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The Oscars | BRIEF ENCOUNTER

Olivia and Oscar

Olivia de Havilland views her Hollywood heyday from her Parisian perch.

March 23, 2003|Nancy Tartaglione

Paris — In a quiet section of the 16th arrondissement lives one of the most enduring figures of American cinema. Olivia de Havilland has owned her three-story house near the Bois de Boulogne since 1956, when she succumbed to the charms of a Frenchman and decided to get some distance from Hollywood.

However, at 86, the star of such classics as "Gone With the Wind," "The Heiress," "To Each His Own" and "The Snake Pit" is hardly a shrinking violet. The actress hasn't slowed down much and sparkles when recounting the past.

Can you re-create the moment you won your first Oscar?

Oh, yes. That was "To Each His Own," and I was there with my first husband and I heard the name.... Louis B. Mayer was sitting down in front with his cohorts -- and he had a number of cohorts, at least 11 -- and the minute my name was announced they lost interest in the entire performance and started to flood up the aisle. I had to fight my way through Mayer and his cohorts to get to the stage. I did feel rather slighted, and it was quite a muscular endeavor to get through them to get up to that Oscar, but I showed my colors.

Why did you decide to move away from Hollywood?

I didn't, in a sense, choose. I was courted by a Frenchman and I was persuaded to come to France. It did not disappoint me for one minute! It was just as TV had struck a mortal blow to the film industry. The atmosphere in Hollywood was unbelievably morbid and depressed. You felt quite that a tremendous era was dying and that whatever would replace it would not be as remarkable. Whereas in France they were still suffering from the humiliation of the occupation, but there were little flames that were flickering among the ashes and you knew that it was springing to life again.

Do you get out to the movies?

No, I used to go to the movies three or four times a week. I would go alone and study the American movies. I loved going alone and not being influenced by anyone's comments, just trying to zero in on a film and grasp all of its elements fully. Dining with friends one evening many years ago, all they could talk about was "Tom Jones." They said I must see it. I started off the next day and it had already begun, and I thought I'll have to go to another one. But that one had also already started, so I went back to "Tom Jones." And when I went home the French evening paper was already out and it said that someone had come down the aisle and cut a woman's throat in the theater I had almost gone to. Well, you see, I thought it could have been me. I've never been alone to see a film since.

What was the impact of winning two Oscars like for you afterward? Do you think winning has changed for others?

It was a day when very few artists had won an Academy Award twice. So you can imagine what it was to win one. It was immense. Since then Bette Davis got two; Katharine Hepburn has four. In those days to have a second one was a spectacular honor -- it was impossible not to take it seriously. Oh, it's awful because people expect you to live up to that standard every single time and it can make you feel quite panicked. And no matter how good the next one may be, if it isn't quite in the style of the others, people are apt to be a little disappointed. Whereas if you hadn't won any Oscars at all that one would bring you one! You see, it's a perilous place to be on a pinnacle.

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