STACK‘s film historian Bob J. pays tribute to the very last leading lady of Hollywood’s Golden Age, Olivia de Havilland, who has passed away aged 104.
With two Academy Awards for Best Actress plus a further two Academy nominations and a roster of memorable characterisations including her portrayal as the wise, gentle and beautiful Melanie Hamilton in what is probably the most famous American motion picture of all time, Gone with the Wind (1939), Olivia de Havilland has died of natural causes at the grand old age of 104 years.
Miss de Havilland was one of the screen’s finest dramatic actresses but her fragile beauty and smooth velvet voice almost locked her forever into playing damsels in distress to heroic swashbuckling leading men. However, using her iron will and determination, she proved herself a tigress when she took on movie mogul Jack Warner and his studio lawyers and fought them through the law courts to be released from what she considered to be a grossly unfair film contract.
Olivia de Havilland was born on July 1, 1916 in Tokyo, Japan, to British parents. Her father Walter, was a professor at the Wasida University in Tokyo. Her parents’ marriage broke up shortly after the birth of a second child, Joan, in 1917. Soon after her mother, Lillian, with her two daughters, settled in Saratoga, California, and would later marry George Fontaine. Olivia’s sibling adopted her mother’s new married name, and as Joan Fontaine would also become an award-winning actress.
In 1934 the young Olivia appeared as Puck in a local production of Shakespeare’s, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which caught the eye of a talent scout. This resulted in her performing the role of Hermia in a stage production of the play at the Hollywood Bowl. In front of a star-studded audience, Olivia triumphed. Her opening night performance was seen by Warner Bros. movie producer Henry Blanke, who at the end of the play asked to be introduced to “the girl with the ethereal face”. Blanke was planning a film version of the Shakespeare romp and offered Olivia the role of Hermia and a long term contract after the film completed. At first she refused because the contract would not allow her to undertake any stage play productions in between film assignments, but under pressure from her friends and colleagues she reluctantly signed with WB.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935) was an honest effort by Warners to make a prestige motion picture, but it totally bombed at the box-office. Olivia, under her contract, was now cast in a number of forgettable WB productions, often alongside the swashbuckling Errol Flynn as his “love interest” – they would make a total of eight movies together. However, when she was loaned out by the studio, first to MGM for Gone with the Wind (1939) and then to Paramount for Hold Back the Dawn (1941), both her performances garnered her Academy Award nominations. This was proof to de Havilland that the maudlin films she was forced to appear in at Warners were holding her back as a dramatic actress, but her continual request that she be given better scripts with top rate directors fell on deaf ears.
Meanwhile, her relationship with her sister Joan Fontaine – who was under contract at RKO studios – whilst never strong, worsened in 1941 when both were nominated for Best Actress Oscar. Their mutual dislike and jealously escalated into an all-out feud after Fontaine won the award for her role in Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller Suspicion (1941). Despite the fact that Olivia went on to win two Academy Awards of her own, the two siblings remained permanently estranged.
Olivia had been suspended several times during her 11-year tenure at WB for refusing some of the mundane roles offered to her. But after completing the hopelessly trivial Princess O’Rourke (1943), her contract finally came to an end. She was then informed by the studio legal department that her contract would be extended for aggregates of the lay-offs and her non-attendance period. Foreseeing years of endless suspensions and extensions that would shackle her to WB for the rest of her acting life she hired a first-class attorney to get her out of her contract. Invoking California’s ancient anti-peonage law, that limited seven calendar years as the maximum in which an employer could enforce a contract against an employee, her attorney filed for declaratory relief from Miss de Havilland’s studio contract. A furious Jack Warner, head of WB Studios, immediately blacklisted de Havilland, threatening any other studio who wanted to hire her with a lawsuit if they did so. As a consequence, Miss de Havilland was not offered any film work for three long years.
Her case – over those years – went all the way to the State Supreme Court of California, who finally – in February 1945 – ruled in her favour. Her legal triumph (still known today in US legal terms as The De Havilland Decision) sent shock waves throughout Hollywood because movie employee contracts were at the very heart of the studio system. Some years later actress, Bette Davis served as a spokesperson for the entire film industry when she commented, “Every actor in the business owes a debt of gratitude to Olivia de Havilland for taking us out of bondage”.
Anxious to return to work, Olivia signed a three-picture deal with Paramount. Her second film for the studio, To Each His Own (1946), won her a Best Actress Academy Award. Now in full control of her career, she delivered further outstanding performances in The Dark Mirror (1946), where she played good/bad identical twins; The Snake Pit (1948), which dealt with the horrors of life in a psychiatric institution; and The Heiress (1949), which earned her a second Best Actress award.
In 1951 she returned to her first love, once again treading the boards on Broadway as Juliet in a stage production of Romeo and Juliet. She then signed for an 11-week run in George Bernard Shaw’s Candida, which played to sell-out crowds. She returned to the screen opposite Richard Burton in My Cousin Rachel (1952) and soon after moved to France with her second husband.
Over the next two decades she became very selective in accepting film roles, appearing in just seven starring roles such as Not as a Stranger (1955) and co-starring with Bette Davis in Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964). In the 1970s she undertook a few brief cameo parts in, amongst others, The Adventurers, The Swarm, and Airport ’77, along with numerous television productions, making her last appearance in 1988 in the telemovie The Woman He Loved.
In 1999, Olivia de Havilland made several appearances to promote the 60th anniversary and re-release of Gone with the Wind. She said, “I want to be there for the 70th anniversary, and I’d like to also make the 80th.” The now silver-haired but still beautiful leading lady from the Golden Age of Hollywood did indeed make the 80th anniversary in December 2019. She was also appointed a Dame of the Order of the British Empire in June 2017, two weeks prior to her 101st birthday – the oldest woman to date to receive the honour.