May 24, 2016

Olivia de Havilland, The Snake Pit*

Won: New York Film Critics Circle - Best Actress | National Board of Review - Best Actress | Volpi Cup for Best Actress

Having built the foundation to her career playing saints in the likes of Gone with the Wind and Hold Back the Dawn, it's shocking to see Olivia de Havilland so completely, flagrantly flawed in The Snake Pit. And while she took a quick detour from this image as a semi-flawed yet redemptive woman in To Each His Own, there's little atonement to be had for Virginia Cunningham. de Havilland goes absolutely go-for-broke with in this film, and the resulting performance is polarizing in a most literal sense. 

I found The Snake Pit to be a rather imperfect film, but de Havilland far and away owns every single frame. As the film opens we're witness to a uncomfortably sullied and unhinged de Havilland, and from there on out I was gripped by her, even if there were times where I couldn't quite figure out if she was overdoing it or not. It's a loudly emotional performance, teetering back and forth between powerful and theatrical, and I was initially put-off by it. Was she too overdramatic? Am I justified in thinking that she was a little annoying? But having given it some more thought, I came to the conclusion that my mixed instincts on de Havilland's work was one-sided. From personal experience, the very, very few occasions to which I've been in the company of mentally unstable people have invoked the exact same reactions out of me -- so in other words, I came to the realization that perhaps de Havilland was hitting the nail on the head here in her interpretation of mental illness. These feelings aside, I think de Havilland is so magnetic here. Her confessions to Dr. Kik are fraught and visceral, and weeks after having watched this film my mind still runs to those moments, which are a mix of deafening, frightening, and ugly. It's no wonder that the British censors had to add a foreword to the film to assert that everyone in the picture was in fact acting. In an era where even the finest acting still comes off as reserved and polished, it's very interesting to find a performance so invasively unrefined.

I actually keep fluctuating between this and a five--may change very soon!
*Olivia de Havilland in The Snake Pit also has the distinguished honor of being my 100th reviewed Best Actress nominee. It's special and insane to think I've reviewed nearly 1/4 of the Best Actresses... so cheers to the next hundred!


  1. It's a performance I came to appreciate much more on a rewatch. Do you like De Havilland in general? By the way, great review as always.

    1. Thank you Giuseppe! Admittedly I haven't seen a whole lot from de Havilland, so based on my reviews it'd seem as though I don't care for her. But I actually thought she was fantastic in Gone with the Wind, and I struggle with whether or not I prefer her or McDaniel.

      I'm sure The Heiress will produce a great result as well :)!

  2. I recalled appreciating this more at a technical standpoint - like she is really good, but somehow I don't really feel for the character...?

    Didn't like the voiceovers though (in general too), but that's not really her fault.

    1. Agreed, I thought that technically, she's actually very impressive at hitting her marks. However I neither loved nor hated Virginia...I just didn't really understand her.

  3. Annoying is the right word. de Havilland is both theatrical and sing-songy in her delivery. That said, she still takes tremendous risks here. The antiquated ideas of mental illness here are somewhat laughable, but this was unchartered territory in 1948. de Havilland does make the character entirely believable from start to finish ... it's just that the character is so insufferable that I want to strangle her. I don't blame that on her ... it's the writing ... and I do think she takes risks as an actress that make her appear deglamorized and more realistic. A mixed-to-positive review from me ... and glad to have your voice back in the fray.

    1. Agreed! I sway between liking and loving the performance. There are elements that I really loved but holistically I just more appreciated it than loved it. And thank you!

  4. I really get your indecision about the rating. Her performance is quite innovative and impressive, but it still has the overdramatic elements of some old fashioned melodramas.

    1. Seems like a mixed bag across the board here. I'm glad I'm not the only one who thought so!

  5. Hindsight is a wonderful thing. This film was made in 1948!
    What did Allen expect? Method acting was a few years into the future.and bearing in mind Olivia was born during WW 1, she gave a superb performance for that era.
    From all accounts, she and the director spent many months observing
    inmates in various psychiatric institutions, so this film was very
    accurate. It did much to overhaul various practices that took place
    in such environments.

    Allen has admitted he doesn't know much of her work.

    Perhaps he should watch "The Heiress",before delivering his statements.
    A little research can go a long way.....
    This film was a massive influence on "Shock Corridor" and "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest". It speaks volumes that Olivia has cited this film
    as her personal favourite, among the very many she made.

    No doubt, seventy years from now, 22nd Century film critics will be
    pulling apart "Memento" and "L.A Confidential" for their acting, if
    the standards applied by Allen are anything to go by.....

    How depressing.

    1. Thanks for the feedback, Rob, but seems to me like you're taking someone's opinion of a piece of performance art rather personally.

      At the end of the day, in regards to all things film/performance's all relative. I certainly welcome differing opinions from my own as I think it's great to have a healthy dialogue with different perspectives, but no one's message will be communicated expressly with such a pointed tone.

      And, to your point on research and whether I should watch "The Heiress":

  6. Every era of acting styles is compared both through current ideas and through the lens of history. I think Allen's review is fair-minded and, if you become familiar with more of Allen's work on this blog, you'll realize how open he is to just about everything. To be fair, he gave this performance 4 Oscars out of 5 and, by and large, he appreciated de Havilland's work.

  7. A fair enough observation.

    However in the context of films made in 1948, Olivia was extremely
    impressive. Very little was known about mental illness seventy years ago,
    and the majority of films made on either side of the Atlantic viewed such
    matters either as comedy or horror. Despite the restrictions of the era,
    (Hays Code, Guild Of Catholic Women etc) the topic is treated very

    In 1972, there was a lurid horror film entitled "Asylum" made
    twenty four years after "Snake Pit"!
    In the crash, bang, wallop climate of modern films, I doubt very
    much "Snake Pit" would stand a chance of being made today.

    1. Good points. 'Snake Pit' was (in some ways still is) ahead of the curve in depicting mental illness. As a licensed clinician myself, I cringe at some of the stereotypes that still persist in film. 'Asylum' is a campy hoot, but it's no 'Snake Pit'.

      The only way it would be made today is if the doctor was Batman, who saves all the patients from an evil psychiatrist played by the Joker. Oh, well ....

  8. Speaking of "Batman", the recent spin-off "Gotham" has the all most
    deranged individuals/criminals placed in "Arkham Asylum", as a subplot.

    Not much change in perception re mental illness since "The Snake Pit".....