Olivia de Havilland’s Triumph

Olivia de Havilland’s Triumph

Why Hollywood’s classic star should be a feminist icon.

Bruce Bawer

There’s a scene in the splendid 1955 movie Not as a Stranger in which Luke (Robert Mitchum), a medical student, walks out of a movie theater with Kristina (Olivia de Havilland), a nurse who we’re supposed to believe is plain-looking. A huge poster indicates that they’ve just seen Ava Gardner in The Barefoot Contessa.  “When I was small I used to hate women like that,” Kristina says in a strong Minnesota Swedish accent. “The girl in the movie. I used to think it wasn’t fair. If things were arranged right, all women would be that pretty.”

The scene is amusing for two reasons. First, at that very moment Ava Gardner was the wife of Frank Sinatra, who in Not as a Stranger plays a med-student friend of both Luke and Kristina. This creates in the viewer’s mind a brief, if powerful, sense of worlds in collision. Second, gorgeous though Ava Gardner was, Olivia de Havilland was as beautiful as any actress in Hollywood – but was also such a gifted actress that she could almost make you believe she was plain.  

She was supposed to be plain in Gone with the Wind, too. Of course that’s what she’s remembered for now – playing Melanie in Gone with the Wind. That role was what the headlines of almost all her obituaries highlighted after her death last weekend, in Paris, at age 104.

De Havilland famously lost the 1939 Supporting Actress Oscar to her Gone with the Wind costar Hattie McDaniel, the first black person to win an Academy Award. Yet in the public consciousness Melanie now overshadows all of de Havilland’s later roles, even though she won Best Actress Oscars for two of them, Jody Norris in the first-rate weepie To Each His Own (1946) and Catherine Sloper in the classic Henry James adaptation The Heiress (1949).

She was superb in both. She was also searing as a mental patient in The Snake Pit (1948) and touching as the mother of a retarded girl in The Light in the Piazza (1962). Then there are the pictures she made with Errol Flynn. Today, Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy are considered the ultimate screen couple, but whereas most of the films they made together are now unwatchable (Keeper of the Flame, anybody? Sea of Grass? Without Love?), most of the pictures de Havilland made in her youth with Flynn, such as The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936) and The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), remain pure unadulterated entertainment.

De Havilland was famous not just for her acting but for the De Havilland Law. Like other actors who labored under the studio system, she was under contract for seven years, a period that could be extended if she turned down scripts and consequently didn’t work for long periods. In 1943, she risked professional suicide by filing a lawsuit against her studio, Warner Brothers, in which she challenged her employer’s right to keep extending her contract. Her victory in that case had massive repercussions for the entire entertainment business.

But that wasn’t her only victory. After the end of World War II, de Havilland, driven to be a “good citizen,” joined the Hollywood Independent Citizens Committee of the Arts, Sciences, and Professions (HICCASP). Among its other members were Frank Sinatra and Humphrey Bogart. It sounded like a reputable organization, but in fact – in accordance with directives from Moscow – it was infiltrated by Stalinists who turned it into a Communist front.

As a result, as John Meroney wrote in a 2006 Wall Street Journal interview with de Havilland, “the group rarely embraced the kind of independent spirit it publicly proclaimed. It always ended up siding with the Soviet Union even though the rank-and-file members were noncommunist.” De Havilland explained to Meroney how the Kremlin puppets exercised their power in the HICCASP:

A motion that ordinarily would have no chance of being adopted by the entire membership would be introduced early in the meeting, and someone would filibuster so that the chairman would finally put the motion on the table... Somebody else would then filibuster about another issue. And I thought, "Why is this?" The most intelligent men would get up and talk absolute drivel for 15 minutes. Most people got fatigued and would leave. And by 11 o'clock, there would be only about six people left -- a nucleus -- and me. And suddenly, the controversial motion was taken off the table, voted on, and passed.

I realized a nucleus of people was controlling the organization without a majority of the members of the board being aware of it. And I knew they had to be communists.

De Havilland felt used, and offended. She knew that the Communist Party "stood for the overthrow of governments by violent force, not by evolution. That upset me frightfully, and it was absolutely unacceptable," she told Meroney. She considered quitting HICCASP, but was persuaded to stay by liberal friends who hoped it could be salvaged. She then tried to “circumvent the organization's communist core” by drafting an explicitly anti-Communist statement of principles. Another member of the group proved a valuable asset in this endeavor:

Ms. de Havilland was impressed with what she saw in [Ronald] Reagan. "We told Ronnie what we were about," she says, "and he volunteered to take on the writing of this declaration. He came back and read what he had written." And in what proved to be a galvanizing moment for the man who would be president, Ms. de Havilland encouraged him to take a tougher stand on communism. "I said, 'Ronnie, it's not strong enough. It's not strong enough. It has to be stronger than that or I won't accept it,’" she says.  

The anecdotes about de Havilland’s anti-Communist activism, which appear in various interviews and histories, aren’t completely consistent. But the point is clear: she was no fellow traveler, and no fool. She believed in America, and freedom, and was prepared to take flak for it.

In what appears to be a separate incident from the collaboration with Reagan, the big-name screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, who was a leading member of HICCASP and perhaps the most powerful Communist in California, wrote a speech for de Havilland to deliver in Seattle on behalf of HICCASP. It was pure Kremlin propaganda; de Havilland was disgusted by it.

So, depending on which source you believe, de Havilland, alone or in concert with other HICCASP members, either inserted a passage into Trumbo’s speech or threw his speech out entirely and wrote a new one. Whichever was the case, the final version, as delivered in Seattle, likened Communists to Nazis and drew a line between liberals and Communists, saying:

The overwhelming majority of people who make up the liberal and progressive groups of this country believe in democracy, and not in Communism. We believe that the two cannot be reconciled here in the United States, and we believe that every effort should be exerted to make democracy work, and to extend its benefits to every person in every community throughout our land.

Trumbo was livid. Good.

De Havilland’s open challenge to the Communists in the HICCASP took real courage. At the time, Communists ran several of the major Hollywood unions, and they didn’t shrink from using their power to destructive ends. Years before they were themselves targeted by the Blacklist, they pitilessly crippled the careers of anti-Communist colleagues. As if that weren’t bad enough, there were also plenty of liberals in Hollywood who, like their counterparts today, viewed Communism as benign and anti-Communism as distasteful. In standing up to Trumbo, then, de Havilland was standing up to innumerable directors, writers, and actors who could do harm to her professional and personal life. And she knew it. 

Unfortunately, in today’s political climate de Havilland’s brave defiance of the Hollywood Communists is, to put it mildly, problematic. Five years ago, Bryan Cranston, at the time perhaps the hottest actor in the business, starred in a biopic that celebrated Trumbo, that tool of Stalin, as a hero of free speech and pitiable blacklist victim. Don’t hold your breath waiting for a biopic extolling de Havilland’s gutsy anti-Communism.

By any rights, she should be a feminist icon. This is, after all, a woman who risked her career to stand up for freedom, a woman who had bigger cojones than any ten men in Tinseltown, a woman who saw no conflict whatsoever between being the epitome of both femininity and ballsiness. But in 2020, liberal anti-Communism is a non-starter, and a Hollywood in thrall to Stalin doesn’t fit the current narrative. Hence every one of the de Havilland obituaries I looked at airbrushed out her role in fighting the Kremlin’s influence in Hollywood. This includes the obits in her industry’s two main trade papers, Variety and the Hollywood Reporter. Shameful.

Meanwhile, presumably because most of its staff are young enough to think of Back to the Future as an old movie, the New York Times ran its obituary under the headline – note the indefinite article – “Olivia de Havilland, a Star of Gone with the Wind, Dies at 104.” Sic transit gloria mundi.