Book Review-- Olivia de Havilland: Lady Triumphant


Olivia de Havilland: Lady Triumphant
Victoria Amador
University Press of Kentucky, 2019

It is comforting to know, that at this moment 102-year-old Olivia de Havilland is living in luxury in a Parisian hotel. With her bright white hair, pearls, and velvet caftans, she still entertains visitors, and shares pink champagne with them. That is behavior befitting the last of the greats of classic Hollywood. In a new book about de Havilland, Victoria Amador draws on her personal relationship with the actress, which includes indulging in sparkling wine together, to tell the story of her life, which was remarkable even for a movie star.

With her brown, doe eyes and sweet smile, it can be easy to forget de Havilland's iron will. That gentle beauty belies the determination of a woman who was before her time in the way she fought for career, independence, and happiness on her own terms. Perhaps her most famous accomplishment beyond acting is a legal victory she won early in her carer, known as The de Havilland Decision, in which she challenged the studio’s ability to add time onto seven-year contracts for suspensions; a win which changed the fabric of Hollywood and made life better for generations of film workers.

She had agency in her personal life as well. De Havilland made her career a priority for years, having affairs with the likes of John Huston and Jimmy Stewart and earning herself the title of “bachelor”.  When her eventual marriage to writer Marcus Goodrich didn’t work out, she got out with a minimum of fuss and with custody of her beloved son. When her second marriage to Paris Match editor Pierre Galante fizzled into a friendship, she crafted a modern, friendly arrangement for the sake of her children that worked brilliantly. In the end she managed to have a strong career and a satisfying personal life, all on her own terms.

Amador covers all of these events, but she focuses on de Havilland’s career and how she fought to play roles with meaning on the stage, screen, and television. Popular success was never enough for the actress; she wanted the challenge and glory of great parts. By the time she got them, she felt she’d aged out of screen stardom and turned her focus to family. It was not quite the end for her though and she had the luxury of being selective and filming what she pleased in the final years of her career.

The book is organized in an unusual way, it is essentially chronological, but it has chapters devoted to the core elements of her life, like her relationship with frequent costar Errol Flynn, her legendary appearance as Melanie in Gone with the Wind (1939), and her notoriously rocky relationship with her sister, the actress Joan Fontaine. Amador seems to be aware that readers will skip to these topics that have so often been the subject of juicy gossip and she approaches them all with a steady perspective, challenging what rumors she can, but granting de Havilland her wish to keep some things private. She strikes a good balance between “here’s what happened” and “none of your business.”

For the most part I appreciated the way these focused chapters gave Amador the space to fully examine the major elements of de Havilland’s life. The necessary repetition of facts and events in the more general chapters could be a bit tedious and confusing, but for the most part the narrative flow dips back and forth in time with ease. I was a little more disturbed by a couple of instances where her sources seemed unreliable: one where she refers to something learned on the notoriously undependable Internet Movie Database, another where she admits that her source was "admittedly dubious," but went ahead and shared what they said anyway.

Amador has had the opportunity to meet with de Havilland multiple times over the years and has maintained a friendly correspondence with the actress. As a result, she has gotten many direct quotes from her which are as interesting for the character they reveal as they are for the clarification of various details. I appreciated that while the author clearly wanted to be respectful of her friend and subject, she didn’t hesitate to acknowledge her flaws. The book could have easily been a hagiography written by an adoring fan, but she seems to understand that kind of whitewashing would be a disservice to such a forthright actress.

Many thanks to University Press of Kentucky for providing a copy of the book for review.

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