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Q&A: OLIVIA DE HAVILLAND

More Than Melanie

June 17, 1998|PATRICK PACHECO | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

NEW YORK — Screen legend Olivia De Havilland walks regally into a suite at New York City's Essex House Hotel wearing a bright yellow linen suit, her silver-white hair swept up in a chignon, looking for all the world like an elegant Parisian--which, of course, she is.

Since 1953, she's lived in the chic 16th arrondisement following her marriage to Pierre Gallant, a French journalist by whom she has a daughter, Giselle, also a journalist. Her first trip to New York in nearly a decade has been occasioned by New Line Cinema's June 26 re-release of "Gone With the Wind" with a digitally remastered, color-enhanced print.

As the only surviving lead of the 1939 David O. Selznick classic (which finished fourth in the American Film Institute's list of the 100 Greatest American Movies), the 81-year-old actress is one of the last direct links to one of the most glorious chapters in film history and she plays that role obligingly as she sips coffee in a hotel suite. In the course of an interview, De Havilland is lively, spirited and, to the last syllable, theatrical, punctuating her lofty cadences with shrieks of laughter and, when the questions get too close for comfort, a look that says, "Oh, if I could only tell you, but I won't."

One gathers that the actress is a lot tougher and shrewder than the sweet, long-suffering, eternally noble Melanie of "GWTW," the role with which she will most always be identified and for which she received a best supporting actress Oscar nomination, despite Academy Award-winning performances in "To Each His Own" (1946) and "The Heiress" (1949) and acclaimed turns in "The Adventures of Robin Hood," "The Snake Pit" (another Oscar nomination), "The Dark Mirror," "My Cousin Rachel" and "Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte."

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Question: A search of your name on the Internet yielded a note posted on a "Gone With the Wind" Web site by a young Latino from the Bronx, who had recently caught up with "Gone With the Wind" and is now a rabid fan of yours. What is it about "GWTW" that continues to captive people nearly 60 years later?

Answer: Well, it's conflict, the conflict between two parts of the country, the conflict among the characters, the constant misunderstandings. I've just arrived from Europe, and we're very worried about that conflict in Yugoslavia because it's close to us. And when I saw "GWTW" yesterday, and I saw this devastating, terrible war portrayed, it profoundly shocked me. That element never struck me so fully before, that it happened here.

And the scenes are so wonderfully constructed. They had so much detail. Wonderful, intricate detail that's absent from many modern films. Something happens, emotionally, psychologically, physically, every second. And there are plenty of wonderful special effects too, and those are masterful.

I've now seen it 27 times, I believe, and it never ceases to captivate me and move me. You'd think I'd be less vulnerable to that film, but nothing of the sort. It possessed me as fully as the first time I ever saw it. Perhaps more so.

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Q: When you see the film, to what extent is it like watching a home movie for you? Have you ever been able to just sit back and watch it objectively?

A: In times past, no. But that's exactly how I did it this time. It's that power of that movie to reach out and pull you, draw you into the story, and into all the characters. I could identify with them all. I was identifying with Rhett! With Mammy! With the lot. It has a quality of intimacy in itself. You feel that you belong to them and they belong to you.

There was one exception to that objectivity. I did remember what this film meant to both David and Irene Selznick, his wife at the time, and the immense emotional investment they put into that film. They had very high standards, and I kept thinking of David's love for that film when we were making it. [She becomes teary-eyed.] In a way, it's a beautiful thing, not only to see that the film endures but all his [Selznick's] love and passion too.

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Q: There is that immortality of the spirit that film provides. Do you feel that when you see all of your now-deceased colleagues in the film?

A: That was what was so strange about yesterday. I thought to myself, "How wonderful that they're alive. Look at you, Clark! Look at you, Vivien, you're alive, you're back and you're with us!" That was just wonderful, wonderful.

And they have so much vitality. The film has so much vitality and humor. So that's the image that has stayed with me, of Clark [Gable] and Vivien [Leigh] in those roles on the screen, so alive. And then part of my mind will start to remember Clark at a certain moment in the filmmaking, and then Vivien at another. And the next thought is, "Oh, and they're gone." And somehow that seems less real.

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Q: Do you think those David O. Selznick standards that you referred to have fallen in filmmaking?

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