ambition by appearing on Broadway in Romeo and Juliet, in a 1951 staging that can be described politely as a succès d’estime. Apart from her on-and-off feud with her sister, she had lived with consummate discretion and good taste. Unusually for a Hollywood star, there had been no sleaze, no scandal and no dirty rumours of any sort. At the age of 35, Olivia de Havilland was a woman who had very little left to win. Her only wild card was how much she might have to lose.

Whatever she might have chosen to do in the early 50s, it was bound to involve a high level of risk. She had famously turned down the role of Blanche du Bois in the film of A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) stating that “a lady doesn’t say or do those things on the screen.” Her dilemma, in that case, was how to remain a lady while expanding her range as an actress into a new decade. That may have been part of what drew her to My Cousin Rachel (1952). The heroine of Daphne du Maurier’s novel is neither a ‘good girl’ nor a ‘bad girl’ but a woman who may be an angel or a demon. She is a glamorous and sophisticated Anglo-Italian countess of the 1830s who finds herself widowed and penniless and burdened by debts. She marries a wealthy Cornish gentleman who dies of unexplained causes just a few months after the wedding. But his estate does not go to his widow. It passes instead to his callow and naive young cousin, Philip Ashley. It is not wholly a surprise when Rachel shows up on his doorstep – and the young man starts to fall irresistibly under her spell.

At no point in the novel do we get any clue as to what Rachel is thinking. As in du Maurier’s most famous book Rebecca – the Alfred Hitchcock film of which had made a star of Joan Fontaine in 1940 – we know the title heroine only through what the other characters say about her. The novel is narrated entirely by Philip, who falls obsessively in love with Rachel although he suspects – and with good cause – that she may have poisoned his cousin. Soon enough, she starts brewing Philip her special herbal tisanes and he has every reason to suspect she is trying to poison him. That does not dim his ardour one bit. Our hero falls in love with Rachel, not despite the fact she may be a murderess but, more likely, because of it. It is even possible that Rachel poisoned one or both of her previous husbands, but still feels genuine love for Philip. The depths of masochism in this story are profound; its central love affair makes any film noir of the 40s look like a model of domestic bliss.

The question of Rachel’s innocence or guilt – which the book leaves unanswered – presents any film-maker with a dilemma. It is similar to the one faced by David Lean in Madeleine (1950) another film about a genteel Victorian lady who may or may not have poisoned her lover. “The public wants to know if she did it,” said Noël Coward bluntly, “and you don’t tell them.” There are levels of ambiguity we can accept more easily in a novel than in a big-budget movie. But these are the levels of ambiguity de Havilland serves up with such lethal but seductive expertise. She makes her entrance robed entirely in black and photographed from behind so we do not see her face. (She is bit like Count Dracula, fresh off the boat from Transylvania.) Once she lifts her veil, we are won over by her angelic expression and her mellifluous purr of a voice – but alarmed at the same time by her cold, hard, watchful eyes. It is obvious from the first that she is playing Philip (Richard Burton) the way a virtuoso pianist might play a baby grand. But that does not make her a killer. Or does it?

In her early scenes, her dark widow’s weeds are demure almost to the point of bring dowdy. But as she gains in her ascendancy over Philip, her gowns (although they are still black) become gradually more décolleté. Her most alluring dress is off-the-shoulder and topped with lace that suggests a black spider’s web. (The costumes by Dorothy Jeakins are a film unto themselves.) Before too many scenes have elapsed, My Cousin Rachel starts to revel in one of Hollywood’s most ill-kept secrets – namely that Olivia de Havilland, for all her gentility, was a stylish and extremely sexy woman. Her performance here owes mercifully little to Terry, the Psycho Bitch Sister from Hell in the ‘identical twins’ melodrama The Dark Mirror (1946). It is a fascinating foretaste of her role as Cousin Miriam in the campy Southern Gothic gore fest Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964). There is no way to separate the light and dark facets of either Miriam or Rachel. This woman is charming because she is deadly and deadly because she is charming. Her allure turns the entire audience into the hapless Philip. Had this film only been made in 3D, we too might be stretching out our hands and begging for a cup of tisane.

Nothing and nobody else in My Cousin Rachel ever rises to the level of its lead performance. Initially, de Havilland had hoped for either George Cukor or Mitchell Leisen to direct it. But Cukor decided ungraciously that she was “an actress without a secret” – and sought to cast Vivien Leigh or Greta Garbo instead. Leisen had directed her with triumph in Hold Back the Dawn (1941) and To Each His Own. Better still, he was a close friend who knew Olivia’s secrets as well as anyone in Hollywood ever could. Alas, he was under contract to another studio and 20th Century-Fox was unwilling to pay the money it would have cost to borrow him. Hence the director of My Cousin Rachel is the competent but wholly uninspired Henry Koster. Richard Burton – whom de Havilland described as “a rather coarse-grained gentleman with a rather coarse-grained talent” – does well by a role that consists of glowering and looking glum for the best part of two hours. In some shots, the backs of his hands are so hairy that we wonder if he will turn out to be the Wolf Man. His co-star cannot have been pleased when Burton got an Oscar nomination and she did not.

A good film that should have been a great one, My Cousin Rachel turned out to be Olivia de Havilland’s last role as a major Hollywood star. She divorced her husband, married again and moved to Paris. She played her last movie role in the schlock killer bees epic The Swarm (1978) but stayed active on TV for another decade. For years after she retired, there were rumours she was planning a comeback – most recently in a James Ivory film of the Henry James novella The Aspern Papers. But this and any number of other projects failed to happen and her status in later years was largely symbolic. The last surviving star of the pre-war studio era, she lived on as a gracious, witty and unfailingly articulate emissary of a bygone age. She became Hollywood’s own far more glamorous answer to the Queen Mother.

But no, she never did tell us if Rachel did it or not.

IN MEMORIAM DAME OLIVIA DE HAVILLND (TOKYO 1916-PARIS 2020)

David Melville

Bette Davis, eyed

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on October 6, 2018 by dcairns

HUSH, HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE is a lot of nonsense, and a lot of LES DIABOLIQUES repackaged as southern gothic, but it does keep throwing out stunning images.

Agnes Moorehead was nominated for “Most Performance in a supporting Role.”

Bette Davis goes full Bette Davis.

Aldrich’s decision not to show the young Charlotte’s face was a very smart one. It others and monsters her from the start, and saves him having to find a young Bette lookalike. And he didn’t repeat the mistake of casting her daughter in hopes that heredity would see him through.

It’s a film full of LOOKING.

Starring Margot Channing, Melanie Hamilton, Jed Leland, Fanny Minafer, Horace (a leprechaun), Edwin Flagg, Princess Centimillia, Freeman Lowell, Major Max Armbruster, Sweetface and Grandma Walton.

Harvey

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , on October 12, 2017 by dcairns

But you should see the one in his attic.

And now for a nice post about an invisible rabbit.

No.

Can I add anything to the current controversy about Harvey Weinstein? Nothing personal. I greeted him when he was at the Edinburgh Film Festival one time, because I sort of wanted to see if he would be minimally polite (he was fine) and if I could sort of face him. (I’d read Biskind’s Down and Dirty Pictures so I had a faint idea of how monstrous he might be, but only in relation to films and directors.) But Fiona felt I should just have avoided him and she was right.

Charlize Theron, speaking in Edinburgh: “I think it [the casting couch] probably does exist. But there’s a way of walking into a room that say, ‘Well, maybe…’ Whereas when I walk into a room, it’s like ‘Ain’t no fuckin’ way.'” Theron is a tough cookie. And I don’t think she’s blaming those who aren’t as self-reliant. As someone who’s been bullied, I know the importance of the first concession. If you agree to meet Harvey in his hotel room, he’s got you. But the awful thing is, standing up to a bully doesn’t work if you’ve been assessed as bully-able. The unbully-able never understand this.

I’m curious as to when we’ll hear anything about this from Robert Rodriguez. Tarantino has been notably silent too, of course, and he’s a considerably more interesting or anyhow provocative filmmaker than Rodriguez, but RR is much more closely connected to this story — wasn’t Rose McGowan his partner when whatever happened happened? (And we basically all think we know what happened.) He has continued to work with Weinstein up until right about now. I find that seriously hard to understand, even in an environment like the movie business. I found Kevin Smith’s reaction plausibly sober and dignified, but silence from Rodriguez baffles me. If he’s in any way able to distance himself, you’d think he’d be doing it, loudly and on social media.

Nothing wrong with what Damon & Affleck said, except that Rose McGowan tells us that Affleck DID know all about Harvey’s depredations.

On the other hand, one rather wishes Paul Schrader had stayed away from the discussion. His comment that Weinstein’s being a “sexual gangster” offended him less than the producer’s tampering with films by Bertolucci and Wong Kar-Wei could certainly have used an edit. I guess, cutting him the maximum possible amount of slack, we could say that Weinstein’s entire raison d’être was his handling of films, so the fact that he handled them in a violent and destructive way, treating them much as he treated aspiring actresses, means that he’s not only a horrible human being, but the kind of producer who makes films worse. So that he shouldn’t have even been in a position to exploit women. We shouldn’t have ever had to hear about him.

But still, I would hope nobody would seriously argue that recutting a film is worse than raping somebody, and Schrader ought to be able to express himself better. He’s stunningly articulate. One reason people are piling on him is that he doesn’t have stupidity as an alibi, and when you’re smart and fail to be sensitive about a particular subject, it makes it look like you don’t care about that subject.

It was widely believed that Weinstein leaked Roman Polanski’s court records to try to stop THE PIANIST winning at the Oscars. That would seem to tie in with my theory that we all tend to attack others for our own faults. Weinstein, an assailant of women, points at Polanski. All these stories about Weinstein calling women “fat” (Haley Atwell, ffs)… The guy must hate himself, somewhere deep down. Continuing to kick him in print is almost beside the point, though if he can be successfully prosecuted that would be a fine thing. And let’s keep him out of movies. He’s crippled the careers of talented people, I don’t think anybody should feel he deserves a second (more like a thousandth) chance. An investigation into the DA who dropped the prosecution over that HORRIFYING tape would be good too.

But more than anything I want to praise the courageous women who first spoke out. It’s not easy to imagine how daunting that must have been.

And I imagine there are a lot of nervous execs in Hollywood and New York right now. Louise Brooks said that the movies came about because a bunch of wealthy businessmen thought it would be a marvelous idea to own beautiful young women. Women like Olivia De Havilland pushed back against that ownership, the studio contract system. It would be nice to see the whole power structure finally collapse.

STOP PRESS

Aaaaand Twitter suspends Rose McGowan’s account for speakingn out against rape. I think we should boycott Twitter for 24 hrs or until she’s reinstated.