I was recently having a conversation with a classic film author about the wave of biographies that tend to come off more like fan tributes. I hadn’t initially thought of that concept, and how it can mar a work of non-fiction, until I read Victoria Amador’s biography on Olivia de Havilland, out now from University Press of Kentucky. Amador’s heart is in the right place as she lovingly recounts elements of de Havilland’s life with the utmost respect but that often seems in service of a woman Amador knows personally, a friend more than a subject.
Olivia de Havilland: Lady Triumphant is like many of the books published by University Press of Kentucky’s Screen Classics Series, a blend of biography and filmic analysis. This is Amador’s first biography and a lengthy prologue acts to justify her credentials, more so of her knowledge of the subject than her ability to write.
She describes writing de Havilland a fan letter as a teenager, a relationship that would ultimately develop into a decades-long penpal project before transitioning into the two meeting and striking up a friendship. It’s a beautifully heartfelt story but it leaves the door open for hesitation. How can an author unobjectively look at the subject they’re writing on? Amador states de Havilland did help throughout the writing, contributing notes and answering questions, blurring the line further into how much of this is meant to read as an authorized semi-autobiography or not.
That being said, Amador certainly knows de Havilland’s films and the facets of her life. She lays out the origins of de Havilland’s life with her mother and wayward father, a man who believed he deserved a wife and a mistress. Instead of taking the standard chronological approach Amador chooses to jump around, lumping certain movies together for reasons never truly explained. It’s definitely worthwhile to include de Havilland’s early ’30s films together, as well as give specific solo chapters to the actress’ biggest movies like Gone With the Wind, but when Amador desires to weave in biographical elements she’s often left repeating an earlier anecdote when she gets to a specific moment in time. It often feels like she’s randomly including a bit of trivia she didn’t remember the first go-round.
Her respect for de Havilland extends to her personal life which she discusses with sensitivity. There’s little salaciousness found in the book, but it is hard to feel that this is either a surface-level tread on de Havilland’s personal life or a sanitized look because they’re friends. Really, the majority of the book is film analysis. Amador spends a considerable amount of pages analyzing de Havilland’s appearance in nearly all her features. This does become tedious early in de Havilland’s career, with Amador reiterating that the roles were beneath her. As does her penchant for infusing every moment in de Havilland’s life with being fated to lead her to either separating from the studio or finding her role in Gone With the Wind.
Amador’s heart is in the right place but Lady Triumphant doesn’t live up to the title. It’s a great encapsulation of de Havilland’s career and some solid film analysis, but as a biography you’ll leave with little new material gained on the life of this amazing woman.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.