Olivia de Havilland

Olivia de Havilland

[duh hav-uh-luhnd]

Olivia Mary de Havilland (born July 1, 1916) is a two-time Academy Award-winning actress. She is the sister of actress Joan Fontaine, also an Academy Award winner. Along with her sister Joan Fontaine and Luise Rainer, de Havilland is one of the last surviving female stars from Hollywood of the 1930s. She is also the last living lead from the Hollywood classic Gone with the Wind.

Early life

De Havilland was born in Tokyo, Japan. Her mother, Lilian Augusta Ruse (1886-1975), was an actress known by her stage name Lilian Fontaine, and her father, Walter Augustus de Havilland (1872-1968), was a British patent attorney with a practice in Japan. Her parents married in 1914 and divorced when Olivia was three. Her younger sister is actress Joan Fontaine (b. 1917), from whom she has been estranged for many decades, not speaking at all since 1975. Her paternal cousin is Sir Geoffrey de Havilland.

The de Havilland family moved from Tokyo when she was two years old, settling in Saratoga, California. She attended school at Los Gatos High School and at the Notre Dame Convent Catholic girls' school in Belmont, California. An acting award at Los Gatos is named after her.


De Havilland's career began co-starring with Joe E. Brown in Alibi Ike in 1935. She appeared as Hermia in A Midsummer Night's Dream, her first stage production, at the Hollywood Bowl. The stage production was later turned into a 1935 movie. Although the stage cast was largely replaced with Warner Bros. contract players, she was hired to reprise her role as Hermia. After this, de Havilland played opposite Errol Flynn in such highly popular films as Captain Blood, The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936), and as Maid Marian to Flynn's Robin Hood in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). Overall, she starred opposite Flynn in eight films. She played Melanie Hamilton Wilkes in Gone with the Wind (1939) and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her performance.

In 1941, de Havilland became a naturalized citizen of the United States. De Havilland was becoming increasingly frustrated by the roles assigned to her. She felt she had proven herself capable of playing more than the demure ingénues and damsels in distress that were quickly typecasting her, and began to reject scripts that offered her this type of role. When her Warner Bros. contract expired, the studio informed her that six months had been added to it for times she had been on suspension; the law allowed for studios to suspend contract players for rejecting a role and the period of suspension to be added to the contract period. In theory, this allowed a studio to maintain indefinite control over an uncooperative contractee.

Most accepted this situation, while a few tried to change the system. Bette Davis had mounted an unsuccessful lawsuit against Warner Bros. in the 1930s. de Havilland mounted a lawsuit in the 1940s, supported by the Screen Actors Guild and was successful, thereby reducing the power of the studios and extending greater creative freedom to the performers. The decision was one of the most significant and far-reaching legal rulings in Hollywood. Her courage in mounting such a challenge, and her subsequent victory, won her the respect and admiration of her peers, among them her sister Joan Fontaine who later commented, "Hollywood owes Olivia a great deal". The studio, however, vowed never to hire her again. The court's ruling came to be known, and is still known to this day, as the "de Havilland law".

Following the release of Devotion, a Hollywood biography of the Brontë sisters filmed in 1943 but withheld from release during the suspension and litigation, de Havilland signed a three picture deal with Paramount Pictures. The quality and variety of her roles began to improve. James Agee, in his review for The Dark Mirror (1946), noted the change, and stated that although she had always been "one of the prettiest women in movies", her recent performances had proven her acting ability. He commented that she did not possess "any remarkable talent, but her playing is thoughtful, quiet, detailed and well-sustained... and an undivided pleasure to see. She won Best Actress Academy Awards for To Each His Own (1946) and The Heiress (1949), and was also widely praised for her Academy Award-nominated performance in The Snake Pit (1948). This was one of the earliest films to attempt a realistic portrayal of mental illness, and de Havilland was lauded for her willingness to play a role that was completely devoid of glamor and that confronted such controversial subject matter. She won the New York Film Critics Award for both The Snake Pit and The Heiress.

De Havilland appeared sporadically in films after the 1950s and attributed this partly to the growing permissiveness of Hollywood films of the period. She was reported to have declined the role of Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire, citing the unsavory nature of some elements of the script and saying there were certain lines she could not allow herself to speak. The role eventually went to her former Gone with the Wind co-star, Vivien Leigh, who won her second Academy Award for her role. De Havilland continued acting on film until the late 1970s, afterward continuing her career on television until the late 1980s, highlighted by her winning a Golden Globe and earning a Emmy Award nomination for her performance as the Dowager Empress Maria in the 1986 miniseries Anastasia: The Mystery of Anna.

Awards and nominations

Year Award Category Film Result
1939 Academy Award Best Supporting Actress Gone with the Wind
1941 Academy Award Best Actress Hold Back the Dawn
1946 Academy Award Best Actress To Each His Own
1948 Academy Award Best Actress The Snake Pit
Italian National Syndicate of Film Journalists Best Actress in a Foreign Film
NBR Award Best Actress
NYFCC Award Best Actress
Volpi Cup Best Actress
1949 Academy Award Best Actress The Heiress
Golden Globe Award Best Actress - Motion Picture Drama
NYFCC Award Best Actress
1950 Golden Apple Award Least Cooperative Actress
1952 Golden Globe Award Best Actress - Motion Picture Drama My Cousin Rachel
1986 Emmy Award Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Miniseries or a Special Anastasia: The Mystery of Anna
Golden Globe Award Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role in a Series, Mini-Series or Motion Picture Made for TV

Personal life


De Havilland and Errol Flynn were known as one of Hollywood's most exciting on-screen couples, appearing in eight films together, but never had a romantic life off-screen. In an interview with Gregory Speck, de Havilland stated, "He never guessed I had a crush on him. And it didn't get better either. In fact, I read in something that he wrote that he was in love with me when we made The Charge of the Light Brigade the next year, in 1936. I was amazed to read that, for it never occurred to me that he was smitten with me, too, even though we did all those pictures together."

De Havilland was romantically involved with John Huston, James Stewart and Howard Hughes in the early 1940s. She married novelist Marcus Goodrich in 1946 and they divorced in 1953. Their son, Benjamin (born in 1949) became a mathematician and died in 1991 after a long battle with Hodgkin's lymphoma.

She was married to French journalist and Paris Match editor Pierre Galante between 1955 until 1979. Their daughter, Giselle (who later became a journalist) was born in July 1956 when de Havilland was 40. After the divorce, de Havilland and Galante remained on good terms, and she nursed him through his final illness (lung cancer) in Paris, which was the stated reason for her absence from the 70th anniversary of the Oscars in 1998.

De Havilland was good friends with Bette Davis and has remained a close friend of Gloria Stuart. In April 2008, she attended the Los Angeles funeral of Charlton Heston and was a surprise guest at the Academy Centennial Tribute to Bette Davis.

Sibling rivalry

Of the two sisters, Olivia was the first to become an actress; when Joan tried to follow her lead, their mother, who allegedly favored Olivia, refused to let her use the family name, so Joan was forced to invent a name, taking first Joan Burfield, and later Joan Fontaine, utilizing the last name of their stepfather, GM Fontaine.

Biographer Charles Higham records that the sisters have always had an uneasy relationship, starting in early childhood when Olivia would rip up the clothes Joan had to wear as hand-me-downs, forcing Joan to sew them back together. A lot of the feud and resentment between the sisters supposedly stems from Joan's perception of Olivia being their mother's favorite child.

Both Olivia and Joan were nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress in 1942. Joan won first for her role in Alfred Hitchcock's Suspicion (1941) over Olivia's performance in Hold Back the Dawn. Charles Higham states that Joan "felt guilty about winning given her lack of obsessive career drive..." Higham has described the events of the awards ceremony, stating that as Joan stepped forward to collect her award, she pointedly rejected Olivia's attempts at congratulating her and that Olivia was both offended and embarrassed by her behavior. Several years later, Olivia would remember the slight and exact her own revenge by brushing past Joan, who was waiting with her hand extended, because Olivia had allegedly taken offense at a comment Joan had made about Olivia's then-husband.

Olivia's relationship with Joan continued to deteriorate after the two incidents. Charles Higham has stated that this was the near final straw for what would become a lifelong feud, but the sisters did not completely stop speaking to each other until 1975. According to Joan, Olivia did not invite her to a memorial service for their mother, who had recently died. Olivia claims she told Joan, but that Joan had brushed her off, claiming that she was too busy to attend.

Charles Higham records that Joan has an estranged relationship with her own daughters as well, possibly because she discovered that they were secretly maintaining a relationship with their aunt Olivia.

Both sisters have refused to comment publicly about their feud and dysfunctional family relationships.

De Havilland today

A resident of Paris since the 1950s, de Havilland rarely makes public appearances. She is reported to be working on an autobiography. She appeared as a presenter at the 75th Annual Academy Awards in 2003. In June 2006, she made appearances at tributes for her 90th birthday at the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences and the Los Angeles County Art Museum.

In 2004, Turner Classic Movies put together a retrospective piece called Melanie Remembers in which de Havilland was interviewed for the 65th anniversary of Gone with the Wind's original release. The film's last surviving principal cast member, de Havilland remembered every detail of her casting as well as filming. The 40-minute documentary can be seen on the Gone with the Wind four-disc special collector's edition.

In 2008 she was a surprise guest at a Centennial Tribute to Bette Davis

In 2009 she will be making her return to film in the dramatic thriller I-59 South based on the novel of the same name by author Benjamin S. Johnson. Johnson will be producing the film under his production company Benjytainment along with Erik A. Williams under his production company banner Rock Your Socks Productions

Popular culture references

In one scene in Tex Avery's 1940 cartoon A Wild Hare (famous as the first cartoon that features Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd in their recognizable forms), Bugs puts his hands over Elmer's eyes and asks "Guess who?" Elmer answers "Owivia de Haviwand" as one possibility; at the time that the cartoon came out, de Havilland was under contract to Warner Bros..



Year Film Role Other notes
1935 Alibi Ike Dolly Stevens
The Irish in Us Lucille Jackson
A Midsummer Night's Dream Hermia, in Love with Lysander as Olivia de Haviland
Captain Blood Arabella Bishop
1936 Anthony Adverse Angela Giuseppe
The Charge of the Light Brigade Elsa Campbell as Olivia De Havilland
1937 Call It a Day Catherine 'Cath' Hilton
It's Love I'm After Marcia West
The Great Garrick Germaine de la Corbe
1938 Gold Is Where You Find It Serena 'Sprat' Ferris
The Adventures of Robin Hood Lady Marian Fitzwalter
Four's a Crowd Lorri Dillingwell
Hard to Get Margaret Richards as Olivia De Havilland
1939 Wings of the Navy Irene Dale
Dodge City Abbie Irving
The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex Lady Penelope Gray
Gone with the Wind Melanie Hamilton Wilkes Nominated - Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress
Raffles Gwen Manders
1940 My Love Came Back Amelia Cornell
Santa Fe Trail Kit Carson Holliday
1941 The Strawberry Blonde Amy Lind Grimes
Hold Back the Dawn Emmy Brown Nominated - Academy Award for Best Actress
They Died with Their Boots On Elizabeth Bacon Custer
1942 The Male Animal Ellen Turner
In This Our Life Roy Timberlake
1943 Thank Your Lucky Stars Herself
Princess O'Rourke Princess Maria - aka Mary Williams as Olivia DeHavilland
1944 Government Girl Elizabeth 'Smokey' Allard
1946 To Each His Own Miss Josephine 'Jody' Norris Academy Award for Best Actress
Devotion Charlotte Bronte
The Well-Groomed Bride Margie Dawson
The Dark Mirror Terry/Ruth Collins
1948 The Snake Pit Virginia Stuart Cunningham Nominated - Academy Award for Best Actress
1949 The Heiress Catherine Sloper Academy Award for Best Actress; Golden Globe
1952 My Cousin Rachel Rachel Sangalletti Ashley Nominated - Golden Globe
1955 That Lady Ana de Mendoza
Not as a Stranger Kristina Hedvigson
1956 The Ambassador's Daughter Joan Fisk
1958 The Proud Rebel Linnett Moore
1959 Libel Lady Margaret Loddon
1962 Light in the Piazza Meg Johnson
1964 Lady in a Cage Mrs. Cornelia Hilyard
Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte Miriam Deering as Olivia deHavilland
1970 The Adventurers Deborah Hadley as Olivia De Havilland
1972 Pope Joan Mother Superior
1977 Airport '77 Emily Livingston
1978 The Swarm Maureen Schuster as Olivia De Havilland
1979 The Fifth Musketeer Queen (Mary) Mother
2009 I-59 South Louise Barrington

Short subjects

Year Film Role Other notes
1935 A Dream Comes True Herself (uncredited) About the making of A Midsummer Night's Dream
1936 The Making of a Great Motion Picture Herself (uncredited) About the making of Anthony Adverse
1937 A Day at Santa Anita Herself (uncredited) Stars attended a horse race at the famed racetrack
Screen Snapshots Series 16, No. 10 Herself Stars and their pets attend a swim meet
1943 Show Business at War Herself newsreel about progress of the Hollywood war effort

Television work

Year Film Role Other notes
1966 Noon Wine Ellie Thompson ABC Stage 67
1972 The Screaming Woman Laura Wynant
1979 Roots: The Next Generations Mrs. Warner miniseries
1982 Murder Is Easy Honoria Waynflete as Olivia De Havilland
The Royal Romance of Charles and Diana Queen Elizabeth, The Queen Mother
1986 North and South II Mrs. Neal miniseries
Anastasia: The Mystery of Anna Dowager Empress Maria Nominated - Emmy Award
1988 The Woman He Loved Aunt Bessie

Further reading

  • de Havilland, Olivia. Every Frenchman Has One. Random House, 1962, 202 pages. Comic observations on life in Paris; little actual biographical information.
  • Fontaine, Joan. No Bed of Roses. Morrow, 1978, 319 pages. Fontaine's autobiography, containing much detail about growing up with her sister.
  • Higham, Charles. Sisters: The Story of Olivia De Haviland and Joan Fontaine. Coward McCann, May 1984, 257 pages.
  • Lamparski, Richard. Manhattan Diary. BearManor Media, 2006 ISBN 1-59393-054-2
  • Shipman, David, The Great Movie Stars, The Golden Years, Bonanza Books, New York, 1970. Library of Congress Catalogue Card Number 78-133803
  • Thomas, Tony. The Films of Olivia de Havilland. Citadel Press, 1983, 255 pages. Foreword by Bette Davis.


External links

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