The two time Academy Award winning actress, Olivia de Havilland, who is best known for her role as Melanie Hamilton in the 1939 classic, Gone With The Wind celebrated her 100th Birthday on Friday, July 1st, in Paris.
It’s hard to believe that Olivia de Havilland, who holds the record of being the oldest Oscar winner alive is still living a contented fulfilling life with no progressing health issues in existence.
The legend known as Olivia de Havilland may have never materialized if it weren’t for her parents, Walter Augustus de Havilland, an English Professor, who later became a patent attorney, and her mother, Lilian Augusta, a notable stage actress, who spent a considerable amount of time touring England with prolific composers.before settling down in a commodious house in Tokyo, where the prospect of motherhood first evolved.
Three years later, Olivia Mary de Havilland made her star-studded debut in the world on July 1st, 1916 in Tokyo, Japan. Despite their crumbling marriage that was fuelled by daily pressures and hardships, Lilian and Walter were determined to make it a congenial environment for the baby. The following year when Olivia was one, Lilian gave birth to her second child, a daughter who they called Joan ( Later known as Joan Fontaine )
After years of struggling to resurrect their marriage, Lilian and Walter separated in 1919, when Lilian was advised to vacate to a warmer climate where the fresh air would improve Joan’s exacerbating health. With that suggestion, she packed up and relocated to Saratoga, California while Walter remained with his Japanese housekeeper in Tokyo, whom he would later marry.
The move to California was a blessing for Joan’s frequent bouts of illness. While Joan was recuperating in Saratoga, four year old Olivia started to inherit her mothers passion for the arts. That same year she was enrolled in ballet lessons. When it was discovered that Olivia was relishing her ballet classes, and was surpassing all the other girls her age, Lilian registered Olivia in piano lessons the following year.
After attending lessons for both ballet and piano, young Olivia was fast becoming a prodigy of the arts. By the age of six, she was an avid reader, and enjoyed reading stories that focused on an array of different subjects. To help enhance her dexterity and to strengthen her diction, Lilian trained Olivia to recite passages from Shakespeare, an activity that she became quite adept at, and one that she would rely on during her career.
In 1922, when Olivia de Havilland reached school age, her mother enrolled her in lessons at Saratoga Grammar School, where she excelled in all subjects. Due to her astuteness in reading, writing and poetry, she was entered into a county spelling bee, and came second place.
Just when her academic intelligence was accelerating, Olivia’s home life started to affect her emotionally. Once the divorce was finalized in 1925, her mother married George Milan Fontaine, a notable businessman whose strict parenting style created animosity in the family, forcing Olivia and Joan to rebel against his wishes.
It took a while for Olivia and Joan to become accustomed to sharing the house with their stepfather, but as time progressed they started to adapt more to the new routine. Even though this was a difficult chapter in Olivia’s life, de Havilland was determined to not let her problems with her stepfather take over her entire being. Instead she decided to continue on with her schooling. To further her education, she was enrolled at Los Gatos High School. It was here where she was given her first taste in the world of dramatics by being strongly involved in the school drama club, which would lead to her participating in the school plays, and becoming the clubs secretary.
For a while, Olivia de Havilland had her mind set on a career as a school teacher of English and speech, and attended Notre Dame Convent in Belmont to help her follow that path, but after a while the thoughts of becoming an actress piqued an even greater interest in her. In 1933, de Havilland made her debut in amateur theatre when she appeared in Alice In Wonderland, a production that was sponsored by Saratoga Community Players. To help support her goal, she continued to act in school plays, and was often given starring roles. This however led to a harsh confrontation with her stepfather, who was strictly against Olivia immersing herself in theatrics. He totally forbade de Havilland to join in on any more plays, and tried his hardest to deter her away from following her dream. In order to continue on with drama, she must elude her stepfather, which she eventually did when he gave her the ultimatum, forcing Olivia to move in with a friend.
In 1934, Olivia de Havilland graduated from high school with dreams of becoming an actress. However she had a decision to make. Not long after graduating, de Havilland was offered a scholarship to Mills College in Oakland to pursue a career as an English teacher. At the same time she was also offered the role of Puck in the Saratoga Community Theatre production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Both options enthused de Havilland, and while she commended the prospects of a profession in teaching, she eventually chose to stay with the Saratoga Community Theatre.
For Olivia, this decision proved to be the right move, and eventually it would change her life forever. That Summer, Austrian director, Max Reinhardt visited California with a major production of the same play that was to premiere at the Hollywood Bowl. During his time in Los Angeles, Reinhardt’s assistants saw Olivia perform in Saratoga, and was immediately captured by her magical performance that he had just witnessed. As a result, he offered her the second understudy position for the role of Hermia. Olivia was contented with being the understudy, but what she really wanted was to have her own starring role. One week before the premiere, de Havilland attained her wish when the lead actress, Gloria Stuart abandoned the project, leaving eighteen year old Olivia de Havilland to play Hermia.
From the moment he saw her perform, he knew right away that this girl had a promising future among the stars ahead of her. Even at the age of eighteen, Olivia exuded that rare star quality that was combined with a multitudinous amount of talent. Max Reinhardt was that impressed with the magic that the young girl possessed, that he automatically invited her to play the part of Hermia in a four week Autumn tour that was approaching. At the time this was an opportunity that could not be passed, but little did she know then that this very same tour would make her land on a reputable place on Hollywood soil with the motion picture studios knocking at her door.
For Olivia de Havilland, this was a dream that she never had imagined in her wildest expectations. She thought that she might end up following her mothers footsteps, but a movie career was something that was never discussed in the family until it was discovered that young Olivia de Havilland was about to take the world by storm.
It all began in the fall of 1934 when Olivia de Havilland was on tour playing Hermia. During that four weeks, Reinhardt received a call from Warner Brothers. who relayed the news that he was to direct the film version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Reinhardt, who was that impressed with de Havilland envisioned nobody else but Olivia portraying Hermia for the film version of the stage production.
Olivia de Havilland was euphoric about being cast to play Hermia in the film, but lingering on deep down in side was the thoughts of returning to her old roots of becoming a teacher. It wasn’t until Reinhardt and executive producer, Henry Blanke implored her to sign a five year contract with Warner Brothers. that Olivia finally decided to embark on a career in motion pictures.
On December 19th, 1934, nineteen year old, Olivia de Havilland made her film debut in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a romance and fantasy production that was based on a play by Shakespeare. Starring alongside de Havilland was acting veterans, James Cagney and Mickey Rooney, who assisted de Havilland in learning the craft. In addition to rehearsing and filming, de Havilland spent her time studying acting and camera techniques. By the end of production, she was versed in lighting and camera angles, and how to find her best lighting.
“The one thing that you simply have to remember all the time that you are there is that Hollywood is an oriental city. As long as you do that, you might survive. If you try to equate it with anything else, you’ll perish.”
While the film was largely panned at the box office, Olivia de Havilland was lauded for her performance as Hermia. The San Francisco Examiner critic stated that de Havilland “acts graciously and does greater justice to Shakespeare’s language than anyone else in the cast.”
A Midsummer Night’s Dream failed to make a dent in the resumes of the other fellow cast members, but for Olivia, it was an experience that would take her on a long successful journey into the world of motion pictures. Her next destination was a leading role in Alibi Ike ( 1935 ), where she starred alongside, Joe E. Brown and Ruth Donnelly in a story that revolves around baseball.
Alibi Ike and her next picture, The Irish In Us did nothing to enhance her reputation. Instead it left de Havilland yearning for a better role that boasted more appeal. She was tired of portraying sweet and charming heroines after being a Reinhardt player. However never-ending fame and achievements was soon to follow. In 1935, de Havilland was cast alongside Australian born, Errol Flynn in a swashbuckling epic titled, Captain Blood, which has de Havilland playing the role of Arabella Bishop. The film was an immediate success, and Olivia De Havilland and Errol Flynn would go onto make seven more films together.
Olivia de Havilland may have been excluded from praise for Captain Blood , but her performance alone made her land a role in Anthony Adverse, a film that was based on the renowned novel by Hervey Allen. On it’s release, the film opened to critical acclaim with Olivia’s portrayal of Angela Giuseppe being held in high esteem. Several more films followed, including The Charge Of The Light Brigade, which also attained a myriad of accolades.
With her eminent stature along with her positive reputation, Olivia de Havilland’s contract was renegotiated to seven years with a weekly earning of five hundred dollars. In 1937, de Havilland received her first top billing in Call It A Day, an Archie Mayo directed comedy that vanished shortly after it was released. She had better success when she was co-starred alongside Bette Davis in the 1937 film, It’s Love I’m After. Davis, who was known for her fierce determination and her vivacious personality immediately developed an amiable relationship with de Havilland, and became close friends. The two would go onto make three more films together.
After filming It’s Love I’m After, de Havilland was cast in a few more productions that were of moderate success. In September, 1937, de Havilland heard word that Jack Warner was wanting her to play the role of Maid Marion alongside Errol Flynn in The Adventures Of Robin Hood ( 1938 ), which at the time was the most expensive film to be made. The film was released on May 14th, 1938 to critical acclaim, and would later garner an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture. Seventy eight years since it’s release, The Adventures Of Robin Hood continues to cement itself as one of the most beloved adventure films from the golden age.
The Adventures Of Robin Hood not only ascended Olivia’s popularity rating, it also proved to be a turning point in her career. The first few films that followed may not have done anything to extol her star power, but with each character she portrayed, the closer she came to acquiring a role in the most triumphant and powerful film to ever be presented on screen, Gone With The Wind.
During the filming of the classic Technicolor western, Dodge City, Olivia de Havilland was feeling rather melancholy. She was perturbed and angered with the supporting love interest roles she was getting, and she was yearning for something more challenging. De Havilland later stated, “I was in such a depressed state that I could hardly remember my lines.”. The only thing that boosted her optimism at this point was a letter from David O. Selznick, “I would give anything if we had Olivia de Havilland under contract to us so that we could cast her as Melanie in Gone With The Wind.”. Olivia was delighted that Selznick would want her for the part. She had already familiarized herself with the novel, and was eager to play Melanie Hamilton, a character whose quiet dignity and inner strength she understood. She knew she could bring Melanie to life on the screen, and more than anything she wanted that part, but there was only one obstacle in her way: Jack Warner was refusing to lend her out for the project.
The only thing that made Jack Warner change his mind is when he discovered that de Havilland had a paid a visit to his wife Anne, who had convinced Warner that the role of Melanie was tailor made for de Havilland, and only she could do it justice. Warner finally relented, and Olivia de Havilland was cast as Melanie a few weeks before principal photography commenced on January 26th, 1939.
Gone With The Wind broke box office records, and is now considered to be ‘the greatest film ever made’. At the 12th Annual Academy Awards, which was held at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, the film set a record for Academy Award wins and nominations, and received eight awards from the competitive categories it was nominated in, from a total of thirteen nominations. Olivia de Havilland’s portrayal of Melanie Hamilton Wilks was held in high esteem. Frank S. Nugent from The Times described de Havilland’s Melanie as “A gracious, dignified, tender gem of characterization”, while John C. Flinn from Variety called her “A standout.”
After Gone With The Wind, Olivia de Havilland was planted in a successful position in Hollywood. Movie studios wanted to employ her, while others wanted to sign her to a contract. Olivia de Havilland however returned to Warner Brothers. and immediately began work in the historical royalty drama, The Private Lives Of Elizabeth and Essex, where she was co-starred alongside Errol Flynn once again and Bette Davis in their second collaboration.
“I felt Gone with the Wind would last five years, and it’s lasted over 70, and into a new millennium. There is a special place in my heart for that film and Melanie. She was a remarkable character – a loving person, and because of that she was a happy person. And Scarlett, of course, was not.”
The Private Lives Of Elizabeth And Essex garnered five Academy Award nominations, and earned a profit of $550,000. With the commendable praise that the film obtained, de Havilland was hoping for some quality parts, but instead she found herself in roles that she thought were rather restrictive. Her next financially rewarding role would come in 1940, when she was paired with Errol Flynn for the seventh time in Santa Fe Trail, which went onto become one of the top grossing films of the year.
Santa Fe Trail enjoyed an auspicious premiere at the Lensic Theatre in Santa Fe, where thousands of fans besieged surrounding areas waiting to see their idols. For some fans however, this was not to be. On the night of the premiere, Olivia de Havilland fell ill, and was rushed to hospital the following morning with appendicitis.
For years, Olivia de Havilland had been hoping for some hard earned rest, but between constant rehearsing, filming and conflicting schedules, she very rarely had time to breathe. While recuperating in hospital, de Havilland rejected any film offers that came her way. This however would lead to another suspension. On her return to Warner Brothers. de Havilland was placed in three outstanding productions in 1941, the first being The Strawberry Blonde, where she was paired with James Cagney and Rita Hayworth. In Hold Back The Dawn, her second picture of the year, she received her second Academy Award nomination, for her copacetic delivery of a school teacher.
Olivia de Havilland ended 1941 on a high note. She appeared in They Died With Their Boots On, her eighth and final film with Errol Flynn. The production was crowned the second biggest money-maker of the year. By the time the film commenced, de Havilland and Flynn were estranged due to an altercation they had the previous year. As a result, she did not intend to work with him again, and only by sheer force did she finally accept to star alongside in him in They Died With Their Boots On. Luckily this vehicle was worth while. The picture was highly received at the box office, and de Havilland walked home with a multitude of accolades.
The following year, Olivia de Havilland starred alongside Bette Davis and George Brent in In This Our Life, a film that features Davis in one of her most villainous roles as an evil sister, whose destructive nature destroys the family. While In this Our Life is compatible with a plethora of de Havilland and Davis fans, the film was mostly panned on it’s release. During production, de Havilland and director John Huston became romantically involved. Their relationship would come to an end three years later.
Olivia de Havilland, who was constantly unsatisfied with the roles that she was being given was longing for a deep complex role that would display her versatility and potential as an actress. Most of the time she was discouraged when all she was cast in was roles where she played a sweet ingenue. For once she wanted something that she could sink her teeth into. Finally, Jack Warner handed her a script of a movie that she was actually contented with. The film was Princess O’Rourke, a story about a European princess, who en-route to San Francisco falls in love with an American pilot.
Like her close friend, Bette Davis, Olivia de Havilland found herself a victim of a career barrier that forced her to mount a lawsuit on Warner Brothers. As for de Havilland however, the court case worked in her favor, and the Labor Code Section 2855, is now known as the “de Havilland Law”.
During this period, de Havilland was mostly inactive from filming. Instead she was immersed in the war effort. After joining the Hollywood Victory Canteen in May 1942, de Havilland spent most of her time travelling around the United States as part of the USO tour that she was involved with. Olivia loved expressing her patriotism, and she later garnered respect and admiration for visiting wounded soldiers in military hospitals and visiting isolated islands and battlefronts in the Pacific.
On her return to work, Olivia de Havilland was greeted with her first Academy Award for her poignant and touching portrayal of Jody Norris in To Each His Own, a perennial tear-jerking classic about an unwed mother who through unfortunate circumstances is forced to give up her only child for adoption. The film was an immediate hit, and set de Havilland on a continual pattern of success.
The year 1946 was a high period for Olivia de Havilland. On August 26th, she married Marcus Goodrich, a navy veteran, journalist, and author of the notable novel, Delilah. The couple enjoyed six years of pure bliss before their relationship endured strain and tribulations that were fuelled by Goodrich’s unstable temperament, which would ultimately lead to divorce in 1953.
In the mid 1940’s, Olivia de Havilland was mostly cast in films that ascended her star status. Her first outing was The Dark Mirror, a psychological thriller about two identical twin sisters who possess different natures. When one of the sisters commits a murder, a difficult investigation ensues until the murderer is revealed.
When it was first released, The Dark Mirror was considered too complex to be glorified as a classic, but with each passing decade, the film rose to prominence, and is now hailed as an essential piece of motion picture history among film scholars.
In addition to her memorable portrayal of Melanie in Gone With The Wind, Olivia de Havilland is primarily remembered for her unparalleled performances in The Snake Pit ( 1948 ) and The Heiress ( 1949 ). In the predecessor, de Havilland received an Academy Award nomination for her realistic depiction of Virginia Cunningham, a mentally unstable woman whose outlandish behavior sends her to a mental institution, where she finds herself ensnared by corrupt nurses who do all they can to challenge her. With the help of Dr. Kik ( Leo Genn ) Virginia tries to recall the incidents that fuelled her mental disorder.
The Snake Pit was lauded for it’s significant approach at delving into the disturbing aspects at an insane asylum, and the harsh treatment that patients ensue while trying to battle a mental illness. The film was also noted for being one of the first productions to focus on psychiatric and mental disorders.
The following year, Olivia de Havilland attained her second Academy Award for The Heiress, which tells the story of Catherine Sloper, a young naive woman, who lacks social etiquette, and remains trapped in the confined mansion of her abusive father, who views Catherine as being worthless to society. Despite the objections of her father, Catherine is eventually pursued by Morris Townsend, who is immediately captivated by her charms. When the two announce that they want to get married, Dr. Sloper forbades the idea due to his firm beliefs that Morris is a fortune hunter.
The Heiress is a cinematic staple that features a solid delivery of acting that is not able to be surpassed by any actress in motion picture history. Not only did, Olivia de Havilland obtain her second Academy Award, she also received a New York Film Critic’s Award along with a Golden Globe Award for her performance of Catherine Sloper.
Following the victorious success of The Heiress, Olivia de Havilland took a long hiatus away from filming. On December 1st, 1941, de Havilland gave birth to her first child, Benjamin, who would grow up to live a life of struggle due to being inflicted with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, which he was diagnosed with at the age of nineteen. After years of suffering from the disease, Benjamin passed away on October 1st, 1991 in Paris.
During her absence from filming, de Havilland was offered many parts in movies, including the role of Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire, in which she turned down due to her commitments as a mother. She later stated that becoming a mother was the most transforming experience, and that she could not relate to the character. It wasn’t until 1950, when her family relocated to New York that de Havilland gained an interest in returning to work, but instead of starring in a movie, de Havilland decided to revisit her roots as a stage actress by appearing on Broadway. From the moment that Olivia de Havilland focused on becoming an actress, she set herself a mission that one day she would play Juliet. For de Havilland, the timing couldn’t be more perfect. Just when her family were settling down in their New York tenement, a stage production of Romeo And Juliet was announced, and de Havilland immediately jumped into rehearsal. She won the role, and gave her first performance on March 11th, 1951 at the Broadhurst Theatre to a crowd of fans, who were ecstatic about witnessing the presence of their idol adorning the stage right in front of them.
Even though Romeo And Juliet never garnered her the recognition that she had hoped, Olivia de Havilland just continued on with indomitable force. She was soon sweeping the stage in George Bernard Shaw’s production of Candida at the National Theatre on Broadway. This time the reviews were more effective, and Olivia’s character appealed more to audiences. After a momentous tour that consisted of 323 additional performances, Olivia de Havilland now ranked in a pivotal position in the world of theatre.
Due to her reputable status in the entertainment industry, Olivia was receiving invites to attend many functions and events around the world. One such invitation that meant nothing at the time, but would soon have life changing consequences was from the French Government, who wanted her present at the Cannes Film Festival. Not knowing what heavenly and enchanting permanent destination was on the horizon, Olivia accepted, and traveled to the Cannes Film Festival, where she fell into the arms of Pierre Galante, who at the time was working as an executive editor for the French journal, Paris Match. For Olivia, it was love at first sight. Her and Pierre were constantly seen dating, but after a long-distance courtship and a nine month residency requirement, the media attained an outstanding news story with the announcement that Olivia de Havilland and Pierre Galante were married on April 2nd, 1955, in the village of Yvoy-le-Marron. The couple separated in 1962, but continued to live in the same house for six years to raise their children together.
“Of course the thing that staggers you when you first come to France is the fact that all the French speak French—even the children. Many Americans and Britishers who visit the country never quite adjust to this, and the idea persists that the natives speak the language just to show off or be difficult.”
Olivia de Havilland
After the move to France, where she planned to live a fulfilling and contented life with Pierre, de Havilland laid low from the movie cameras. Apart from appearing in a few films, she mostly took time off to tend to her marriage and their new three-story house that is situated in the Rive Droit section of Paris.
Shortly after her appearance alongside Frank Sinatra in the hospital drama, Not As A Stranger ( 1955 ), Olivia de Havilland fell pregnant with her second child, a baby girl, who she called, Gisele, born, July 18th, 1956.
Two years after giving birth to Gisele, Olivia de Havilland returned to the big screen when she appeared in, The Proud Rebel, a notable western that was directed by Michael Curtiz. The film boasted wide encomium, and was praised by critics, who looked favorably on Olivia’s performance for being able to convey the warmth, affection and the sturdiness that was needed for the role.
While The Proud Rebel brought her the financial gain that she needed, Olivia reached her pinnacle with her next film, Light In The Piazza, which escalated her prestige status that was starting to flounder after her unrecognized performances in the two commercial failures she appeared in before giving birth to her daughter. In Light In The Piazza, Olivia played a mother who is vacationing in Italy with her mentally disabled daughter, who is being pursued by a young Italian.
As the 1960’s progressed, Olivia’s box-office appeal began to diminish. She starred in a few films during this period, but most of them failed to bring her the acclaim that she needed. Her most consummate performance from this decade was in 1964 when Bette Davis implored director, Robert Aldrich to hire de Havilland to replace Joan Crawford in the role of Miriam Deering in Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte ( 1964 ).
“The great lesson I learned from Bette was her absolute dedication to getting everything just right. She used to spend hours studying the character she was going to play, then hours in make-up ensuring that her physical appearance was right for the part. I have always tried to put the same amount of work into everything I’ve done.”
Olivia de Havilland on Bette Davis
Like Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?, Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte was an unexpected success at the box-office, and garnered seven Academy Award nominations. If it weren’t for de Havilland, who agreed to replace Joan Crawford, who left production due to illness,the film would have been suspended indefinitely.
After Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte, Olivia de Havilland fell into relapse. As with the case of most stars of her caliber, film roles for people of her age group were scarce, and became more and more difficult to find. Despite her disdain of the medium, de Havilland relied on television work to assist with financial security.
During her years on television, Olivia de Havilland experienced a plethora of memorable moments. When it comes to her appearances on the small screen, for some people she is best remembered for her portrayal of Mrs. Warner in the ABC miniseries, Roots: The Next Generations, while others have developed fond memories of Olivia in The Screaming Woman or her first television production, Noon Wine.
Around the same time, de Havilland began doing speaking engagements in cities across the United States with a talk entitled, From The City Of The Stars To The City Of Light. She also enjoyed attending tributes to Gone With The Wind, and attending premieres of recent releases. In 1979, she starred in The Fifth Musketeer, which marked her final film appearance.
In the years that followed her departure from acting, Olivia de Havilland has remained largely active during her retirement. In the early 21st century, she traveled to the United States, where she underwent interviews, and celebrated her 90th birthday at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 2006. During the years that have progressed, de Havilland continues to maintain a happy and congenial lifestyle in Paris, where she has lived since 1953. For the occasion of her 100th Birthday on Friday, Olivia de Havilland spoke to interviews about her life and career, and revealed to truth about the alleged sibling rivalry between her and her sister, Joan Fontaine, who passed away on December 15th, 2013.
Here’s to you Olivia. Wishing you many more years of happiness.