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Olivia de Havilland, the delicate beauty and last remaining star of Gone With the Wind who received her two acting Oscars after helping to take down Hollywood’s studio system with a landmark legal victory in the 1940s, died Sunday. She was 104.
De Havilland died of natural causes at her home in Paris, where she had lived for more than 60 years, publicist Lisa Goldberg announced.
She was the older sister (by 15 months) and rival of fellow Academy Award-winning actress Joan Fontaine, who died in December 2013 at age 96. Fontaine won her only Oscar in 1942 for Suspicion, beating out fellow nominee de Havilland.
De Havilland captured her best actress Oscar statuettes for To Each His Own (1946), in which she played an unwed mother who is forced to give up her baby and loves him from afar, and The Heiress (1949), where she starred as a vulnerable woman who falls hard for a handsome journeyman (Montgomery Clift) against the wishes of her emotionally abusive father (Ralph Richardson). She was the oldest surviving Oscar-winning actor.
For her performance as the sweet and suffering Melanie in Gone With the Wind (1939), de Havilland earned her first Oscar nom, but in the supporting actress category, she lost to fellow castmember Hattie McDaniel.
She also was nominated for her turns in Hold Back the Dawn (1941), where she played a spinsterish schoolteacher wooed by Charles Boyer, and The Snake Pit (1948), a harrowing film that had de Havilland’s character in an asylum for reasons she can’t recall. It was one of the earliest films to attempt a realistic portrayal of mental illness and perhaps the most challenging role of her fabled career.
In addition to her award-winning turns, de Havilland was a true star, playing in a number of the day’s most popular movies. She appeared in nine films at Warner Bros. opposite the dashing Errol Flynn, including The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), where she played a sweet Maid Marian, and she teamed with director Michael Curtiz nine times as well.
Late Turner Classic Movies host and THR columnist Robert Osborne wonderfully captured the essence of de Havilland and her career (they were close friends and spoke almost every Sunday for years) in a video when the actress was named the channel’s “Star of the Month” in July 2016.
But for all her work onscreen, de Havilland’s greatest impact on Hollywood came away from the soundstage in 1943 when she sued Warner Bros. to gain freedom from the studio after her seven-year contract had expired.
At the time, Hollywood lawyers took the position that a contract should be treated as suspended during the periods when the artist was not actually working. This interpretation meant that, in de Havilland’s case, seven years of actual service would be spread over a much longer period.
Angered when Warners tried to extend her deal after she was suspended for rejecting a series of roles she deemed were inferior, de Havilland sued the studio. In 1945, the courts ruled that not only was de Havilland free, but all artists were to be limited to the calendar terms of their deals.
“I was deeply gratified when, returning to MGM after his long and distinguished military service, Jimmy Stewart asked the court on the basis of that decision for a ruling on his contract — and thus the contracts of other actor-veterans — and received, of course, a favorable verdict,” de Havilland said in a 1992 interview with Screen Actor.
“When I won the final round of my case on Feb. 3, 1945, every actor was now confirmed as free of his long-term contract at the end of its seven-year term, regardless of how many suspensions he had taken during those seven years. No one thought I would win, but after I did, flowers, letters and telegrams arrived from my fellow actors. This was wonderfully rewarding.”
It’s now known in legal circles as The De Havilland Decision.
Still feisty in the days before her 101st birthday, the actress sued FX and Ryan Murphy Productions over how she was portrayed by Catherine Zeta-Jones in Feud: Bette and Joan, but an appeals court ruled against her in March 2018. Then, neither the California Supreme Court nor the U.S. Supreme Court thought intervention was warranted.
“Olivia de Havilland was not only beautiful and talented, she was a courageous visionary and an inspiration to generations,” SAG-AFTRA president Gabrielle Carteris said in a statement. “She was a founding member of Screen Actors Guild in a time when organizing and joining a union was often a dangerous enterprise. … SAG-AFTRA members will be forever grateful to Ms. de Havilland for her contributions to the founding of our union and the protection of its members. She was a marvel and a legend.”
Olivia Mary de Havilland was born in Tokyo on July 1, 1916. Her father, Walter, was a British patent attorney with a thriving practice, while her mother, Lilian, was a sometime actress who wanted her girls to follow in her footsteps.
At age 3, de Havilland went with her mom and sister to live in California and was educated at a convent. Following high school, she enrolled at Mills College in Oakland, where she became interested in acting. In a Hollywood Bowl production of Midsummer Night’s Dream, the impresario Max Reinhardt, who was casting a film production of the play for Warners, spotted her (an understudy, she was playing Hermia when Gloria Stuart dropped out) and signed her up.
In quick succession, de Havilland co-starred in four movies in 1935: Alibi Ike, The Irish in Us, the Midsummer film and Captain Blood, her first collaboration with Flynn and Curtiz. She then toiled in a number of lackluster productions in the late ’30s, including two more with Flynn in 1939, Dodge City and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex.
The radiant de Havilland got the chance of a lifetime when Warners lent her out to David O. Selznick and MGM for GWTW. (Fontaine once said that she was the one who recommended de Havilland for the part after she was considered too “stylish.” De Havilland also took Selznick’s wife out to tea at the Brown Derby in an effort to have her sway her husband.)
As the decent, self-effacing Melanie, de Havilland was perfect.
“Playing good girls in the ’30s was difficult when the fad was to play bad girls,” she once said. “Actually, I think playing bad girls is a bore; I have always had more luck with good girl roles because they require more from an actress.”
After GWTW, de Havilland returned to Warners and made several forgettable films. She landed her next great role — again, it was on a loan-out, this time to Paramount — for Hold Back the Dawn, which resulted in her second Oscar nom, this time for best actress. But she lost to Fontaine, who won for her turn in Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion.
The sisters were seated at the same table when Fontaine’s name was called. Biographer Charles Higham wrote that as Fontaine came forward to accept her award, she rejected de Havilland’s attempt to congratulate her and that de Havilland was offended. In fact, the sisters never got along since childhood.
“I stared across the table, where Olivia was sitting directly opposite me. ‘Get up there, get up there,’ Olivia whispered commandingly. Now what had I done?” Fontaine recalled in her 1978 autobiography, No Bed of Roses. “All the animus we’d felt toward each other as children, the hair-pullings, the savage wrestling matches, the time Olivia fractured my collarbone, all came rushing back in kaleidoscopic imagery. My paralysis was total.”
Five years later, after de Havilland won her Oscar and completed her acceptance speech, she was approached backstage by Fontaine. But, as was immortalized in a photo snapped by Hymie Fink of Photoplay, Olivia appeared to turn away and snub her.
De Havilland’s press agent Henry Rogers told reporters: “The girls haven’t spoken to each other for four months. Miss de Havilland had no wish to have her picture taken with her sister. This goes back for years and years, ever since they were kids — a case of two sisters who don’t have a great deal in common.”
The sisters quarreled (or didn’t speak to each other) in the subsequent decades, according to many reports. Fontaine told THR‘s Scott Feinberg shortly before her death that “this ‘Olivia feud’ has always irritated me because it has no basis. To this day it has no basis!”
But de Havilland noted her sister, while “brilliant and very gifted,” had “an astigmatism in her perception of both people and situations, which could cause and did cause great distress in others,” she said in an interview with People magazine as she neared her 100th birthday. “I was among those, and eventually this brought about an estrangement between us which did not change in the last years of her life.”
After her standout work in the ’40s, de Havilland’s screen appearances became increasingly rare. Her subsequent movies included My Cousin Rachel (1952) and such generic fare as Libel (1959), Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964), Lady in a Cage (1964) and The Adventurers (1969). Her last movie performance came in 1979’s The Fifth Musketeer.
De Havilland also appeared in a handful of TV movies during the 1980s, including Murder Is Easy, The Royal Romance of Charles and Diana and, in her last credited role, 1988’s The Woman He Loved, playing Queen Anne.
She chafed at the pace and the mentality of TV producers and production companies.
“The TV business is soul-crushing, talent-destroying and human-being destroying,” she said. “These men in their black towers don’t know what they are doing. It’s slave labor. There is no elegance left in anybody. They have no taste. Movies are being financed by conglomerates, which take a write-off if they don’t work. The only people who fight for what the public deserves are artists.”
Since the mid-’50s, de Havilland lived in Paris with her husband, the late French journalist Pierre Galante, far from Hollywood and its cult of celebrity. “Famous people feel that they must perpetually be on the crest of the wave, not realizing that it is against all the rules of life,” she once said. “You can’t be on top all the time, it isn’t natural.”
She and Galante were married from 1955 until his death in 1979. She earlier was married to screenwriter and novelist Marcus Goodrich from 1946 until their divorce in 1953. Survivors include her daughter, Gisele, son-in-law Andrew and niece Deborah.
She penned a satirical book, Every Frenchman Has One. Published in 1962, it was a wry autobiographical account of her attempts to adapt to French life. In 1965, she became the first female jury president at the Cannes Film Festival.
In the summer of 2010, de Havilland recorded an introduction that was played at an Academy screening of The Dark Mirror (1946), in which she played twins, one evil and one good. In one of her final public appearances, she attended the Cesar Awards in France in February 2011 and received a standing ovation.
In the 2004 documentary Melanie Remembers: Reflections by Olivia de Havilland, she explained why she wanted to play Melanie when most everyone else in Hollywood was going after the Scarlett role.
“It was the character of Melanie that attracted me most because of her admirable qualities and the values that meant so much to her and meant so much to me,” she said. “I wanted to perpetuate these values. And the perfect way to do that of course would be to play the part of Melanie.”
Memorial contributions may be made to the American Cathedral in Paris.
Duane Byrge contributed to this report.
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