OLIVIA DE HAVILLAND, the last remaining great Hollywood star of both the golden '30s and '40s, is an irresistible woman. When the subject of birthdays comes up in the middle of an interview, she looks the writer straight in the eye and declares, "I'm old enough to be your mother!," promptly brushing aside all polite demurrals. There's something at once amusing and touching when the remark is directed at a man on the cusp of 70 and comes from a movie star who's about to turn 90. Clearly the truthfulness that characterizes De Havilland's acting comes from the woman herself.
Generations of De Havilland's fans would recognize her instantly. The expressive dark eyes, the lovely complexion, the apple cheeks remain unchanged, framed by an elegant swath of silver hair, truly her crowning glory, swept up in an impeccable French twist. Blessed with robust health and an abundant love of life, she is a lively raconteur to whom laughter comes easily. De Havilland, her distinctive voice as rich and mellow as ever, understands that enduring beauty, beyond good genes, is a matter of spirit rather than artifice.
For her recent interview, in the garden of her journalist daughter Gisele Galante's spacious beachside home, De Havilland was dressed simply in a powder-blue skirt, an ink-blue blouse and accented by a colorful silk scarf and a pair of gold earrings.
De Havilland, who has lived in France since marrying the late Paris Match editor Pierre Galante in 1955, is in town for a tribute to her being held Thursday at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The event launches a retrospective of her finest films screening at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art beginning Friday and running through July 1. De Havilland will discuss "The Heiress" preceding its 8 p.m. screening Sunday.
She is undoubtedly best remembered as the noble-minded yet resilient Melanie in "Gone With the Wind," managing to bring dimension and humanity to a woman of unassailable purity and garnering an Oscar nomination for supporting actress. But she found even wider-ranging roles in "To Each His Own" (1946), for which De Havilland won her first best actress Oscar as a small-town upstate New York teenager who finds herself unwed and pregnant through a whirlwind World War I romance, and in "The Snake Pit" (1948), which earned her a best actress nomination for her portrayal of a young wife stricken with mental illness and thrust into a hellish state institution.
But "The Heiress" (1949), directed by William Wyler, which brought De Havilland her second Oscar, playing a Henry James spinster beset by the cruelties of an overbearing father (Ralph Richardson) and an untrustworthy suitor (Montgomery Clift), is a highlight in a career that could strike envy even in as versatile and successful an actress as Nicole Kidman.
De Havilland has been blessed by a deceptively demure cameo-like beauty that has allowed her to reveal layers of underlying warmth, passion and intelligence in her characters. She has shown that strength and femininity are hardly mutually exclusive, and the meticulously developed scripts that came alive within the stylized world of the studio system allowed De Havilland to create truly complete women, something that few young actresses have the opportunity to do in today's Hollywood. Her major films have stood the test of time, a phrase cherished by the American Film Institute -- which has yet to honor her with a lifetime achievement award.
Unhesitatingly, De Havilland selects "The Snake Pit," directed by Anatole Litvak from Mary Jane Ward's autobiographical novel, as the film that means most to her.
"Remember, we made this at a time when there was still a medieval attitude toward mental illness. People just didn't talk about such things -- they were considered shameful. The case in our film was that of a seriously deranged young woman at a time when there weren't any modern chemicals -- just electric shock and hydrotherapy."
Ultimately, De Havilland's heroine is saved by therapy sessions with a dedicated staff psychiatrist (Leo Genn) who defies a sclerotic and underfunded bureaucracy to provide her with the help she needs. Alas, "The Snake Pit" in many ways remains all too unsettlingly timely. What especially attracted De Havilland to the project was her 1943 wartime tour of six military hospitals, including their mental wards, stretching from Chicago to Alaska and the South Pacific to Oklahoma, where she spent a Christmas Eve with a group of soldiers who had no reaction either to her presence or to a recording of Bing Crosby's "White Christmas."
"That was a hard Christmas, but harder for them than for me," said De Havilland, who recalled that the public at the time had little awareness of the existence of these wards.