Sunday, May 30, 2010

Actress Files: Olivia de Havilland

Olivia de Havilland, To Each His Own
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
(won the 1946 Best Actress Oscar)

Why I Waited: Two and a half years ago, after screening Kitty Foyle, I realized I had 65 more nominated performances to go (not counting, of course, the 15 new nominees that have been anointed since then). Only four of those were winners, and I've enjoyed saving them up. Surely, though, after I wrote up Joan yesterday, you didn't think her sister-rival could be far behind?

The Performance: "The most mysterious mysteries are people, and usually people who don't seem mysterious at all," states the onscreen epigraph for the 1946 Paramount weepie To Each His Own. "Take Miss Norris, for instance. Here she is, a middle-aged American woman, walking down a London street on a blacked-out New Year's Eve." Olivia de Havilland "takes" Judy Norris to the tune of her first Best Actress Oscar, approaching her with the studied élan of an efficiency expert, devising clear physical and vocal correlatives for every adjective or information-point the screenplay offers about her. Right off, she adopts the harsh, snooty accent of a moneyed, standoffish American expatriate as she haggles over a cab on her way to her fire-watching duties on the roof of a London church. (Fire-watch, v., to keep a nighttime eye on the city, calling in any bomb-related blazes before they can spread too far). After some bickering and some light-comic mishaps with her fellow cyclops, a George Sanders type called Lord Desham (Roland Culver), the two repair to a café where he describes coming home from World War I to find his wife and child dead of the so-called Spanish flu. Full stop on Lord Desham: the movie only includes this dolorous tale as a generic prompt to goad Judy into her own reminiscences of hardship. Or rather, to allow de Havilland the kinds of close-up reactions that leave no doubt she's holding back her inward laments. As the actress takes pains to show us—her vowels aggressively arch, her clothes and hat completely concealing, her fine jaw warily pulled back toward her neck in instantaneous response to Desham's compliment, her dark eyes guarded and transparently preoccupied—Judy isn't giving up her ghosts to a total stranger. She prefers to unspool them in voiceover, and then in fully re-enacted flashback, so that de Havilland can start off with a new assemblage of character traits: the smart but modest makeup, the open manner, the "nice" but ardent romantic daydreams of an early-century upstate New Yorker, the ice-cream scooper and checkout girl in her father's smalltown pharmacy and convenience store.

De Havilland is by no means a bad actress, and in fact, she has the serious commitment to detail, the curiosity about character, the self-confidence, and the susceptibility to various passions that often a distinguish a really strong one. She's impressively go-for-broke in The Snake Pit, intriguingly devious in My Cousin Rachel, and, for all the divided opinions about her gleaming saintliness in Gone with the Wind, able to sustain subtle fluctuations and nuances of an essentially good person. But the first thing To Each His Own tells us is that Judy is "mysterious," and this de Havilland isn't. If anything, she translates in many of her performances as rather proud of herself, though without the panache or the illuminated complexities of headstrong goddesses like Davis, Hepburn, Crawford, or Bankhead. Particularly after the famous early-40s case in which she won freer rein to choose her own projects (and thereby rendered a magnificent service to a legion of fellow actors), de Havilland gravitates to pictures and directors that radiate a Hollywood studio's idea of "prestige," and there's something of the docent's look in her eye: Note the fineness of this film. Allow me the honor of starring in it for you. By all means, let me take you on a tour of this interesting woman.

Considered a bit differently, in movies like To Each His Own or her other Oscar-winning performance in The Heiress, de Havilland seems like a self-consciously strong student who is eager to get herself into the honors courses and impress teachers and fellows alike with her diligent, well-expressed variations on the lock-and-load research project, the correct geometric proof, the five-paragraph essay. There's ability but not a surfeit of fire, and even less of mystery: her eagerness to show you some good acting involves disclosing how scrupulously she takes her work, how thoughtfully she has searched for just the right techniques and gestures to demystify anything uncertain in the script. She submits her notes as well as her finished compositions for the audience's approval, and she waits for the day the Dean's List is posted. Admittedly, I respond in some of the same ways to the screenplays of Charles Brackett, which are almost always as sturdily constructed and arc-defined as everyone says, with dollops of comic incident and "character moments" thrown in for extra delight, but often with the same effect of broadcasting his processes of plotting and outlining. In mid-quality scripts like the one for To Each His Own, which are still much stronger than a lot of other writers' mid-grade scripts, I don't observe the jokes, the flashbacks, the interruptions, or the climaxes without hearing Brackett's conscience saying, "Let's lighten things up here to keep the film from getting soggy," or "Here's the instant they should reach for the Kleenex," or "Here I tarted up the structure a bit, to keep the audience from getting bored, and to show off the contrasts in Olivia's performance."

You can easily see why these caliber and species of talents would gravitate to each other, and why de Havilland, in the immediate wake of her judicial campaign for better roles, would leap at a story that gives her so many guises to inhabit: the fluttering innocent, the girl crushed by a necessary secret, the self-made Mildred Pierce, the blackmailer whom the audience can't begrudge, the Stella Dallas who'd rather ache in silence than crash her kid's good time. She isn't always tepid or fully safe in her approach. The whole premise requires that young Judy draw certain lines beyond which she's no longer willing to be the paradigmatically good girl, and though de Havilland misses a dozen opportunities for added depth during her whirlwind courtship with cynical aviator Bart Cosgrove (John Lund, not appealing), she melts pretty well when the time comes. Sure, she makes up for it by acting disappointingly prim even when she's by herself—ladling herself a symbolically significant glass of milk with finishing-school decorum, when there's so much else she could articulate in this moment—but she's convincingly antsy while dancing the steps of a tense social fandango that's meant to preserve her happiness and her good name, and convincingly devastated when the Fates capriciously intervene. Even in the best of times, then, the successes of the performances maintain a steady embrace with its limitations. De Havilland has focused too much, perhaps, on staving off the harpies of propriety who would slag off Judy Norris as a "bad girl," but she has sunk to the unimaginative level of these hypothetical tsk-tskers by preemptively countering with a cautious, fatally unmysterious blandness. She's much too flat and procedural with lines that could have carried delicious weight: "This is what I hoped flying would be like," "They talk about him as if he were dead, just dead," "I'm a traitor to everything you stand for," et al. Her Judy, to my mind, is more relentlessly "decent" than her roseate Melanie, because the gradations of the later performance are actually much blunter, and she has conceded in advance to the logic that stronger signals of pleasure, ambivalence, eroticism, pragmatism, or cruelty would be the marks of a bad person.

To Each His Own unfolds not unlike one of those early-30s, Sin of Madelon Claudet-style numbers where the unwed mother, having lost or renounced or sacrificed her child, undergoes a kind of picaresque of good and bad fortunes while trying to recover her life—with the obvious corollary agenda of accumulating untouchable credentials as a parent who warrants the restoration of her child. Sure, she becomes a cold-creme magnate instead of a trod-upon prostitute like Helen Hayes did, but you know the template. De Havilland gets a couple of scenes to flaunt her nouveau wealth and strategically wheedle her boy away from the couple who has raised him, by holding their financial fortunes in her immaculately gloved hand. The film hedges its bets by contriving to have the husband in this adoptive couple be a lifelong admirer of Judy, in fact a previously rejected and still-simmering suitor, but the actress sends no signals of thinking one way or another about him while she makes her big, remorseless play with only little Gregsy in mind. (Yes, "Gregsy.") She gets a luxe, dark, end-of-Blonde Venus ensemble in which to conduct this plaintive but mercenary errand; why Mary Anderson's Corinne is suddenly dressed as Dolly Madison is less clear. Anyway, de Havilland doesn't foreclose all sense that Judy isn't entirely on the up-and-up here, or that she might even enjoy pinning the possessive Other Mother to the wall. But here again, she softens and beams a bit too much just as the standoff is coming to a head, one of too many moments in To Each His Own when de Havilland elects to play "love" or "motherhood" or "what's best for the child" as spotless, burnished, uninterrogated ideals. She pitches right into the expectations of a dully conceived audience, rather than reflecting any of the character's own truths and striated experiences, starting with the fact that for Judy to remember herself as having been sublimely in "love" with Capt. Cosgrove is at best a self-protective delusion.

The final sequences of To Each His Own complete the actress's cosmetic tour of age brackets, and I certainly grant her the technical execution of her late-middle-age posture and voice, though the shoe polish under her eyes was a bit much, and she gives the strange effect of having aged remarkably between leaving for a train station and arriving there, and again during the car-trip from the station to her house. At last, she offers some of her most complicated, conflicted acting during these last-act scenes, as she wrestles with the decision of revealing her true identity to her now-grown boy or whether to stay mum, and questions whether her silence has more to do with insulating his contentment or with placating her own sense of shame. In a few of her close-ups, you can even see some doubt passing over her eyes about whether Gregory's genial but peremptory behavior has only to do with his incomplete information about what's going on or if he's just, you know, insensitive and a little rude.

De Havilland still might have done more with these scenes, but by the same token, I don't mean to imply that she's so completely on-the-nose in the preceding 100 minutes that there's no excitement in watching her, no possibility of the character's feelings having a claim on the audience. There's just too little sense of those feelings having deepened, shifted, or grown more complex in passing from the script to the screen, through the creative medium of the actress. An even more docile actress like Jane Wyman proves in films like All That Heaven Allows, albeit in tandem with a more ambitious and skeptical director, that you don't have to play a "bad girl" to communicate the labors and ironies of trying to do what's right and yet always finding yourself holding the short straw, or of being prone to sexual arousal despite an onscreen persona that's hardly designed to set the reels on fire. Frankly, the script for To Each His Own and the brusque performances of the other actors give de Havilland many more opportunities than Wyman, or other actresses in similar parts have had, to explore her character's discontents, and to violate her personal standards for propriety without losing the empathy of the audience. The film was nonetheless a hit and a key step, maybe the key step, in de Havilland's sudden ascendancy to the top spot among Hollywood's dramatic actresses. Oscar was obviously impressed, though de Havilland's legal victory against Warners surely gave her a huge boost in the voting, as, I expect, did her showy dual role during the same year as a murder suspect and her twin sister in Robert Siodmak's The Dark Mirror. I haven't seen that one, but I suspect it offers de Havilland another chance to impress us by differentiating separate guises of herself in the same movie. I still wish she showed a defter hand at finer nuances, and that she'd have worked more often and more mysteriously to find the fissures and ambiguities within a single guise of herself, without a decades-spanning plot or a double role or a flash-forward epilogue like the one in The Heiress to help her along. But as they say—even though I'm not sure what else it's intended to mean in this particular movie—to each his own.

The Best Actress Project: 1 More Down, 10 to Go

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Blogger Dame James said...

I'm a huge de Havilland fan--I would have given her back-to-back Oscars for The Snake Pit and The Heiress--but I must admit that I was disappointed by her performance here. Like you said, she's not particularly bad in any sense of the word. It's just that what she decides to do is fairly ordinary, something a lesser-name (and talent) could have done without much fuss. I will admit that by the end of To Each His Own, even while recognizing the film's cheap tricks, I found myself emotionally caught up in the story. I'm not sure if I'm projecting my feelings for the film on de Havilland, but I felt she was stronger in the final scenes. Then again, I've always found her forte to be her shaky strength that she develops with all of her "wallflower" types.

12:17 AM, May 30, 2010  
Blogger Andrew K. said...

Hot damn, James said everything I could think of. I know, though, I'm responding to liking Olivia more than the film or role (or, fine, the performance) being too good. But I still get emotionally invested in the end, but that doesn't say much.

Nick, is it a mistake or deliberate that you didn't tag this as a "stinker"? If it's deliberate, I guess I'm thankful for small mercies.

1:59 AM, May 30, 2010  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@DJH: We agree she's strongest in the final scenes, then. I also would have given her those back-to-back Oscars, though in the case of '49, I wish there'd been a stronger alternative.

@A:EE: The movie would definitely have to be worse than this to be tagged as a Stinker. I'm in C/C– territory on To Each His Own, and stinkers are in the D range or worse.

2:30 AM, May 30, 2010  
Blogger James T said...

OK, I'm going to be a tiny bit judgemental right in the beginning so that my comment doesn't end on a negative note. When I started reading the last sentence I was hoping you woudn't choose the predictable use of the title. Maybe it's because I had already seen it in your tweet but it's surely because you are always very imaginative even when you can be accurate using auto-pilot. I know it's nitpicking but I loved the piece and wanted it to end differently. Plus, a little critique will probably make my "you're a god"-like comments more believable. I hope you'll forgive me.

Now, as I said I loved the write-up. Your reading de Havilland's mind was insightful and hilarious and your doing the same with Brackett nailed one of the regular problems of many movies. I think that's where the difference between a capable technician and an artist lies.

I also loved the brilliantly specific analysis of what I would probably (I haven't seen it, by the way) only be able to call a "yes-no-yes-no etc" performance, had I felt that way about it.

You probably didn't intend to occupy yourself with that matter but I really think that if both sisters read the two pieces concering them, they wouldn't feel any differently about each other because you seem quite balanced with your general reaction to both of them even if you were more fond of Fontaine in the particular performances at hand. So, you didn't create even more problems for their relationship :p

Again, I'm sorry. It's just that you have spoiled me so much.

I said I wanted to avoid ending on a negative note, so I will add an obligatory but 100% honest comment. You're great, great, great :)

PS: Please, be an actress coach.

12:47 PM, May 30, 2010  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@James T: It's a lazy ending to the piece. You know it, I know it!

Everyone is so nice to be so complimentary all the time, but truly, you could come at me with a much bigger critique than this and shouldn't feel the need to hold back! I often wish I'd kept a list of the harshest criticisms I've ever received in relation to this site that actually prompted me to raise my game, because the best ones really, really do.

Anyway, no apologies necessary - and I love the apocryphal image of these two sisters reading these pieces to make sure I'm not completely on the other one's side. Utterly disconnected from reality, in a way that made me smile.

1:26 PM, May 30, 2010  
Blogger Fritz said...

This is surely one of the hardest Oscar-winning performances to get and I was surprised how much I enjoyed it after I heard so much negative criticism about it.

I love how de Havilland is always able to show how her characters change but she is always able to keep a very specific core that prevents her from playing a 'different' character.

The movie itself is surely bad and full of clichés but de Havilland really uses all the chances the script gives her very wisely. 4 stars from me.

5:18 PM, May 30, 2010  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think you've over-analyzed Olivia and her performance to such a degree that I can barely recognize TO EACH HIS OWN as a film that I've loved ever since my first viewing years ago.

She herself has called it "one of the most perfect scripts I've ever read" and surely it is intelligently written with nice touches of Americana for the early scenes in Pierson Falls and later good use of the post-war London era for the reunion with her son.

She gives a heartfelt performance, managing to be equally convincing as the young Jody Norris and the rather brusque, middle-aged Miss Norris. No wonder it's one of her personal favorites. I'm even more impressed by her work in THE SNAKE PIT and THE HEIRESS, which is why she's been my favorite Golden Age actress all through the years.

Summing up: I think you underestimate her wide-ranging talent.

10:40 AM, May 23, 2011  
Blogger Classic Manuals said...

This is available on DVD I found the listings below they look ok. Thanks

11:36 PM, May 19, 2013  
Blogger Unknown said...

They have the movie at this site

11:11 PM, September 03, 2015  

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