Technicolor Girl | By Joel Fishbane
I once saved Olivia de Havilland from certain death.
Some important facts: Olivia may be the last remaining queen of the golden age of cinema. Today, in 2012, she is ninety-six, but when I met her she was twenty-two and riding through Sherwood Forest with Errol Flynn. I was fourteen and had lusted after waitresses, teachers, and (occasionally) girls my own age. But I had never yet loved a girl in Technicolor. It was 1991 and for weeks I watched nothing but Robin Hood and Captain Blood.
Not long after, Myrna Loy caught my eye and I forgot about Olivia for the next twenty years. Then, suddenly, there she was, hiding in a fire sale. The library was going out of business and Olivia, coy thing that she is, was appearing to me in the form of her memoir, Every Frenchman Has One. It concerned her marriage to a Frenchman, and, while she claimed she had moved to Paris, according to the circulation card she hadn’t left the library since 1965.
From the dustjacket, my Technicolor girl stared at me in black and white. How could I not save her? Dying books aren’t shot like horses, she seemed to say, but they are turned to pulp, an equally painful fate. Forever shy, Olivia waited twenty-eight pages before revealing what it was that every Frenchman had: an intoxicated liver. “Every serious Frenchman takes good care of his own,” she said. “A really patriotic Frenchman takes a cure every year and, if possible, goes to a foreign spa to do so, showing himself to his European cousins as a responsible Frenchman.”
I had not expected her to be so wry. Who knew you could watch a woman’s films fifty times and still never know the real person?
Slowly, Olivia revealed herself as fish out of l’eau. She is baffled by Celsius and distraught that clever French maids can only be found in American farce. But she thinks it a wonder that though Hollywood considers a 42 brassiere cause for “national adulation,” Parisians think it a reason to take shrinking lessons.
“I know exactly how you feel,” I said to her time and again. I’m no stranger to culture shock. Fifteen years ago, I moved to Quebec with only a smattering of French and have suffered ever since. I understand her all too well. Olivia confuses salé (salty) with sale (dirty). I mistake pêche (peach) with péché (sin) and once told a girl she provoked me to peaches of the flesh (pêche de chair).
Books, like lovers, have to appear at just the right time. Before Quebec, Olivia could never have been more than a schoolboy crush. Now she is an echo of myself, and because of it, she has the gravitas of true love.
That she wrote of my experience forty years before I had it can only suggest she has some degree of clairvoyance. I cite this as proof that when it comes to women, I have excellent taste.
NER Digital is a creative writing series for the web. Joel Fishbane is an author, playwright and man about town. (On most days, that town is Montreal). His work has been or will be seen in Witness, Theatre Journal, NER (32.2), Saranac Review, Fifth Wednesday Journal and several other publications in Canada and the US. Please visit him at www.joelfishbane.com.