If only Melanie Wilkes could have played Olivia de Havilland, things might have turned out so differently.
"She had a wisdom of the heart," said Olivia de Havilland of the sad, doomed creature she played in "Gone With the Wind," the character she is still best known for. "I wish I had her wisdom. I really did have some golden armor while I played her, but it broke when the film ended. I was never able to get it back."
She sat in a room in the parish house of St. John's Episcopal Church, the White House and the white sky looking from the window like the setting for some pale dream from the past. Melanie, it would seem, haunts her like some gentle ghost, and to look into her eyes is to see some of the softness that so often banked the fires in Scarlett's.
"Gone With the Wind" will tear at the hearts of those who turn to the tube for such wrenchings once again this Sunday, and De Havilland is disturbed at the way the film's crescendo must be broken from time to time by commercials.
But there is an event much more important taking place the next week: The sequel to "Roots," the epic that belies the romance of that patrician, tragic culture, and Olivia de Havilland will play a part. A rather small part unfortunately.
"I'm only in the first two episodes," she said, lapsing into the Southern accent she learned so long ago. "Only a small scene in the second episode. I spoke to my lawyer. And to Henry Fonda, who plays Mr. Warner, my husband. Because people will want to know what happened to Mrs. Warner. And people will want to know what happened to Olivia de Havilland."
Fonda said he would be sure to remark upon the fate of his wife in the third episode, but De Havilland did not know if he had or not since she hasn't seen the completed project. "I'm very sorry that I don't die," she said wistfully. "I would have liked to die."
She died beautifully in "Gone With the Wind," as a culture crumbled around her. And she saw no irony in playing a part in a televised phenomenon that has gone so far in trying to destroy the myths that have covered that culture like ancient Spanish moss.
"Oh no," she said, wide eyes startled by the very idea. "It was a very different kind of life. Things weren't like that at Tara or Twelve Oaks, I'm sure of it. But of course they were at some of those very unfortunate plantations. But at a place like Tara, why look at Mammy -- there were these adorable relationships between the owners and the slaves."
She lives in Paris now, in a nearly 100-year-old home near the Arc de Triomphe. It is, she said, "my shelter, my haven," and her life, "an active one." The phone is always ringing, for her 22-year-old daughter, Gisele, a fifth-year law student, and there is her work for the Episcopal church -- part of which brings her to Washington to help in a fund-raising mission.
"I read the lesson (at church)," she said. "There is a lot of preparation. It takes a special attitude, a gravity without solemnity to do it properly. One must study the ideas most carefully." Isaiah was rather sticky. "I thought of him as terribly difficult, you see. But as I read, the more I saw he was a prophet -- electrifying, positively electrifying."
She is as well a member of the Altar Guild. "they assigned me once to polishing the brass. I was very good at it. When I polished the brass, it looked like burnished gold."
And so it goes, this conversation, sounding at times as carefully polished as the altar brass, the highlights of each sentence gleaming with a careful charm, a touch of coquetry. It is hard to know just how much refuge in Melanie Olivia de Havilland has found in her encounters with the world.
She left Hollywood in 1953 for Paris. "Motion pictures were dying," she said. "The world I was brought up in was dying." She talked of the glamor that imbued that world, the stars who walked so gracefully through it. "Bette Davis was an empress," she said, "and Garbo a goddess."
And now she tours the country, giving an hour's worth of reminiscences of that world to women's clubs in places like Boise and Yakima and Cheyenne, and a boat that goes up and down the Mississppi, docking at New Orleans and Natchez. "They want to know what Clark Gable was really like," she said. "But alas, I can't tell them. I was so young then."
And there have been, she said, so "many revelations on these tours. The people who live in these places -- they seem so happy there."
She is updating a book now, one that first appeared in 1962, about her life in Paris, and soon she will write an autobiography. She has not, she said, read the book, her sister, actress Joan Fontaine, wrote -- the one that went into such enthusiastic detail of their enduring feud. "People always ask me about that," she said. "I say 'we're either up or down, in or out, on or off." And she laughs rather gleefully, in a rather unMelanie-like way.
"My sister is one year, three months, three weeks and one day younger than me," said De Havilland, who is 62. "When one does everything first, it must be very hard on the second. I find it a great pity."
But no, she does not seek reconciliation. "It's very risky for me," she said. "I don't like to be made unhappy."
Is she happy now? A mannerly feint: "One looks always for happiness." But the Oscar-winning days, the years of "To Each His Own," and "The Heiress" and the years of being described habitually in the newspapers as "breathtakingly beautiful" are over.
Her roles lately have run toward the garish -- "Airport 77," and an apiarian horror story called "The Swarm." "It was terribly disappointing," she said. "There was a scene where my face was entirely covered with bees -- it was just horrible. but they wanted it for the realism. And then they cut it out. But at least I played a part in which I got to have two beaus. And never, in the movies or real life will I ever have two beaus. Optimism must have its limits."
And so must disappointment. One of the worst, she recalled in one interview, had to do with her most beloved triumph. "Gone With the Wind" was up for a raft of Oscars, but the producer, David O. Selznick, refused to pit her against Vivien Leigh for best actress. Instead, she was nominated for best supporting actress -- up against Hattie McDaniel as Mammy.
McDaniel won and, De Havilland recalled, "... for two weeks I couldn't believe there was any good in the world. Then, on the 15th day I woke up... and heard myself exclaiming 'What a wonderful world and what a wonderful profession -- a profession that would honor a member of her race!'"
Since then, there have been two husbands, and two divorces. The last became final last month, after years of civilized separation, maintainded for the sake of her daughter, Gisele. "She was indignant when she saw the way the divorce papers were written up," De Havilland said, 'because they described me as 'sans profession'"
Now, the house in Paris is too big for her. Gisele -- "she's not too unlike Melanie, a girl of deep attachments" -- will be leaving for life on her own. Now Olivia de Havilland is thinking of moving to Washington, "a low city, with beautiful monuments, built on a river," and of what life will be like for her.
"There's just got to be one out there," she said, of the sort of script that does not involve applying live bees as if they were a facial. But her life, she thinks, will be lived alone. It is not like it was for Melanie.
"They knew what to look for in a man, then. Now, nobody tells you. I would certainly like to take an extension course in the subject."
But then she brightened, and looked out the window and into the future and of course, she had to say it.
"You never know," she said, "what lovely things will happen tomorrow. Tomorrow!"