By Teresa Crompton
Victoria Amador is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at the College of Arts and Sciences at American University of Sharjah and she reports on her Faculty Research Grant (FRG3 Travel Grant) awarded for Academic Year 2012-2013.
How did you use the money?
The grant made it possible for me to accomplish research I could never have afforded to do otherwise, and I am most grateful for the opportunity. It provided money for me to travel to the Margaret Herrick Library, which is the library for the Academy Awards, in Los Angeles, CA, in July 2012 to conduct research for my book. I am writing a critical biography of the Hollywood star Olivia de Havilland and have a contract with the University of Kentucky Press. Thanks to the grant, I was able to spend five days in the library, using their special collections, collection of film magazines, newspaper and magazine microfiches, and photographic archive. The research I have carried out also enabled me to organize ‘Hollywood and the World,’ a conference in Sydney, Australia, in February 2013 for Inter-Disciplinary.Net, based in Oxford, UK, and a second conference in Athens, Greece, in November 2013.
Victoria Amador with Olivia de Havilland, 2013
How would you define the term ‘critical biography’?
It is a biography which discusses the life of the subject, but which also analyzes their artistic output. Thus I am sharing information on de Havilland’s life, but I want to discuss her film appearances, her publishing, and her social and legal involvements in Hollywood.
When is your book due to appear?
I hope by the end of 2014, from the University of Kentucky Press.
What prompted your interest in de Havilland?
Like a lot of young Americans, I first read Gone with the Wind when I was 12. That same year, the film was reissued, and I was able to see it twice and be completely overwhelmed. Already a film buff who wanted to be an actress, I wrote to de Havilland not only because I loved her performance as Melanie, but also because I adored her in her partnering with Errol Flynn and Bette Davis. To my amazement, she wrote back and sent a small autographed photo. Not wanting her to think I’d written just for a letter and picture, I returned a letter. We’ve been writing ever since—let me just say it’s over forty years and leave it at that!
My research and education have included film studies, so I’ve been fascinated by her career and her artistry in a professional way for almost twenty years. I was also able to meet her twice, at long last, in summer 2012 and 2103 at her home in Paris. She is now 97 and putting her archives together, so I can’t tell you how thrilling this has been, and how valuable for my book.
Why is Olivia de Havilland important?
She was born in 1916 in Tokyo to British parents. Her father, Walter Augustus de Havilland had attended Cambridge University and then taught at the Imperial University in Tokyo, before practicing in Japan as a patent attorney. The family moved to California in 1919. Olivia’s best-known film role is perhaps as Melanie Wilkes – the best friend of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind (1939). But she also co-starred with Errol Flynn eight times in films such as The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Dodge City (1939), Santa Fe Trail (1940), and They Died with Their Boots On (1941). She won two Academy Awards for Best Actress – in To Each His Own (1946) and The Heiress (1949). Olivia was not the only member of her family to achieve fame: her younger sister, Joan Fontaine, was also an established film actress, and their cousin, Sir Geoffrey de Havilland (1882–1965), was a famous British aircraft designer.
What was it like to meet her?
Both meetings were wonderful. I brought immense bouquets as befits a film great, and she was tremendously generous. Her town house in the 16th arrondisement of Paris is charming, and she’s a lovely hostess, given that both of our rendezvous have lasted four hours each. She’s also nobody’s fool and sharp. Very gracious, but aware of who she is. Miss de Havilland has written answers to twenty questions for me and has accepted a further thirty, as we’ve had such a lovely time chatting that we haven’t covered all of my questions! She’s given me insights into some of her important relationships with actors in Hollywood, and some of it does indeed contradict published material. I’m delighted she’s open to a biography, as she’s been working on her own autobiography for some time. Meeting Olivia de Havilland in her home in Paris—twice—is two of the greatest moments of my life.
Are there other biographies?
There have been studies of her films with some biographical information, and books about her relationship with her sister, fellow Oscar-winner Joan Fontaine. She’s figured in a book about her partnership with Errol Flynn as well. But there’s been nothing solely on her for over twenty years.
Has your research uncovered anything that surprised you?
I hadn’t really appreciated how unrelenting de Havilland was about shaping an intelligent career, and how committed she was to the rights of film artists. She was and is a strong, formidable artist and woman.
What are your future research plans?
I am continuing to work on the book with a view to writing and revision to be completed by August 2014, and will present a paper from one of the chapters at the Southwest Popular Culture Association convention in Albuquerque, NM, in February 2014. I also continue to
research and publish in Gothic and vampire studies. So much of my research would be impossible without the grants I’ve received at AUS, so my thanks to all who have supported my efforts.
Teresa Compton is a Grants Writer at the Office of Research and Graduate Studies at American University of Sharjah.