Olivia de Havilland is cruising into her second century of photos at the incredible age of 104! Seen as the last great star of Old Hollywood, she’s had a journey and a half so far. Drama, romance, heartbreak… Ms de Havilland has seen it all.
Known around the world for her role as Melanie Hamilton in Gone With The Wind (1939), she also co-starred with Errol Flynn. They made no less than 8 movies together, the most famous of which is probably The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938).
“With her deep brown doe eyes and apple-cheeked smile, the two-time Best Actress winner excelled at playing heroines whose demure bearing belied a feisty core” writes Entertainment Weekly (EW) about this English-American institution.
Born in Tokyo 1916, her father Prof Walter Havilland went from academic to attorney. Mother Lilian was also an actress. She shared a legendary Hollywood rivalry with younger sister Joan Fontaine, more on which later. In 1919 the family settled in California, though they were supposed to be heading back to England. Walter then left and returned to Japan, marrying a housekeeper there.
Her interest in performing was apparent from an early age. At one point de Havilland was going to be an English teacher before pursuing a life in showbusiness. She came to the attention of director Max Reinhardt, who wound up casting her in the movie version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935). This was her screen debut, playing Hermia alongside Jean Muir, James Cagney, Mickey Rooney and other greats.
Warner Bros produced the picture. As was standard at the time, they signed de Havilland to a 7 year contract. Many actors felt constrained by the old studio system, their lives micro-managed on every level. She was having none of it, clashing numerous times with the top brass and getting suspended.
“What bothered me was playing one-dimensional parts in films which were really about ‘Boy Meets Girl’” she told EW via e-mail. “‘Will Boy Get Girl?’ (He always did). Those roles were intended simply to fill the routine function of ‘The Girl.’ Little, if any, character development was involved.” de Havilland jumped at the chance of playing Hamilton in Gone With The Wind. She received an Oscar nod for her efforts.
In a landmark 1940s court case she finally broke free of her shackles. “Warner Bros. claimed it was owed an additional six months of work, for the time off during suspension” Variety reports. “She countered that the contract was for seven years, not for the time actually spent working.” The publication ran a 1944 headline: “De Havilland Free Agent.”
de Havilland’s victory applied to other stars looking to prise themselves from the studios’ grip. EW points out, “To this day the law that makes such practices illegal is called the de Havilland Decision.” (The honor, she says, feels “absolutely marvelous!”) Over the years she starred in To Each His Own (1946) and The Heiress (1949). de Havilland won a little gold man for each performance. My Cousin Rachel (1952) and Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964) were notable entries on her resume.
Directed by Robert Aldrich, the latter movie was a successor of sorts to his What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? in ‘62. Both featured overheated family intrigue. Just as Baby Jane’s Joan Crawford and Bette Davis had a real life grudge match, so did Olivia and sister Joan (though Davis co-starred in Sweet Charlotte, with de Havilland replacing Crawford).
The pair were at odds both professionally and personally. “To promote her 1978 memoir, No Bed of Roses,” the Daily Mail writes, “Joan said: ‘You can divorce your sister as well as your husbands. I don’t see her at all and I don’t intend to.’ She also added, ‘I got married first, got an Academy Award first, had a child first. If I die, she’ll be furious, because again I’ll have got there first!’”
Olivia married writer Marcus Goodrich in 1946 before getting divorced in ‘53. They had 1 child together, Benjamin. Pierre Galante, an executive editor at Paris Match, was her second husband. The union lasted from ‘55 to ‘79 and they raised a daughter, Gisèle.
de Havilland wrote a book of essays, Every Frenchman Has One, in 1962. At the 1965 Cannes Film Festival, she was the first ever woman to serve as Jury president. In the 1970s she appeared in disaster films Airport ‘77 and notorious B/bee movie The Swarm. 1988 TV movie The Woman He Loved is her last acting role to date. 2009 saw her narrating I Remember Better When I Paint, a documentary about Alzheimer’s and creative therapy. Last year photos were released of the veteran actress riding a bike, showing she has no intention of slowing down!
She was given the National Medal of Arts in 2008 and the Legion of Honor in 2010. For the past six decades, the star has called Paris home. However she was made a Dame in 2017, becoming the oldest person to receive the title from Queen Elizabeth. Ironically she’d played the Queen Mother in 1982’s The Royal Romance of Charles and Diana.
Even now the classic star is making headlines. A couple of years ago she attempted to take Ryan Murphy’s Hollywood drama Feud off air, objecting to the way she was portrayed. Ultimately she was unsuccessful. Catherine Zeta-Jones played de Havilland. Most recently, Gone With The Wind has been to’ing and fro’ing on HBO Max, owing to recent protests over race and representation.
A decade ago, she almost appeared in abandoned movie project The Aspern Papers, directed by James Ivory. Who knows, she might yet make one more big screen appearance and remind the world of her undoubted star quality… Happy Birthday!