Olivia de Havilland, the legendary 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.\
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.
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.)
After Miss 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.”
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 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.
Memorial contributions may be made to the American Cathedral in Paris.
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Written By: Tommy Lightfoot Garrett Photographs are Courtesy: AP
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