At nearly 101 years old, two-time Best Actress Oscar winner Olivia de Havilland is the last surviving grande dame of Classic Hollywood. Long after she left the U.S. for Paris in 1956, she remains one of the industry’s true, original disruptors.
Taking Warner Bros. to court early in her illustrious career, the Gone with the Wind star was ultimately responsible for the De Havilland Law, which in 1944 broke the stranglehold that studios had on contract players. It is still an ingrained part of the entertainment business today.
But she also made her presence felt in her adopted France where, in 1965, she became the first female President of the Cannes Film Festival jury. Not only did she bear that distinction, she was also the only woman that year on the panel, which also included the likes of Rex Harrison, Alain Robbe-Grillet and André Maurois. The Palme d’Or went to Richard Lester’s comedy The Knack … And How to Get It.
De Havilland recently reflected on the experience for Deadline.
What was it like to be the first female president of the Cannes Film Festival jury? And, not only the first female President, but the only woman on the jury that year.
It is both exhilarating and intimidating to be the first at/of anything. The responsibility is enormous and the possibility of failing to fulfill it adequately is huge. I was intimidated by my role as the first female President of the Cannes Film Festival jury. However, I must say that, as the only female on the jury that year, I did enjoy presiding over a committee entirely composed of men.
The fact that you were the only woman demonstrates that it was still quite a male-dominated business at the time. How did you steer the group?
There were 20 films to judge, so it was best to split them into four groups of five films per group (or was it five groups of four?). When all the films had been seen and voted upon, group by group, we made a final selection by voting for a single victor among these winners.
You were already a pioneer for the rights of artists in Hollywood; did you recognize this appointment as jury President as a pioneering accomplishment at the time?
It would be logical to think that I did!
Was there any sort of groundswell movement back then to improve the station of women in the business, like the kind we are seeing today?
There was, indeed, a distinction in the status of actors and that of actresses: actors were paid more than actresses for equivalent work. Bette Davis was a ferocious defender of the status of actresses in all its aspects. I am astounded to learn that the battle continues at this late date.
You met your husband—Paris Match journalist Pierre Galante—in Cannes in 1953. Did you attend the festival regularly in the following years?
After that first year, I attended the Cannes Film Festival whenever the personal or professional events in my life permitted me to do so.
What treasured memories do you have of the experience? Which aren’t so fond?
A memory I treasure is of seeing and conversing with Charles Boyer at the Festival of 1965, 24 years after filming together Hold Back the Dawn, a beautiful movie in which I played the role of Emmy Brown, a small-town school teacher, a role which brought me an Academy nomination for Best Performance by an Actress. As to the other part of the question—at this moment I cannot recall any negative experiences associated with the Festivals which I attended.