Monday, July 27, 2020

When I heard Olivia de Havilland passed this weekend I was astonished by the many things that had happened during her long lifetime.

Olivia de Havilland in 2018. She was already 102. Wow!
Olivia de Havilland was an interesting person. And I don't mean "interesting" in the all-encompassing nothing-burger of its modern definition, where it can literally mean anything and define nothing other than, "That was...interesting." No, I mean "interesting" in the sense that the life she lived, the times in which she lived it, and the people she knew...are all fascinating to a person like me. She certainly was touched and shaped by Hollywood, and then did a turn in shaping its future in ways that surprised everyone. There's nothing I can really say about her that isn't already known or wasn't covered by some obituary like the one in The New York Times. All that I can say about her is that she was a great entertainer, and she brought joy into my life when I saw a captivating performance brought to life by her acting ability.

I don't come from the generation that was her intended audience. Far from it, Gone With The Wind was already forty years old by the time I saw it. When watching it for the first time, I was captivated by the great Hollywood beauty of Vivien Leigh, who was dead before I was even born. Vivien seized the screen in just about every role I ever saw her play, and I thought she was a greater beauty in her prime than Elizabeth Taylor, whom my parents spoke of in reverential tones when discussing film stars. I didn't originally think that Olivia de Havilland was pretty, but I realized once I'd grown older and understood things better, that this was intentional because the character of Melanie Wilkes is a bit of a milquetoast with none of the strength of the character, Scarlett O'Hara.

But even forty years after Gone With the Wind was released, the world was still a much slower place. I may work on a computer now, and I don't consider myself "old" by any means. However, I still remember having to turn a dial to change a television set and feeling fortunate that my television set could get channels 12 and 13, which showed a lot of Godzilla movies that I liked. The world was still slow enough that old stars from the forties were still household names, and entertainment didn't come at you from streaming sources that are so plentiful it's like taking a sip of water from a firehose.

I am kind of awed not only by the quality of de Havilland's life, but by the length and span of it. My mother was still a child when Olivia de Havilland was being filmed as Melanie Wilkes, and Ms. de Havilland outlived my mother by four years (and my mom was an old person when she died)! Her co-star Vivien Leigh, died in 1967. Ms. de Havilland outlived the famous Scarlett actress by more than five decades. I think that's rather incredible, and a tribute to good genetics, healthcare, and probably some luck to boot. In fact, she seemed so out of place in my mind when I realized that Olivia de Havilland was still alive (I think Liz told me about it a few years ago in a comment on my blog). Olivia was still alive in a world that had so completely transformed, seeing not only the rise of fascism in America (from Paris), but a worldwide pandemic, and a thousand other things. If anything, knowing this fact about this Hollywood legend was like contemplating an anachronism: a person who could have told you (until this weekend) of personal conversations with the likes of Judy Garland, Errol Flynn, Clark Gable, and the list goes on and on.

Anyway, it's a fascinating thing to think on, this connectivity of the past to the present. I can't help that with her passing, there's a kind of Golden Age "Instagram" that has also left the world. A repository, if you will, of vignettes...candid moments...and personal revelations of other artists who left their work for us to appreciate, and who (in time) will be all but forgotten save for the lasting pieces of entertainment that we can watch, and hence appreciate the characters they portrayed. 


  1. She would've been really young, but I bet she remembered WWI. Now that's mind-boggling.

    1. She would have been 2 when the war ended so I doubt she remembered much about it.

  2. It's sad to think that in a decade there will hardly be anyone from "The Greatest Generation" left. There may only be 1 or 2 people left in the world who were alive in the 19th Century--not that they'd remember it.

    My nieces are 9 and 8 and they'll probably never live in a world where people don't have phones everywhere they go or have to use pay phones or turn on a TV without a remote or make a mix tape unironically or have to wait for dial-up Internet or look up things in a paper encyclopedia.

  3. There was another blogger who called people like her living wormholes, or something like that. She was talking about someone else, but it applies here. It's like the people alive today who are still drawing a Civil War pension (although, I think the last one of those died recently) or the still living grandchildren of President John Tyler ( Although, not really. Even talking to my parents, the things they have lived through. My father frequently points out all the things that have changed in his lifetime. And one day, that'll be us (presuming we live long enough).