One film journalist’s stream-of-consciousness cinematic journey through the pandemic and quarantine, Part 12
By Laurence Lerman
I’m going to preempt my whack-a-moling of the films that played a part in my weekly streaming adventures briefly to call attention to the death of two talented actors. Both were well known and respected, versatile and prolific, as well as being active for more than a half-century each. Between the two of them, their careers offer a wide-ranging view of the international cinematic landscape.
I’m referring to Olivia de Havilland, who died on Sunday (July 26) at the age of 104 at her home in Paris, France, and John Saxon, who passed one day earlier of pneumonia at 84 in his home in Murfreesboro, Tenn.
Ms. de Havilland, one of only 14 actresses to win at least two leading actor Oscars, was one of the last remaining stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age, having costarred in a number of films that are now considered classics, including one that, perhaps more than any other, symbolizes that renowned era: 1939’s Gone with the Wind.
Earlier, in 1935, the 19-year-old Ms. de Havilland was cast in the pirate adventure Captain Blood opposite the dashing Errol Flynn, the first of eight adventure films and costume dramas the two would work on together. It remains a remarkable cycle that includes such greats as The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936) and The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), in which she spunkily portrayed Maid Marian.
In the years immediately following her Oscar-nominated turn as Melanie Wilkes in GWTW, Ms. de Havilland felt she wasn’t getting the plum roles she coveted from Warner Studios, where she was under contract. A battle royale ensued, with de Havilland and studio chief Jack Warner heading to court as the actress attempted to break her contract. (At the time, if actors declined a role or were otherwise “difficult,” the studios were contractually entitled to put them on leave and extend their contracts for the length of that leave, effectively stalling their careers.) De Havilland won her case, creating what quickly came to be known as “The De Havilland Law,” which essentially declared that studio contracts were nothing less than a form of indentured servitude. (Following Olivia’s liberation from Warner, Jack Warner reportedly became apoplectic at the mere mention of her name.)
The De Havilland Law on contracts stands to this day and has been used by numerous actors over the years (most famously by Johnny Carson when he wished to break his contract with NBC in the late Seventies).
Hollywood quickly rewarded Ms. de Havilland for her fortitude. Her first post-Warner film was the 1946 tearjerker To Each His Own, for which she received her first Academy Award. This was quickly followed by her lauded performance in the 1946 murderous twins noir The Dark Mirror (a personal favorite), 1948’s ground-breaking expose on mental institutions, The Snake Pit, and then, in 1949, her second Oscar-winner, the haunting drama The Heiress.
After those peak years, as times changed and she raised her two young children, de Havilland’s career slowed down, though a number of memorable films still emerged—the 1956 romantic comedy The Ambassador’s Daughter was a delight and 1962’s Light in the Piazza a lovely drama-romance. Then of course there’s the 1964 gothic mystery Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte, which Olivia playing opposite her pals Bette Davis and Joseph Cotten.
Prior to her retirement in the early Eighties, de Havilland popped up in a pair of Seventies all-star disaster movies, the box office smash Airport ’77 (1977) and the not-so-smashing African killer bees thriller The Swarm from 1978—the same year John Saxon flew into town in The Bees, an awful Mexican knockoff about a South American strain of the deadly insect that was quickly banged out a few months after Hollywood’s colossal-by-comparison The Swarm.
The nearly 200 titles listed on Mr. Saxon’s IMDb page aren’t as prestigious as Ms. de Havilland’s, but they’re no less varied and colorful, particularly for an actor seeking regular work both in the Hollywood system and outside of it.
As far as Hollywood goes, the Brooklyn-born Saxon headed out there when he was 20 and began his career as a contract player for Universal Pictures, taking second leads in musical comedies (Rock, Baby, Rock, 1956), film noirs (The Restless Years, 1958), historical dramas (The Big Fisherman, 1959) and westerns, including the 1966 Marlon Brando starrer The Appaloosa, for which Saxon garnered a Golden Globe nomination.
Beginning in the mid-Sixties, Saxon alternated his work in the American film industry with a generous serving of genre work in European productions mounted by producers looking to put a familiar, manly face in their low-budget movies (and on their accompanying posters). John Saxon—like Lee Van Cleef, Mel Ferrer, Tony Franciosa and a slew of others—fit the bill perfectly. German war films (The Cavern, 1964), British sci-fiers (The Night Caller, 1965), spaghetti westerns (One Dollar Too Many, 1968), Italian poliziottescoes (Violent Naples, 1976) and the like kept Saxon busy into the Eighties, while he simultaneously appeared in dozens upon dozens of popular and not-so-popular American films and television shows. Most notably, Saxon held his own against Bruce Lee in 1973’s landmark Enter the Dragon (1973), which is still considered to be the greatest martial arts film of all time.
My dad took me to see Enter the Dragon the year it was released—truly great stuff for this 10-year-old that marked my first exposure to Saxon. My second encounter with him occurred less than a year later on TV, first in a The Mary Tyler Moore Show entry where he played a boyfriend of Phyllis, and then in “Day of the Robot,” an episode of The Six Million Dollar Man where he plays a buddy of Steve Austin’s who’s kidnapped and replaced with a super-powered look-alike robot.
Our expensive titular hero and the robot have a climactic, proto-Terminator fight to the finish, most of it filmed in slo-mo, which undercuts the action chops Saxon had displayed in Enter the Dragon. But it was wild fun nonetheless, particularly Saxon having his face plate slugged off by Austin to reveal an eyeless mass of wires and electrodes, followed by his circuits-a’blazing impalement on a steel girder.
I tracked down the episode this week and revisited the fight for the first time in more than 40 years, after I had checked out Errol and Olivia enjoying some frontier smooching in the 1939 Technicolor western Dodge City.
Neither picked up any awards, but for me they were both winners.
Laurence Lerman is a film journalist, former editor of Video Business--Variety's DVD trade publication--and husband to The Insider's own Gwen Cooper. Over the course of his career he has conducted one-on-one interviews with just about every major director working today, including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Walter Hill, Spike Lee, and Werner Herzog, among numerous others. Once James Cameron specifically requested an interview with Laurence by name, which his wife still likes to brag about. Most recently, he is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the online review site DiscDish.com.