HAPPY 100th BIRTHDAY TO OLIVIA DE HAVILLAND!
Scarlett O’Hara, one of the finest-crafted characters in all of literature and cinema, calls Melanie Hamilton a “pale-faced, mealy-mouthed ninny”, completely jealous because Melanie marries Ashley Wilkes, the man Scarlett is crazy about. Although that phrase is hilarious, it’s crazy inaccurate.
In the 1939 landmark film Gone With the Wind, Melanie is portrayed by Olivia de Havilland with gracious strength and sincerity. Scarlett O’Hara may have been the role of a lifetime (truly, it was) but I think that de Havilland won herself an amazing role, as well. It’s understated. Scarlett O’Hara is usually the first character people think of when they think about Gone With the Wind. Well, that or Rhett Butler. I feel like it’s kind of a tossup. But there are so many characters in the film that are so interesting and complex and Melanie just happens to be one of them.
The following clip shows several other actresses who auditioned for the role of Melanie. Fun fact: Marsha Hunt, who was one of the auditioned actresses, is still alive at the age of 98. She’s in the clip starting at the 1:07 mark:
One could look at Melanie Hamilton-Wilkes and simply find a meek, saccharine, too-kind young lady who sees the world through twenty pairs of rose colored glasses. But that’s really not the way to look at her. I think you have to look below the surface to really appreciate Melanie’s strength. It’s her kindness and graciousness that make her so strong. She forgives, she’s completely accepting of people from different walks of life (Just watch the poignant scene in which she thanks Belle Watling – a prostitute and outcast – for saving Ashley’s life). Unlike many other people, Melanie treats Belle like a human being: a human being that matters; a human being that is on the same level as she is. Personally, I think it’s one of the most touching scenes in the nearly four hour film.
Belle Watling to Melanie: “Mrs Wilkes, there ain’t never been a woman in town that’s been nice to me the way you was; I mean about the money for the hospital, you know, and I don’t forget a kindness. I got to thinkin’ about you bein’ left a widow, with a little boy – he’s a nice little boy, your boy, Mrs Wilkes. I got a boy myself…”
You see Melanie’s kindness and graciousness so well in this scene, too: the famous (or infamous?) Wilkes barbecue. Scarlett gets snarky with Melanie, as she’s just heard the rumor that Melanie and Ashley are going to be married.
The scene, like every other one in the film, is a classic one:
“Oh Scarlett, you have so much life. I’ve always admired you so. I wish I could be more like you.”
But she doesn’t take any nonsense, either. She’s not afraid to defend her life and the lives of those she’s close to if danger comes near. And she’s also not afraid to make quick judgments and trust people when trusting may seem like the bad thing to do to everyone else:
This clip is more for celebrating Olivia de Havilland’s acting and the great detail she puts into illustrating her emotions onscreen. Although Ashley is a questionable love interest, it’s a lovely moment:
Gone With the Wind remains one of the greatest and most beloved films in the history of the universe. Olivia de Havilland’s performance as Melanie Hamilton-Wilkes is one of the most tender and wholehearted that’s ever been seen on celluloid.
As a miscellaneous bonus, here’s an interview from 2006 in which Olivia talks about her initial interest in portraying Melanie in the film, meeting Errol Flynn for the first time, and how she sued Warner Brothers in the landmark case that changed everything in how film contracts worked in the studio system. Go Olivia!
2 thoughts on “Melanie Hamilton: A True Heroine”
Great post, I’d never seen that 2006 clip. I’ve always been more of a Melanie fan (though the case could also be made that they’d all have starved without Scarlett). Melanie’s strength, kindness, and loyalty are even more prominent in the book, and as you say, de Havilland brings her to life perfectly. In my alt-GWTW universe, she and Rhett end up together.
Thanks, Paula! Yes, she and Rhett have amazing chemistry and I totally agree with you on that.