How Olivia Prepped for The Snake Pit

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Mary Jane Ward wrote The Snake Pit after experiencing eight months of grueling treatment while in a mental institution. The title of the novel itself comes from the thought that shocking a person – like throwing them into a pit of snakes – would cause them to return to normal.

The semi-autobiographical novel was an immediate hit and once adapted, it gave Olivia de Havilland another Academy Award nomination.

"I have never had any role that took so much out of me," said Olivia de Havilland.

1. Hollywood didn’t want it.

Director Anatole Litvak purchased the rights to the novel for $75 thousand and was quickly surprised to find that studios were afraid to tackle the taboo subject. Litvak said, “They all thought I was as crazy as the girl in the book.” Eventually, 20th Century Fox committed to the project and paid $175 for the rights.

2. Another star was considered.

Gene Tierney was the first actress up for the lead. However, she had to turn it down since she was pregnant. Ingrid Bergman was also considered, but she didn’t want the role. In the end, Olivia took the helm, and Bergman called her performance “marvelous.” Joan Fontaine (Olivia's sister and rival) was also considered.

3. Holm got the job in the elevator.

Celeste Holm was moved by the novel and felt, especially after doing The Gentleman’s Agreement, that it was an important work. Her agent didn’t want her to do it and refused to reach out to the studio. Two days later, she happened to end up stuck in the same elevator as the director. She wasted no time in telling him that she would be willing to play any part, and he agreed to speak with Darryl Zanuck. She then pressed the emergency stop button (which she had secretly pressed to stop the elevator) and their ride continued. Surprised and impressed by her initiative, he said she got the job right then.

4. Olivia poured herself into the role.

The director made sure that the actors and crew visited mental institutions in order to grasp the reality of the film. “The set was crawling with psychologists,” Celeste Holm remembered. Olivia de Havilland went above and beyond the task, attending conferences, speaking with nurses and patients, and trying to understand the role. One patient in particular left a mark. Olivia said, “I met a young woman who was very much like Virginia... what struck me most of all was the fact that she was rather likable and was that that gave me the key to the performance.”