Olivia de Havilland has passed away, just weeks after her 104th birthday. For many her passing closes the book on Hollywood’s Golden Age. She was the last surviving cast member from ‘Gone With The Wind’ (1939) and gained a reputation over the decades as a formidable performer and force to be reckoned with.
de Havilland famously bucked the trend where stars knuckled down under lengthy studio contracts. The early 1940s saw her battling Warner Bros in the courts over a 7 year deal. She’d been suspended more than once and her bosses tried tacking time onto the end as a result. She disagreed with their assessment! When she eventually triumphed, the victory was so significant it became known as the “de Havilland law”.
Looking back on her career for Entertainment Weekly, she wrote, “What bothered me was playing one-dimensional parts in films which were really about ‘Boy Meets Girl’. ‘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.”
For de Havilland, ‘Gone With The Wind’’s Melanie Hamilton gave her a chance to shine. An Oscar nomination beckoned, though Hattie McDaniel wound up collecting the statuette. de Havilland went on to win a couple of little gold men, one for To Each His Own (1946) and the other for The Heiress (1949). Before her death she was the oldest living Oscar winner.
Born in Tokyo 1916, her parents were law professor Walter de Havilland and actress mother Lilian. Younger sister – and reported future rival – Joan Fontaine was born the following year. By 1919 the family were California residents – a plan to return to England was derailed by Olivia getting tonsilitis and Joan pneumonia. Walter then took up with a housekeeper back in Japan.
de Havilland made her big screen debut in 1935’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, playing Hermia. Her big break was opposite Errol Flynn in movie adventure ‘Captain Blood’ the same year. She and Flynn made 8 films together, most notably ‘The Adventures of Robin Hood’ (1938). de Havilland took the role of Maid Marian alongside Flynn’s hero in green tights.
Other highlights from her career, spanning over half a decade, include ‘They Died with Their Boots On’ (1941), ‘The Snake Pit’ (1948), ‘My Cousin Rachel’ (1952) and ‘Lady in a Cage’ (1964). Her hard won independence from Warner Bros left her and others free to pursue diverse and rewarding work.
She hired lawyers once again in response to 2017 FX series ‘Feud’, about the grudge match between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. de Havilland starred with Davis in 1964’s ‘Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte’. She strongly objected to the way producers depicted her onscreen, seeking to have the show shelved. Catherine Zeta-Jones played de Havilland. This time the veteran star lost her case.
Much was made of a real life feud between her and Joan. “The pair reportedly had a difficult relationship from childhood” writes BBC News, saying it was also “exacerbated by them both being nominated for Best Actress in 1942, with Fontaine winning out.” Personal issues contributed to ongoing tensions, though Joan did praise Olivia for standing up to studio bosses. The former died in 2013, aged 96.
After a marriage to writer Marcus Goodrich between 1946 – ‘53, she wed Paris Match executive editor Pierre Galante in ’55 and moved to the city of love for good, though they divorced in 1979. “Aside from occasional onscreen roles, she lived quietly in Paris and generally shunned the public” writes Entertainment Weekly. They add: “Even at the height of her fame, she was known for her inscrutability”.
de Havilland had a son, Benjamin, with Goodrich. Benjamin sadly died from heart disease in 1991, as a result of treatment earlier in life for Hodgkin’s lymphoma. With Galante, she had a daughter, Gisèle.
She was awarded the National Medal of Arts in 2008 and the Legion of Honor 2 years later. A Damehood followed in 2017. Her last big screen role was in 1979’s ‘The Fifth Musketeer’. She had a cameo as the Queen Mother. 1988 British TV drama ‘The Woman He Loved’ became her last acting job, where she played another royal figure – Aunt Bessie Merryman.
Tributes have poured in from across the world of entertainment. Actor and musician Jared Leto met de Havilland in Paris. A beneficiary of de Havilland’s law via court wranglings with his group 30 Seconds to Mars, he wanted to see her in person. “I thanked her for her bravery” he wrote, “and shared how her choices affected me and my brother and gave us opportunities to fight for our creative freedom”.
“We attended the same events many times” tweeted Morgan Fairchild. “I was once seated between her and Robert Mitchum. What stories! A lovely lady and great actress. Always so gracious!”
Bryan Adams shared a photo he’d taken of de Havilland in 2009. Jane Seymour wrote on Instagram that the iconic actress was “larger than life. She was a brilliant actor and I had the pleasure of working on ‘The Woman He Loved’ with her (Seymour played Wallis Simpson). I will cherish those memories for life.”
“At what age does it change from ‘gone to soon’ to ‘they had a great run’?” asked director Edgar Wright on Twitter. “Well, 104 is a hell of a run.” Entertainment Weekly highlight that the struggle to the top was really all her own work. “De Havilland built her legacy — one of strong, beguiling characters in difficult circumstances — with her own hands.”
Olivia de Havilland died of natural causes. RIP!
Steve Palace is a writer and comedian from the UK. He’s a contributor to both The Vintage News and The Hollywood News and has created content for many other websites. His short fiction has been published by Obverse Books.