Olivia de Havilland: Oscar-winning star of Hollywood’s golden age

Olivia de Havilland won two Oscars as best actress, for her performances in To Each His Own (1946) and The Heiress (1949), but she will be even more fondly remembered for two other roles – her radiant Maid Marian in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and her expertly judged portrayal of the saintly Melanie Hamilton in the durable Gone with the Wind (1939).

De Havilland, whose lifelong feuding with her actress sister Joan Fontaine was well publicised, also has a place in legal history for causing a change in employment laws. When her studio tried to add several months to her contract to make up for time she spent on suspension for refusing roles, she courageously took the producing giant to court and won her case.

Bette Davis, who had unsuccessfully attempted to do the same thing in the English courts, said: “Olivia should be thanked by every actor today. She won the court battle that no contract should ever have to continue more than seven years.” Though de Havilland won (the verdict is in law books as the “de Havilland decision”), she had to overcome blacklisting within the industry for more than two years before she could resume her screen career.

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She was born Olivia Mary de Havilland in Tokyo, Japan, in 1916, to English parents. Sister Joan was born 16 months later.

Their father Walter, a patent lawyer, was a cousin of Geoffrey de Havilland, whose company made aircraft, including the Tiger Moth to the Concorde.

Their mother, the former Lillian Ruse, had been a concert singer and teacher of music and elocution. She took Olivia’s name from Twelfth Night, and taught her daughters to recite Shakespeare.

Their genteel upbringing – they lived in an elegant home and they each had their own day and night nurses – doubtless created the patrician air that both were to bring to many of their screen roles.

Joan’s health, though, was weak, and the cosseting she received probably started the sibling rivalry that persisted for the rest of their lives.

It was ostensibly for the girls’ health that in 1919 the family set sail for Italy, but on arrival in San Francisco Lillian and the girls settled in nearby Saratoga while Walter returned to Tokyo and the Japanese housekeeper who would become his second wife.

Olivia attended the Saratoga Grammar School, followed by the Notre Dame Convent in Belmont and the Los Gatos Union High School.

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She also took ballet and piano lessons, but from an early age her heart was set on becoming an actress.

In 1925 her mother married George Fontaine, a store keeper, who imposed such severe discipline that at the age of 16 Olivia left home to live with friends.

Her performances in high school plays resulted in her being offered the title role in Alice in Wonderland, produced by the Saratoga Community Theatre, and her success was such that, just after graduation, the company asked her to play Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

In that summer of 1934 the famed Austrian director Max Reinhardt was in California to stage the same play at the Hollywood Bowl, and his assistant saw Olivia in the Saratoga production and suggested that she understudy Gloria Stuart in the role of Hermia.

Said de Havilland, “Then my life began to take on the character of a bad but exciting novel. On opening night the real Hermia could not go on. There was no-one to take her place but the understudy. Also like a novel, the reviews were very kind the next day and I continued in the role until the run was completed.”

When Warners decided to film the production, both producer Henry Blanke and Reinhardt agreed that Olivia should retain the role of Hermia. “She was so beautiful it hurt,” recalled Blanke.

Studio chief Jack Warner wrote in his memoirs: “She had a voice that was music to my ears. Like a cello, low and vibrant.”

Olivia accepted Warners’ offer of a seven-year contract and was immediately cast as ingénue to Joe E Brown and James Cagney respectively in Alibi Ike and The Irish in Us (both 1935).

Bette Davis commented many years later: “Olivia had a big hurdle, in the beginning, which I did not have. Physically she was beautiful. Warner Brothers only cared that she was beautiful and therefore cast her, not as an actress, but as a leading lady opposite male stars as their love interest.”

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935), with Shakespeare’s text cut by almost half, did poorly at the box office, but it was followed by the first of de Havilland’s eight films with Errol Flynn, Michael Curtiz’s Captain Blood (1935).

Olivia de Havilland with David Niven, left, and Douglas Walton in the 1939 film Raffles (Getty)

The roistering adventure tale made stars of both Flynn and de Havilland. Flynn later confessed that he quickly fell in love with de Havilland, but his attempts to impress her were gauche and clumsy.

De Havilland was to state that because he was married (to actress Lily Damita) she did not respond to his flirtations, though she secretly loved him for three years. “It’s a good job I didn’t tell him,” she said, “He would have ruined my life.”

She was re-teamed with Flynn in The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936), an account of the famously disastrous charge made at Balaclava during the Crimean War. James Whale’s The Great Garrick (1937) was another of the better films she made at Warners, a stylish comedy about an imagined incident in the life of the Shakespearean actor, David Garrick.

De Havilland was a French countess who enchanted the young performer, played by Brian Aherne. A real-life romance between the two doubtless added sparkle to their scenes together, though two years later Aherne was to marry Olivia’s sister.

For the western Gold Is Where You Find It (1938) de Havilland was photographed in Technicolor for the first time and looked radiant as a farmer’s daughter. She was then cast in one of the finest of adventure films, The Adventures of Robin Hood. She and Errol Flynn were a magical team, their scenes together capturing an irresistible blend of charm, spirit, humour and affection.

The film was given the biggest budget of any Warner film to that time, and its beautiful colour photography, a grand score by Korngold, and a splendid cast including Basil Rathbone and Claude Rains as charismatic villains, add to the movie’s pleasures.

Years later, the actress told of seeing the film at a revival house in Paris in 1959, and being moved to write a letter to Flynn telling him that she had underestimated the film originally, that it was something she was now proud of, and she hoped he realised how great a contribution he had made to a true classic.

“An apology 20 years late,” she said. “But I tore it up. I reconsidered, deciding Errol would think I was silly. I’ll always be sorry. A few months later he was dead.”

De Havilland’s dissatisfaction with her studio continued when, to follow up such a prestigious hit, she was cast once again as the pretty ingénue in several inconsequential movies and another western with Flynn, Dodge City (1939).

Having read the best-selling novel, Gone with the Wind, she had no ambition, like most actresses, to play Scarlett O’Hara, but instead set her mind on obtaining the role of Scarlett’s trusting cousin, Melanie.

“I understood her,” she said, “and felt I could bring to the role the inner strength that Melanie possesses.”

MGM, which was to release the film and take half of the profits (in exchange for the loan of Clark Gable to play Rhett Butler), wanted contract player Maureen O’Sullivan to play Melanie, but George Cukor, initially signed to direct, took de Havilland to see producer David O Selznick. In November, 1938, Selznick sent a memo to an executive stating: “I would give anything if we had Olivia de Havilland under contract to us so that we could cast her as Melanie … Warners have so far definitely refused to consider letting us have her.”

After de Havilland cannily took Jack Warner’s wife to tea and enlisted her support, the studio agreed to let her take the role.

Both de Havilland and Vivien Leigh were dismayed when Cukor was replaced by Victor Fleming after a few days, and they continued to seek his advice in secret.

A third director, Sam Wood, brought in when Fleming fell ill, directed one of the most memorable sequences with the two women, in which Scarlett shoots a Union scavenger on the stairs of Tara, and the frail Melanie, who has dragged herself from her sickbed and is armed with her brother’s sword, shows her inner grit as she helps Scarlett drag the body to the field and bury it.

De Havilland later called Melanie “the woman I wish I could be” and declared that it was the favourite of her screen roles. Her performance gained her an Oscar nomination as supporting actress, but she lost to Hattie McDaniel (as Mammy).

De Havilland found that Warners were still offering her colourless roles, and she campaigned to play a turn-of-the-century free-thinking feminist in the comedy-drama The Strawberry Blonde (1941). During shooting, she asked star James Cagney what he considered the key to good acting.

Olivia de Havilland, pictured in 1938 (Getty)

“He thought for a moment,” she later recalled, “then replied, ‘Well, whatever you say – just mean it’. To me it is the statement on acting and it has helped me all my life.”

De Havilland had one of her finest roles when loaned to Paramount to star in Mitchell Leisen’s Hold Back the Dawn (1941), as an unworldly teacher who, while on a school trip to Mexico, is wooed by a charmer (Charles Boyer) who marries her in order to gain a visa to cross the border into the US.

Her moving performance won her an Oscar nomination as best actress, and she found herself up against her sister, nominated in the same category for Suspicion. Fontaine won, and de Havilland was to confess: “I thought, ‘Oh my God, I’ve lost prestige with my sister’ and it was true. She was haughty to me after that.”

De Havilland’s eighth and final film with Errol Flynn was They Died With Their Boots On (1942), a capricious biography of George Armstrong Custer. The scene in which Custer bids farewell to his wife before going off to almost certain death was the last scene the pair ever filmed together, which now gives the sequence added resonance. In John Huston’s In This Our Life (1942) de Havilland played the good sister to Bette Davis’ bad one.

She had an affair with the married Huston, whom she later described “a very great love of mine” and in 1944 she announced that she was ready to marry him “whenever he is free”.

During the Second World War most of the major studios made all-star morale-boosting entertainments that were basically revues allowing actors to let their hair down. In Warners’ Thank Your Lucky Stars (1943) de Havilland and Ida Lupino joined character actor George Tobias to perform a raucous boogie version of the song, “The Dreamer”.

As the only one of the three whose singing was dubbed (by Lynn Martin), De Havilland chewed gum throughout the number to disguise the fact that she had difficulty synchronising her lip movements to the soundtrack. She was a spirited Charlotte in Devotion, a biography of the Brontes which displayed utter disdain for facts, and it was on its completion that the actress learned that Warners were going to add six months to her contract.

At personal expense she launched a lawsuit invoking a California law known as ‘anti-peonage’ that stated that “no employer shall hold an employee to a contract longer than seven years.” Though Warners’ lawyers tried to intimidate de Havilland in the courtroom and depict her as ungrateful, the courts found in her favour. Blacklisted during the case, de Havilland worked in radio and toured military hospitals in the US, Alaska and the South Pacific.

With her victory in court came film offers, and after Sidney Lanfield’s slight comedy, The Well-Groomed Bride (1946), she made four films that were to represent the peak of her career. The first was Mitchell Leisen’s To Each His Own (1946), in which she played an unwed mother.

“The script by Charley Brackett was one of the most perfect I’d ever read,” she said. ”The dialogue was tight and forceful, and the character of Jody Norris romantic and sentimental. I’m that way myself and I felt I could play the part as I had played no other.”

Leisen told his biographer David Chierichetti, “Nobody could have played that part as well as Olivia did, to be so beautiful and innocent in the beginning, then grow to be a bitch and finally the lonely Miss Norris.” The New York Times said of her performance, “She may now take her exalted place alongside Helen Hayes, Ruth Chatterton and Bette Davis as a tragic heroine,” and it won de Havilland her first Oscar.

De Havilland played twin sisters in her next film, Robert Siodmak’s taut thriller, The Dark Mirror (1946). Its plot, in which one sister has an alibi for the time of a murder but neither twin will admit which one has it, making it impossible (according to the script) for the other one to be prosecuted, was fanciful, but the film was a hit, and Life magazine stated: “Olivia de Havilland contributes to the impression she gained from To Each His Own that she is the actress to beat for this year’s Academy Award.”

In August 1946 de Havilland married Marcus Goodrich, whose myriad occupations had included sailor, journalist, stage manager, advertising consultant and writer of a novel named Delilah. De Havilland did not know until after their marriage that she was his fifth wife.

When Joan Fontaine was asked if she knew anything about the groom she quipped: “All I know about him is that he has had four wives and written one book. Too bad it’s not the other way around.”

The remark deepened the rift between the sisters, and when Joan, waiting in the wings, tried to embrace her after her Oscar success Olivia turned away in a moment eagerly captured by press photographers. The pair did not speak for five years. “I know now,” said Olivia later, “that I was too demanding.”

Her next screen role was certainly demanding – the inmate of a mental hospital in The Snake Pit (1948). Powerfully directed by Anatole Litvak, its depiction of conditions and inadequate staffing in state institutions caused changes in administration in 26 states.

The film’s six Oscar nominations included one for de Havilland’s performance, and though she lost to Jane Wyman’s deaf mute in Johnny Belinda, she won the New York Film Critics Award and the Best Actress Award at the Venice Film Festival. She was unable to attend the Oscar ceremony because she was in hospital for the birth of her son, Benjamin.

In William Wyler’s film version of The Heiress (1949), based on Henry James’ Washington Square, de Havilland superbly captured the repression and awkward self-consciousness of the dowdy Catherine Sloper, whose father reinforces her lack of self-esteem by constant reminders that she lacks the beauty and social charm of her late mother. Her heartbreak when betrayed by a handsome fortune-seeker, and her later resilience and newfound confidence when the man returns after she has inherited her father’s fortune, are delineated with the skill of an actress at the peak of her powers.

When her aunt asks her how she can be so cruel, de Havilland chillingly delivers the play’s most famous line: ”I have been taught by masters.”

De Havilland heartily disliked Ralph Richardson, who played her father, but later admitted that this may have added extra spark to their testy scenes together. “I thought he was a marvellous performer, but also a wicked, very selfish man. I had to be alert all the time to outwit him. There was a scene where he would slap his gloves, that sort of ridiculous kind of upstaging.”

De Havilland again won the New York Critics award as well as the Oscar, but The Heiress marked her peak as a top Hollywood star. Turning down an offer to play Blanche DuBois in the film version of A Streetcar Named Desire, and with the encouragement of her husband, she made a misguided decision to star in Romeo and Juliet on Broadway.

Reviewers tactfully suggested that at the age of 35 she was a little old for the role. Its brief run of 45 performances was followed by a performance in Shaw’s Candida described by critic Walter Kerr as “all method and no magic”, though the play did well on a long tour.

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Some of the lustre had gone from her career when she returned to Hollywood to play the enigmatic title character in an adaptation of Daphne DuMaurier’s novel, My Cousin Rachel (1952). Richard Burton made his Hollywood debut as her leading man (she found him “a good actor but too coarse”), but the story’s conclusion, with the heroine’s guilt or innocence never being determined, an intriguing conceit in the novel, seemed annoying on screen, and audiences reacted by staying away.

In 1953, after divorcing Goodrich, de Havilland was invited to the Cannes Film Festival, and found herself enchanted by both the French capital and Pierre Galante, an executive editor of Paris-Match.

At Galante’s urging, Olivia and her son settled in Paris, where she took French lessons three times a week. She returned to the screen to play the lusty one-eyed Princess of Eboli in That Lady (1955), and she adopted a Swedish accent and blonde hair in Stanley Kramer’s Not as a Stranger (1955), as a naïve nurse who is courted by an opportunistic, fortune-seeking intern (Robert Mitchum).

In April, 1955, De Havilland married Galante and, after starring in Norman Krasna’s lightweight comedy, The Ambassador’s Daughter (1956), filmed in Paris, she gave birth to a daughter, Giselle.

Michael Curtiz then asked her to star with Alan Ladd in the post-Civil War tale The Proud Rebel (1958), in which she gave a well-judged performance as a farmer. Anthony Asquith’s Libel (1959), based on a 1935 play, was a courtroom drama in which she played a woman whose barrister husband (Dirk Bogarde) is accused of being an impostor.

It was a surprisingly artificial performance from the seasoned star, and it was three years before she accepted another screen role, but it was to be the best of her later films, The Light in the Piazza (1962), directed by Guy Green in Rome and Florence. Variety praised her “subtle projection” as a mother having to decide whether her daughter, 26 years old but with the mental age of 10, should be allowed to marry a young Florentine who has fallen in love with her.

In 1962 she wrote a light-hearted book about her experiences since meeting Galante, Every Frenchman Has One – the title referred to a liver. Ironically, later the same year she and her husband announced that they were separating, though they continued to live in the same house and remained friends.

De Havilland returned to the Broadway stage in Garson Kanin’s play, A Gift of Time (1962), in which she and Henry Fonda played a married couple coping with the husband’s cancer.

The acting of the stars was praised, but the depressing subject matter limited its appeal. Lady in a Cage (1964) was a sordid, violent film in which de Havilland was a woman trapped in her own home when her lift fails between floors and hooligans get into her apartment to terrorise her. Critics found it crude and exploitative, and it was initially banned in the UK, but de Havilland defended the film.

“Perhaps it was two or three years ahead of its time. I think some day it will be recognised as a depiction of the aimless violence of our era.”

She was then asked by her old friend Bette Davis to replace Joan Crawford, who had withdrawn from Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964). It was a good thriller that gave de Havilland the rare chance to play a villainess, her last notable screen part.

Her later television work was more distinguished than her final films, including Roots: The Next Generation (1979) as Henry Fonda’s wife, The Royal Romance of Charles and Diana (1982) as the Queen Mother, and Anastasia: The Mystery of Anna (1986), for which she received an Emmy nomination as the Dowager Empress Marie.

Her final television role was as Aunt Bessie in The Woman He Loved (1988), about the Duke of Windsor and Mrs Simpson.

In 1975, when her mother died, a dispute over arrangements for the memorial service irrevocably ended Olivia’s relationship with her sister Joan – they did not speak at the service or ever again.

In 1991 Olivia’s son Benjamin died of Hodgkin’s disease, and in 1998 she learned that Galante, whom she had divorced in 1979, was terminally ill, and she asked him to stay in her home, where she and their daughter could care for him.

She rearranged the house to give him the master bedroom, with herself in an adjoining room, “because he is the father of my daughter and I am grateful to him for having given her to me.”

Galante died later that year, after which de Havilland enjoyed her life in Paris, and maintained a close relationship with Gisele, who accompanied her to Hollywood for the 2003 Oscars, where de Havilland received a standing ovation as the orchestra played Max Steiner’s “Tara’s Theme”.

When asked if she minded being remembered as Melanie, she replied: “She was pretty admirable. And I’m not going to object to being remembered for the character that I played in the best-loved film of the century.”

Born: 1st July 1916, Tokyo, Japan

Married: 1) 26th August 1946, Marcus Goodrich, one son, deceased, divorced 1953

2) 2nd April 1955, Pierre Galante, one daughter, divorced 1979

Died: 26th July 2020, Paris, France

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