Olivia de Havilland (1916-2020)

olivia de havilland
Olivia de Havilland
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Olivia de Havilland is one of the great names from the Golden Age of Hollywood. She is best known for her role as Melanie in 'Gone With the Wind' in 1939 and she was nominated in all five times for Academy Awards.winning the Oscar twice. She forged a memorable partnership as the love interest with the swashbuckling Errol Flynn in such films as 'The Charge of the Light Brigade ' in 1936 and 'The Adventures of Robin Hood in 1938.

In addition to these successes, Olivia has a permanent place in the Hollywood Hall of Fame for her successful and courageous courtroom stand in 1946 against Warner Bros over the terms of her contract. She won an impressive victory and the ensuing permanent law is still referred to as 'de Havilland Law.'


Olivia de Havilland was born Olivia Mary de Havilland in Tokyo, Japan on July 1, 1916 to British parents. Her father was a patents lawyer, and her mother an actress who used the stage name Lilian Fontaine. Olivia had a sister, Joan, one year younger, who would also become famous as a movie actress, as Joan Fontaine.

After her parents separated, when she was just three, Olivia and her mother and sister moved to Los Angeles, California, where Olivia attended the Saratoga High School and then the Notre Dame Convent School in Belmont where she developed her love of the theatre and acting. She took part in the school play "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and was spotted by a scout for Hollywood director, Max Reinhardt. He was impressed by the beautiful young actress and picked her to play Hermia in his stage version of the play at the Hollywood Bowl and also in the later film version for Warner Brothers in 1935. She proved to be an instant success and Warner Brothers signed her to a seven-year contract. She was now, at the age of 18, a genuine Hollywood actress.

Early Hollywood Success

Almost immediately the studio began to typecast her as the demure, love interest, 'damsel in distress' character, a role which she played to perfection but which she ultimately found frustrating. After some light comedies such as 'The Irish in Us' and 'Alibi Ike' (co-starring with Joe E. Brown), in 1935 she made 'Captain Blood', co-starring with the new young star, Errol Flynn. They made a popular screen pairing and went on to make a total of nine films together over the next 8 years, including 'Charge Of The Light Brigade' in 1936, 'The Adventures Of Robin Hood' in 1938 and 'The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex' in 1939, all great box-office successes.

Hollywood Stardom

Also in 1939 came Olivia's finest role to date, that of Melanie Wilkes in 'Gone with the Wind'. The movie was a major success and is one of the most famous films of all time. She received her first Academy nomination, for Best Supporting Actress, but lost out to her co-star, Hattie McDaniel.

Her movie roles and scripts improved after 'Gone with the Wind' and she was able to make more impact at Warners. After 'Santa Fé Trail', and 'They Died with Their Boots On', again with Errol Flynn, she starred in 1941 with James Cagney and Rita Hayworth in the romantic comedy 'The Strawberry Blonde'. In the same year she was nominated once again for an Academy Award, this time for Best Actress, in the romance 'Hold Back the Dawn'. Still dissatisfied with her roles she starred with Bette Davis in "In This Our Life" in 1942 and in the same year, she played Henry Fonda's wife in the comedy 'The Male Animal'. Her last movie for Warners was 'Princess O'Rourke' in 1943.

The "de Havilland law"

By this time her 7 year contract with Warner Brothers was coming to an end and she wanted a change. Warners refused to compromise and she went on suspension without pay for 6 months. As the law stood, any period of suspension could legally be added on to her contract, thus tying the actress ever more tightly to the studio. Olivia mounted a legal challenge to the system and in The California Supreme Court she won a notable victory, thereby reducing the power of the studios who had been hitherto almost omnipotent. The legal ruling was far-reaching and is known to this day as the "de Havilland law". Her courageous stand won her the respect, admiration and eternal gratitude of her peers.

During the court case and not able to work, Olivia travelled to overseas military hospitals visiting wounded servicemen. When the case was over, and free to choose her scripts and roles, she was able to develop her talents as an actress and the next few years showed just how real those talents were. Olivia was about to become the most successful actress of the late 1940's.

The improvement in the quality of her roles was evident in 'The Well-Groomed Bride' in 1945 and 'The Dark Mirror' the following year, when she played twins. She then at last won the Best Actress Award for her performance in 'To Each His Own', playing Josephine Norris, a woman who has an illegitimate child during World War I, and then she won the award again in 1949 for her role in 'The Heiress'. In between these successes she won wide critical and public acclaim for her role in 'The Snake Pit' in 1948, one of the first movies to depict and discuss mental illness on screen and for which she was also nominated for an Oscar.

Feuding Sisters

Even as young children the two sisters, Olivia and Joan, were bitter rivals, with a relationship full of jealousy, caused possibly by their mother who seemed to favour Olivia over the younger Joan. Both became highly skilled actresses, often seeking the same roles, and in competition with each other for the top acting awards. The rivalry came to a head at the 1942 Academy Awards Ceremony when Joan Fontaine, who won for her performance in 'Suspicion' over Olivia's nomination for 'Hold Back the Dawn', humiliated Olivia by ignoring her outstretched hand.

During the 1950's Olivia's output dropped as she focused on being a wife and mother. She made several movies such as 'My Cousin Rachel' in 1952, and 'That Lady' in 1955 but the quality was disappointing. She continued to make occasional, unmemorable movies including her last movie, 'The Swarm' in 1978, after which she concentrated on television dramas, mainly playing Royal roles such as the Queen Mother in 'The Royal Romance of Charles and Diana' in 1982, and the Dowager Empress Maria in the 1986 mini-series 'Anastasia: The Mystery of Anna', for which she earned a Golden Globe award and an Emmy nomination.


A very beautiful and intelligent woman, Olivia, as a young single actress, had romances with James Stewart and John Huston. She married twice, firstly to writer, Marcus Goodrich in 1946. The couple had one son and divorced in 1953. Their son, Benjamin, died in 1991 from lymphatic cancer.

Olivia's second marriage was to Pierre Galante, the editor of Paris Match. They had a daughter, Gisèle. Although the couple divorced in 1979 they remained on good terms and Olivia nursed him in his final illness. He died in 1998.

Olivia lived a long and fruitful life. She enjoyed a quiet retirement in Paris, France. In 2008 she received the National Medal for the Arts from President George W. Bush who finished his speech: 'for her persuasive and compelling skill as an actress in roles from Shakespeare's Hermia to Margaret Mitchell's Melanie. Her independence, integrity, and grace won creative freedom for herself and her fellow film actors.'

Olivia de Havilland died in Paris on July 26, 2020 from natural causes. She was 104 years old.

Olivia de Havilland Academy Awards

Two Wins:
Best Actress ... To Each His Own (1946)
Best Actress ... The Heiress (1949)

Three Unsuccessful Nominations:
Best Supporting Actress ... Gone with the Wind (1939)
Best Actress ... Hold Back the Dawn (1941)
Best Actress ... The Snake Pit (1948)


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Olivia de Havilland Filmography

Alibi Ike
The Irish in Us
A Midsummer Night's Dream
Captain Blood
Anthony Adverse
The Charge of the Light Brigade
Call It a Day
It's Love I'm After
The Great Garrick
Gold Is Where You Find It
The Adventures of Robin Hood
Four's a Crowd
Hard to Get
Wings of the Navy
Dodge City
Essex and Elizabeth
Gone With The Wind
My Love Came Back
Santa Fe Trail
The Strawberry Blonde
Hold Back the Dawn
They Died with Their Boots On
In This Our Life
The Male Animal
Princess O'Rourke
Government Girl
To Each His Own
The Well-Groomed Bride
The Dark Mirror