The Rebellious Olivia de Havilland

Front Row at the Movies by Shirrel Rhoades


I’d never thought of Olivia de Havilland – kind, gentle Melanie from “Gone With the Wind” – as rebellious. But that’s the title of a charming documentary about her life and movie career. Come to find out, it’s well titled, given her successful battles with the Hollywood studio system.

“The Rebellious Olivia de Havilland” (2021) is the opening film in Tropic Cinema’s upcoming Olivia de Havilland Retrospective – February 10th through 17th. 

That introduction will be followed by an additional de Havilland film each day: “The Adventures of Robin Hood” (1938),  “Hold Back the Dawn” (1941), “The Strawberry Blonde” (1941), “To Each His Own” (1946), “The Snake Pit” (1946), “The Heiress” (1949). She won an Oscar for two of them; was nominated for two others – plus “Gone With the Wind” (1939).

An All-Access Pass provides entry to all these classic movies.

“The Rebellious Olivia de Havilland” quickly engages viewers with its first person approach. There is an abundance of interview clips as well as the expected movie snippets, all woven together in a seamless tapestry of her life. Her friends called her Livvie.

The continuity of the documentary is provided by such voice actors as Victoria Hogan doing Olivia de Havilland, Josh Porter doing David O. Selznick, and Leda Ray as Bette Davis, among others.

With the well-integrated archival footage, we encounter such Hollywood legends as James Cagney, Vivien Leigh, George Cukor, Katharine Hepburn, Hattie McDaniel, Michael Curtiz, and Livvie’s sister Joan Fontaine. 

There are hints of her love life, with James Stewart, John Houston, and husband Pierre Galante. And, of course, her admitted infatuation with Errol Flynn, her co-star in eight adventure films.

We follow her leaving home to be an understudy in Max Reinhardt’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” winning the role of Hermia in the 1935 film version. Then she was cast opposite dashing Errol Flynn in “The Adventures of Robin Hood” (1938) and the rest is film history – 49 feature films in all.

But at the iron core of this 56-minute documentary is the story of her Jack-the-Giant-Killer battles with studio head Jack Warner. Irate over being treated like chattel, she sued the studio, winning a landmark victory that became known as the “de Havilland decision,” a limitation of studio contracts to seven years.

 Rebellious indeed! 

Director Daphné Baiwir describes the film: “Many have challenged the studios. But none of them managed to win the battle. Not even Bette Davis, who was the Queen of Hollywood. And then, Olivia de Havilland came. After a first battle against Jack Warner to let her play the role of Melanie in ‘Gone with the Wind,’ the actress will attack one of the biggest Hollywood machines: the Warner Studio. This episode will contribute greatly to the legend of the actress who started one of the most feminist process conducted so far in the film industry. Olivia de Havilland was the Hollywood Insoumise (insubordinate).” 

Daphné Baiwir is a Belgian documentarist, actress, screenwriter, and former model. She is known for her 2023 documentary, “Hitchcock’s Pro-Nazi Film.” (“Le Film pro-Nazi d’Hitchcock”) and “Deauville and the American Dream” (“Deauville et le rêve américain”). She started her career as a model at just 3 years old; she made her acting debut on stage at 7; and she made her directorial debut in 2015.

Producer Sebastien Cruz filled in the background on how “The Rebellious Olivia de Havilland” came to be made.

“Daphné directed a documentary called ‘Deauville and the American Dream,’ about the Festival of Deauville in France,” he recounts. “For this, we interviewed Michael Douglas, who met his wife in Deauville, during the Festival, and his father Kirk Douglas had been one of the first stars to attend the Festival. After this interview, Daphne told me: “You know, Kirk Douglas is not the only Hollywood legend still alive. Olivia de Havilland is still alive, and she has a great story!” 

Daphné researched everything she could, and they tried to contact Olivia and her daughter Gisele at the end of 2019, without great success. 

“But we were still developing this movie,” he says, “because there is one thing: we both fell in love with Olivia. Her personality, which is transparent in the many interviews and appearances she did, but also in the choices of films she made. Then, in July 2020, we saw the bad news. Olivia was no longer with us, and our hearts, as the ones as many, were broken.”

“We decided we could not wait any longer. It was time to do this documentary. We already had a good base of research at that time, and Daphne had gathered a lot of archival material. We finished the first version at the beginning of the year 2021.”

Daphné chimes in: “That is when we got the phone calls, a week apart. Arte, the biggest TV channel in France for documentaries, wanted to buy the film, and the Festival de Cannes was willing to premiere it.” 

Sebastien continues, “That is when we finally managed to get in touch with Gisele Galante, Olivia’s daughter. We sent her a link and met her in Malibu. It was such a touching meeting! Very emotional for us, and of course stressful … But Gisele liked the film and told us Olivia should have liked it too. That was the best compliment we ever had on a film.”

“We tried to make a film that looks like who Olivia was,” says Daphné. “What a strong and funny woman, and intelligent and perseverant … And we heard that she would have loved our work, from her own daughter. It was the only success we wanted the film to reach before all, and eventually, it was also presented in the biggest Festival of the world, in Cannes, and now as the opening of a retrospective on Olivia’s movies in Key West. We are honored.”

Daphné Baiwir and Sebastien Cruz will be on hand at the Tropic Cinema the night of the 10th for a lively discussion about their documentary. It’s a beautiful homage to the rebellious Olivia de Havilland. 

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