Olivia de Havilland turns 100 today. A curious twist of circumstances got me a chance to meet Olivia. In 2004, while planning a visit to Paris, I looked through the address book of Princess Niloufer who was married to Prince Moazzam Jah in Hyderabad. Where my research on her was falling short was the period after she returned to France, following her separation from her husband in 1949.
I opened the address book and I saw the name Olivia de Havilland. Could she be the same Olivia? From Gone With The Wind?
Taking a chance that she might still be at the same address, I sent her a letter. A simple one along the lines of “I am researching Princess Niloufer’s life. I saw your address in her book. Could I come to meet you?” I wasn’t sure if the letter would reach its destination. More importantly, I wasn’t sure if she would respond. My calculation showed that she would be over 88 years old at that time.
Two weeks later a letter arrived, from Paris. Olivia did respond; she asked if I could come for tea, at her home. With me was a friend, one who had known Princess Niloufer. As we knocked on her door, a servant opened. She asked us to be seated. Moments later, Olivia descended from the floor above and we soon started talking.
“Nilou had seen Gone With the Wind, and thought she and Melanie (my character in the film) shared many qualities. Nilou told me she had lost her father early, like Melanie did. Similarly, she had trained to be a nurse during the War”.
What about Gone With the Wind? What did she think about it, 65 years later?
“I am always asked about Gone With The Wind. I don’t think it will ever be gone. It has this universal life. Almost every nation has experienced war as well as defeat and rebirth. That is why I think everyone can identify with the characters.” And Clark Gable? “Clark Gable was such a big star. I was afraid to talk to him. I was in awe.”
“In the film, there is a scene where Melanie is in bed, with a child beside her. Atlanta is in flames, and Rhett (Clark Gable’s character) is supposed to pick up Melanie and the baby, both wrapped in a comforter and then bring them down to a carriage. I played some mischief at that time. I had seen a block of cement outside with a steel ring in it. So, I got one of the staff to bring it up to my bedroom, then tied a rope around the ring and wrapped the rope around myself. So, when Clark tried to lift me, with the baby, he expected it to be an easy task. Clark ran up to me and tried to lift me and oh, I had such a hearty laugh. Then, I explained what I did and he forgave me and we completed the scene!
“I had heard that Clark Gable actually did not like the novel. He had called it “a woman’s picture”. Also, at that time, Gable was in bitter divorce proceedings. And he hated the character he had to play. He needed money for his divorce, and only after that was he ready to act. Even so, he wasn’t the first choice for Rhett Butler. It was Gary Cooper. But Cooper thought the film would be the biggest flop in Hollywood history. He is reputed to have said, “I’m just glad it’ll be Clark Gable who’s falling on his face and not Gary Cooper”.
“And would you believe Clark almost quit? It was all about one scene! “I remember talking to Clark about the scene when he is supposed to cry, after the death of his daughter. He was worried: you see, he had never cried on the screen before. He thought it was not masculine to cry. He was so worried about it. “I’m just going to have to quit,” he told me. I remember I said, “tears denote strength of character, not weakness. Crying makes you intensely human”. He agreed, rehearsed it and it turned out to be one of the most memorable scenes in the movie.
Did Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh have a great time acting? “Vivien couldn’t dance so they had a double for the long shots.” Vivien also hated kissing Clark Gable; he had bad breath from constant smoking. But the pressure got to Vivien and she started smoking four packs a day!
Hollywood was a harsh place. In the 1930s, actors were paid on a different scale. Vivien Leigh worked for 125 days, and she was paid $200 a day. Clark Gable on the other hand, worked for 10 weeks and received $12,000 per week. Stranger still was the position of Hattie McDaniel. As the film had scenes of slavery, she was asked not to act in it. Her response was that she would “rather make $700 a week playing a maid, than seven dollars being one”!
Discrimination continued off screen. “When the film premiered in Atlanta, the governor of Georgia declared a state holiday. A holiday for a film! David (O. Selznick) knew he had a successful film on his hands but even he was shocked that a million people came to Atlanta. There was a crowd, who lined the streets for more than five miles, just to see the stars arrive in limousines. “And all of us were there for the premiere, except Hattie (Hattie McDaniel: a black actress who played the role of Mamie, a black servant). In Georgia those days, blacks and whites were supposed to sit in separate sections; so Hattie decided not to attend. When Clark heard this, he was annoyed. He refused to go. Finally, Hattie convinced him to be there.”
What about the Oscars? “The film was nominated in 13 categories: it won 8. I was nominated but did not win. Hattie won Best Supporting Actress. You know, at the ceremony in Los Angeles, Hattie had to sit with her escort at a separate table! Imagine that! How times have changed.”
What about her own Oscars? “Well, I thought I had done a good job with Melanie in Gone With The Wind, but I had to wait for another seven years, when the Academy gave me the award for my role in “To Each His Own” and again in 1949 for “The Heiress”.
Curiously, Melanie Hamilton, Olivia’s character in Gone With the Wind, is the only lead character who dies in the film. Today, in 2016, all the other actors are dead. And she’s the only one alive. Happy 100th, Olivia....