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Olivia de Havilland (1916–2020), Oscar-winning “Gone With the Wind” star

by Linnea Crowther

Olivia de Havilland was an Oscar-winning actress who played Melanie Hamilton in “Gone With the Wind” and won two Academy Awards for Best Actress.

Olivia de Havilland’s legacy

De Havilland was one of the last living memories of Hollywood’s golden age and, until her death, the oldest living Oscar winner. She was the sister of actress Joan Fontaine (1917–2013), and they were the only sibling pair in Academy history to win Oscars for leading roles. De Havilland rose from a studio contract with Warner Brothers — which kept her playing sweet ingénue roles that bored and frustrated her — to suing the studio and helping create a new Hollywood, to leaving that Hollywood behind as she sensed its golden age fading. Along the way, she earned a reputation for grace and dramatic range.


Career beginnings

“Gone With the Wind” may now be de Havilland’s greatest legacy as an actress, but it was neither her first big success nor an award-winner for her. It was in swashbuckling action films that she first made her mark, starring opposite Errol Flynn (1909–1959) in eight films, including their debut as a pair, “Captain Blood” (1935). Their chemistry was undeniable, and rumors flew about their romantic entanglements. But Flynn was married, and de Havilland insisted always that they were friends and nothing more (though she admitted to a mutual attraction, and Flynn declared an enduring love for her in his 1959 autobiography).

The rumors of a love match with one of the most sizzling male action stars of the time certainly didn’t hurt de Havilland’s burgeoning career, and she became better known throughout the 1930s as she starred in popular films including “It’s Love I’m After” (1937) and “Gold Is Where You Find It” (1938). An early career highlight came in 1938, when she played Maid Marian opposite Flynn in “The Adventures of Robin Hood.”

An illegal audition for a hard-won role

These films were all made by Warner Brothers, where de Havilland was under contract. The studio system reigned supreme in Hollywood in those days, and actors rarely made films outside their contracted studio. Loans and trades might be made — one actor making a single film with a different studio in exchange, perhaps, for that studio’s big star in a film — but the vast majority of an actor’s films would be made with one studio.

That presented a challenge for de Havilland in 1938, when she learned that David O. Selznick (1902–1965) was preparing to make “Gone With the Wind” for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. De Havilland had read Margaret Mitchell’s popular novel, and she very much wanted to play Melanie Hamilton. Her desire was in contrast to most actresses, who longed for the juicy role of Scarlett O’Hara.

It seemed unlikely that she’d get the chance to play the role she coveted, since the production wasn’t happening at her studio. But it turned out that the film’s director wanted her in the role just as much as she did. She told a story of the illicit phone call from George Cukor that got her to her audition in a 2006 interview with the Academy of Achievement:

“[Cukor] said, ‘Would you consent to doing something highly illegal?’ Well, I said, ‘What would that be?’ And he said, ‘You are under contract to Warner Brothers. We have no right to ask this of you, but would you come secretly — tell no one — to the studio? We will give you directions to what entrance to go, just a private entrance. Someone will be waiting there for you, and he will unlock the door and let you in and lead you to my office to read some lines, read the part of Melanie.’ I said, ‘Yes. I’d be delighted to do this highly illegal thing.'”

It really was that complicated, and the subterfuge didn’t end with her covert audition on the MGM lot. She later did a second private audition with Cukor and Selznick, and both loved her for the part. It was hers if she wanted it — and if she could get away from Warner Brothers. But that was the hitch. Studio head Jack Warner was absolutely unwilling to loan her out.

So de Havilland took charge of her career, as she’d do again in later years. She went over Warner’s head… to his wife. De Havilland had tea and a chat with Ann Warner, expressing to her just how much she wanted to play Melanie. Warner agreed to help, and she worked enough magic with her husband that he consented to loaning de Havilland to MGM in exchange for a picture with their star, James Stewart (1908–1997).

De Havilland was thrilled, despite the fact that “Gone With the Wind” was beginning to get a bad rap in Hollywood. It was taking so long to bring the production to fruition that insiders were tired of it before it was ever released, de Havilland told the Independent. “You have to remember that the search for a Scarlett O’Hara had gone on for three years. Then there were all the changes on the set, the three different directors. The press, the whole of Hollywood, was bored with ‘Gone With the Wind’ long before it was finished and was convinced it would be a terrible flop. But not me. I believed in it.”

She was right to do so. The film was a wild success, smashing all previous box office records and running away with an unprecedented 10 Oscars. De Havilland hoped one of those Oscars would be hers. She was in the running for Best Supporting Actress, though most agreed that her role was a leading one.

No one wanted to pit her against Vivien Leigh (1913–1967) as Scarlett O’Hara, who seemed a shoo-in (and who did indeed win Best Actress), so she was billed as a supporting actress in order to be in contention for a different award. As it turned out, she lost to her costar Hattie McDaniel, who became the first African American to win an Academy Award, and she did not begrudge her costar the historic win. De Havilland reasoned that she didn’t win because she wasn’t a supporting actress, so the voters obviously couldn’t vote for her in good conscience and there was no shame in the loss.

Two sisters race for an Oscar

De Havilland would have other chances to win an Oscar, but not with her next nomination. That Oscar attempt ended in a bitter defeat. De Havilland was in the running for Best Actress on the strength of her performance in 1941’s “Hold Back the Dawn.” But not only did she lose; she lost to her sister, Joan Fontaine, who won for “Suspicion,” making history as the only Oscar-winning performance in an Alfred Hitchcock (1899–1980) film.

It was the first time two siblings had competed for an Oscar, and the race was all the more fraught because the sisters — who were just 15 months apart, de Havilland the elder — had already seen their share of sisterly rivalry, dating back to their childhood. Still, they were civil, at least, until that Oscar win. As Fontaine’s name was announced as the winner, the sisters were sitting at a table together. But that night was the beginning of the end of their relationship.

The sisters’ feud was a legendary one, but de Havilland would rarely provide any fuel to the fires of the silver screen gossips. She was notoriously tight-lipped about her sister, choosing to deflect questions about their relationship rather than answering. Fontaine wasn’t so demure, speaking frankly about their chilly feelings whenever she was asked. That extended to an oft-quoted quip about her Oscar win: “If I die first, she’ll undoubtedly be livid because I beat her to it.”

It wouldn’t be long before de Havilland would catch up with her sister and win her own Oscar. But first, she took on the Hollywood studio system — and won.

The making of the De Havilland Law

De Havilland had already chafed under the constraints of her contract with Warner Brothers when she wanted a role in “Gone With the Wind.” In 1943, she was still frustrated with the studio. She had become a major star, with the massively high-profile role of Melanie on her resume and two Oscar nominations bolstering it. She was growing as an actress and was eager to take on roles that would reflect that growth.

But Warner Brothers had her boxed in as an ingénue. Those were the roles they felt she fit best, and they already had more mature actresses — Bette Davis (1908–1989), for one — under contract for the meatier roles de Havilland longed for. If they put de Havilland in a role they considered better suited for Davis, surely anarchy would ensue.

De Havilland tried rejecting the ingénue roles, but under the studio system, rejecting a role resulted in a suspension during which you couldn’t work at all. And when, in 1943, her seven-year contract with the studio was up, offering her a chance to jump ship, she was informed that another six months had been added to the contract to make up for all her suspensions.

It was the last straw for the daughter of a lawyer who wasn’t afraid to dig into California labor laws to find out how she could break free of the contract. She found a section of the California Labor Code, an anti-peonage law that prevented any employer from enforcing an employee contract for longer than seven years. It was based on earlier laws intended to prevent serfdom, but it worked just fine for de Havilland’s purposes. She took Warner Brothers to the California Supreme Court, and she won. They appealed, and she won again.

De Havilland’s legal victory was a big deal, and not just for her own career. It was one of the contributors to the dismantling of the Hollywood studio system in favor of greater freedom for actors to take the roles they wished and to choose to work for a percentage of profits rather than a flat wage. So important was the ruling that it became known as the De Havilland Law, and it was widely praised by her fellow actors.

Less happy with the decision were the studios, who all but blacklisted her as a result of her suit. She didn’t work in Hollywood for almost two years. But de Havilland kept busy, joining a USO tour and visiting troops in military hospitals at home and overseas while her career stalled.  

A triumphant return — and an exit

When de Havilland did return to Hollywood, it was with triumph. Her first picture after the blacklisting was “To Each His Own” (1946) for Paramount Pictures, and with it came her first Oscar win, for Best Actress. Not only was de Havilland now an Oscar winner; she had also made history as half of the only sibling pair ever to win Academy Awards for leading roles, a distinction that still stands today.

“To Each His Own” was the beginning of a string of deeper, more complex roles for de Havilland, just what she had been dreaming of while bound by Warner Brothers. Among them were “The Dark Mirror” (1946) and “The Snake Pit” (1948), the latter of which earned her another Oscar nomination. She would make it all the way to the top again the following year when she won Best Actress for “The Heiress.”

De Havilland’s career was rock solid half a decade after her blacklisting, but she was beginning to grow weary of the Hollywood life. She’d leave it behind in the mid-1950s when she divorced first husband Marcus Goodrich, wed again to French editor Pierre Galante, and moved to Paris, which would remain her home for the rest of her life. But it was more than romance that drove the big life change. She saw upheaval on the horizon in Hollywood, and she was ready to get out, as she told the Independent:

“Hollywood became a very depressing place in the early 1950s. The golden age had obviously ended and television had ended it. Where studios were making 100 movies a year in the 1930s, they were now making 25 or 10. There was a sense of terminal decline, of great depression.”

With a change in scenery, de Havilland made a fresh start, but she didn’t give up acting entirely. She’d appear in a dozen more movies from the mid-’50s through the late 1970s, as well as a number of television roles. Among the best-known of her later films was 1964’s “Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte,” a psychological thriller in the vein of “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” (1962) that, like its predecessor, starred Bette Davis. In fact, studio heads had planned to reunite Davis with her former costar Joan Crawford. But so virulent was the feud between the actresses that Crawford was fired and de Havilland brought on to replace her.

A second feud, a second lawsuit

It was a feud that would rear its head again much later in de Havilland’s life, in 2017, when Ryan Murphy’s limited-run series “Feud: Bette and Joan” debuted. The television show told the story of Crawford and Davis’ bitter rivalry during the production of “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” Among the real people portrayed in the show was de Havilland, played by Catherine Zeta-Jones.

The show’s framing device was a series of interviews with other stars who knew Davis and Crawford, ostensibly backstage at the 1978 Oscars. De Havilland gave no such interview in real life, but it worked as a way for the show to provide backstory by outsiders. De Havilland, a friend of Davis’ in life as in the show, was portrayed commenting on the feud as well as her own rivalry with her sister. She was the only substantial character in “Feud” whose real-life counterpart was still living, which complicated the portrayal in a way that didn’t affect Davis, Crawford, et al.

The real de Havilland’s attention to the show was piqued when the fictional version of herself called Fontaine a bitch. It was a term that was absolutely unacceptable, de Havilland maintained, one that never would have left her lips. On top of that, the show had her gossiping about Frank Sinatra’s (1915–1998) drinking habits, as well as about Davis herself. And so she sued Murphy and FX Networks for depicting her falsely.

“I find it extremely offensive that the producers of ‘Feud’ chose to use my life, reputation, and name in such a dishonest way for their own commercial purpose in sensationalizing their show,” de Havilland wrote as she filed the suit. “This kind of vulgarity is not language that I use.”

The lawsuit was expedited at the request of de Havilland’s lawyers, due to her advanced age — she was 101 when it was filed. But ultimately, the suit was unsuccessful, thrown out by a California appeals court. MPAA Chairman and CEO Charles Rivkin said in a statement that the judgment was proper, given that creators have the “right to tell stories about and inspired by real people and events.” 

De Havilland on how she’d prefer to die

“I would prefer to live forever in perfect health, but if I must at some time leave this life I would like to do so ensconced on a chaise longue, perfumed, wearing a velvet robe and pearl earrings, with a flute of champagne beside me and having just discovered the answer to the last problem in a British cryptic crossword.” —from a 2005 interview with Vanity Fair

What people said about her

Full obituary: The Washington Post

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