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Olivia de Havilland

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Olivia de Havilland

Olivia DeHavilland-2.JPG
de Havilland in 1945
Olivia Mary de Havilland

(1916-07-01)July 1, 1916
Tokyo, Japan
DiedJuly 26, 2020(2020-07-26) (aged 104)
Paris, France
Other namesLivvie
  • United Kingdom
  • United States
  • France
Years active1933–2009
  • Marcus Goodrich
    (m. 1946; div. 1953)
  • Pierre Galante
    (m. 1955; div. 1979)
  • Joan Fontaine (sister)
  • Hereward de Havilland (cousin)
  • Geoffrey de Havilland (cousin)
AwardsFull list
Olivia de Havilland signature.svg

Dame Olivia Mary de Havilland DBE (/də ˈhævɪlənd/; July 1, 1916 – July 26, 2020) was a British-American actress. The major works of her cinematic career spanned from 1935 to 1988.[1] She appeared in 49 feature films and was one of the leading actors of her time. She was the oldest living and earliest surviving Academy Award winner until her death in 2020 and was widely considered as being the last surviving major star from the Golden Age of Hollywood cinema. Her younger sister was Oscar-winning actress Joan Fontaine.

De Havilland first came to prominence with Errol Flynn as a screen couple in adventure films such as Captain Blood (1935) and The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). One of her best-known roles is that of Melanie Hamilton in Gone with the Wind (1939), for which she received her first of five Oscar nominations, the only one for Best Supporting Actress. De Havilland departed from ingénue roles in the 1940s and later distinguished herself for performances in Hold Back the Dawn (1941), To Each His Own (1946), The Snake Pit (1948), and The Heiress (1949), receiving nominations for Best Actress for each and winning for To Each His Own and The Heiress. She was also successful in work on stage and television. De Havilland lived in Paris from the 1950s and received honors such as the National Medal of the Arts, the Légion d'honneur, and the appointment to Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire.

In addition to her film career, de Havilland continued her work in the theatre, appearing three times on Broadway, in Romeo and Juliet (1951), Candida (1952), and A Gift of Time (1962). She also worked in television, appearing in the successful miniseries Roots: The Next Generations (1979) and Anastasia: The Mystery of Anna (1986), for which she received a Primetime Emmy Award nomination and won the Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress in a Television Movie or Series. During her film career, de Havilland also collected two New York Film Critics Circle Awards, the National Board of Review Award for Best Actress, and the Venice Film Festival Volpi Cup. For her contributions to the motion picture industry, she received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. She and her sister remain the only siblings to have won major acting Academy Awards.

Early life[]

By birth, Olivia was member of De Havilland family which belonged to landed gentry that originated from mainland Normandy. Her mother, Lilian Fontaine (née Ruse; 1886–1975), was educated at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London and became a stage actress.[2] Lilian also sang with the Master of the King's Music, Sir Walter Parratt, and toured England with the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams.[3] Olivia's father, Walter de Havilland (1872–1968), served as an English professor at the Imperial University in Tokyo City before becoming a patent attorney.[2] Her paternal cousin was Sir Geoffrey de Havilland (1882–1965),[4] an aircraft designer and founder of the de Havilland aircraft company.[5]

Lilian and Walter met in Japan in 1913 and married the following year;[6] the marriage was not a happy one due in part to Walter's infidelities.[7] Olivia Mary de Havilland was born on July 1, 1916.[2] They moved into a large house in Tokyo City, where Lilian gave informal singing recitals.[6] Olivia's younger sister Joan (Joan de Beauvoir de Havilland)‍—‌later known as actress Joan Fontaine‍—‌was born 15 months later, on October 22, 1917. Both sisters became British subjects automatically by birthright.[8]

In February 1919, Lilian persuaded her husband to take the family back to England for a climate better suited to their ailing daughters.[7] They sailed aboard the SS Siberia Maru to San Francisco,[8] where the family stopped to treat Olivia's tonsillitis.[9] After Joan developed pneumonia, Lilian decided to remain with her daughters in California, where they eventually settled in the village of Saratoga, 50 miles (80 km) south of San Francisco.[10][Note 1] Her father abandoned the family and returned to his Japanese housekeeper, who eventually became his second wife.[10]

Lundblad's Lodge, in Saratoga, where the family lived for a while

Olivia was raised to appreciate the arts, beginning with ballet lessons at the age of four and piano lessons a year later.[14] She learned to read before she was six,[15] and her mother, who occasionally taught drama, music, and elocution,[16] had her recite passages from Shakespeare to strengthen her diction.[14][Note 2] During this period, her younger sister Joan first started calling her "Livvie", a nickname that would last throughout her life.[14] De Havilland entered Saratoga Grammar School in 1922 and did well in her studies.[12] She enjoyed reading, writing poetry, and drawing, and once represented her grammar school in a county spelling bee, coming in second place.[12] In 1923, Lilian had a new Tudor-style house built,[12] where the family resided until the early 1930s.[18] In April 1925, after her divorce was finalised, Lilian married George Milan Fontaine, a department store manager for O. A. Hale & Co. in San Jose.[19] Fontaine was a good provider and respectable businessman, but his strict parenting style generated animosity and later rebellion in both of his new stepdaughters.[20][Note 3]

At the age of 15
De Havilland in the stage play Alice in Wonderland, 1933

De Havilland continued her education at Los Gatos High School near her home in Saratoga.[20] There she excelled in oratory and field hockey and participated in school plays and the school drama club, eventually becoming the club's secretary.[22] With plans of becoming a schoolteacher of English and speech,[20] she also attended Notre Dame Convent in Belmont.[23]

In 1933, a teenage de Havilland made her debut in amateur theatre in Alice in Wonderland, a production of the Saratoga Community Players based on the novel by Lewis Carroll.[22] She also appeared in several school plays, including The Merchant of Venice and Hansel and Gretel.[24] Her passion for drama eventually led to a confrontation with her stepfather, who forbade her from participating in further extracurricular activities.[25] When he learned that she had won the lead role of Elizabeth Bennet in a school fund-raising production of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, he told her that she had to choose between staying at home, or appearing in the production and not being allowed home.[25] Not wanting to let her school and classmates down, she left home, moving in with a family friend.[25]

After graduating from high school in 1934, de Havilland was offered a scholarship to Mills College in Oakland to pursue her chosen career as an English teacher.[26] She was also offered the role of Puck in the Saratoga Community Theater production of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream.[22] That summer, Austrian director Max Reinhardt came to California for a major new production of the same play to premiere at the Hollywood Bowl.[26] After one of Reinhardt's assistants saw her perform in Saratoga, he offered her the second understudy position for the role of Hermia.[26] One week before the premiere, the understudy Jean Rouverol and lead actress Gloria Stuart both left the project, leaving 18-year-old de Havilland to play Hermia.[26] Impressed with her performance, Reinhardt offered her the part in the four-week autumn tour that followed.[26] During that tour, Reinhardt received word that he would direct the Warner Bros. film version of his stage production, and he offered her the film role of Hermia. With her mind still set on becoming a teacher, de Havilland initially wavered, but eventually, Reinhardt and executive producer Henry Blanke persuaded her to sign a five-year contract with Warner Bros. on November 12, 1934, with a starting salary of $200 a week, marking the beginning of a professional acting career which would span more than 50 years.[27]


1935–1937: Early films[]

De Havilland made her screen debut in Reinhardt's A Midsummer Night's Dream,[28] which was filmed at Warner Brothers studios from December 19, 1934, to March 9, 1935.[29] During the production, de Havilland picked up film acting techniques from the film's co-director William Dieterle and camera techniques from cinematographer Hal Mohr, who was impressed with her questions about his work. By the end of filming, she had learned the effect of lighting and camera angles on how she appeared on screen and how to find her best lighting.[30] Following premieres in New York City and Beverly Hills, the film was released on October 30, 1935.[29] Despite the publicity campaign, the film generated little enthusiasm with audiences.[28] While the critical response was mixed, de Havilland's performance was praised by The San Francisco Examiner critic.[31] In his review in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Winston Burdett wrote that she "acts graciously and does greater justice to Shakespeare's language than anyone else in the cast".[32] Two minor comedies followed, Alibi Ike with Joe E. Brown and The Irish in Us (both 1935) with James Cagney.[33] In both films, she played the sweet and charming love interest‍—‌a role into which she would later become typecast.[34] After the experience of being a Reinhardt player, de Havilland felt disappointed being assigned these routine heroine roles.[28][35] In March, de Havilland and her mother moved into an apartment at the Chateau des Fleurs at 6626 Franklin Avenue in Hollywood.[36]

Climbing a ladder wearing a pirate's outfit
Publicity photo, 1935

Although Warner Brothers studio had assumed that the many costumed films that studios such as MGM had earlier produced would never succeed during the years of the American Great Depression, they nonetheless took a chance by producing Captain Blood (also 1935).[37]: 63  The film is a swashbuckler action drama based on the novel by Rafael Sabatini and directed by Michael Curtiz.[37]: 63  Captain Blood starred a then little-known contract bit-part actor and former extra, Errol Flynn, alongside the little-known de Havilland.[38][39] According to film historian Tony Thomas, both actors had "classic good looks, cultured speaking voices, and a sense of distant aristocracy about them".[40] Filmed between August 5 and October 29, 1935,[41] Captain Blood gave de Havilland the opportunity to appear in her first costumed historical romance and adventure epic, a genre to which she was well suited, given her beauty and elegance.[42] In the film, she played Arabella Bishop, the niece of a Jamaica plantation owner, who purchases at auction an Irish physician wrongly condemned to servitude. The on-screen chemistry between de Havilland and Flynn was evident from their first scenes together,[42] where clashes between her character's spirited hauteur and his character's playful braggadocio did not mask their mutual attraction to each other.[43][Note 4] Arabella is a feisty young woman who knows what she wants and is willing to fight for it.[44] The bantering tone of their exchanges in the film‍—‌the healthy give-and-take and mutual respect‍—‌became the basis for their on-screen relationship in subsequent films.[43] Captain Blood was released on December 28, 1935,[41] and received good reviews and wide public appeal.[45] De Havilland's performance was singled out in The New York Times and Variety.[46][47] The film was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture.[48] The popular success of the film, as well as the critical response to the on-screen couple, led to seven additional collaborations.[42]

De Havilland appeared in Mervyn LeRoy's historical drama Anthony Adverse (1936) with Fredric March.[49] Based on the popular novel by Hervey Allen, the film follows the adventures of an orphan raised by a Scottish merchant, whose pursuit of fortune separates him from the innocent peasant girl he loves, marries, and eventually loses.[50] De Havilland played a peasant girl, Angela, who after being separated from her slave-trader husband, becomes opera star Mademoiselle Georges, the mistress of Napoleon.[51] The film earned six Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture.[52] It garnered de Havilland good exposure and the opportunity to portray a character as she develops over time.[53] Howard Barnes of the New York Herald Tribune found her later scenes as Mademoiselle Georges "not very credible",[54] but Frank S. Nugent of The New York Times called her "a winsome Angela".[55] That same year, she was re-united with Flynn in Michael Curtiz's period action film The Charge of the Light Brigade (also 1936), set during the Crimean War[56][57] which became a box office hit.[58]

During the film's production, de Havilland renegotiated her contract with Warner Bros. and signed a seven-year contract on April 14, 1936, with a starting weekly salary of $500 (equivalent to $9,300 in 2020).[59][Note 5] Toward the end of the year, 20-year-old de Havilland and her mother moved to 2337 Nella Vista Avenue in the Los Feliz section of Los Angeles.[61]

In Call It a Day, 1937

De Havilland had her first top billing in Archie Mayo's comedy Call It a Day (1937),[62] about a middle-class English family struggling with the romantic effects of spring fever during the course of a single day.[63] De Havilland played daughter Catherine Hilton, who falls in love with the handsome artist hired to paint her portrait.[63] The film did not do well at the box office and did little to advance her career.[64] She fared better in Mayo's screwball comedy It's Love I'm After (also 1937) with Leslie Howard and Bette Davis.[65] De Havilland played Marcia West, a young debutante and theatre fan enamoured with a Barrymore-like matinee idol who decides to help the girl's fiancé by pretending to be an abominable cad.[66] The film received good reviews, with Variety calling it "fresh, clever, excellently directed and produced, and acted by an ensemble that clicks from start to finish", and praising de Havilland.[67]

Also released during 1937 was another period film with de Havilland, beginning with The Great Garrick, a fictional romantic comedy about the 18th-century English actor's encounter with jealous players from the Comédie-Française who plot to embarrass him on his way to Paris.[68] Wise to their prank, Garrick plays along with the ruse, determined to get the last laugh, even on a lovely young aristocrat, de Havilland's Germaine Dupont, whom he mistakenly believes to be one of the players.[69] With her refined demeanour and diction,[64] de Havilland delivers a performance that is "lighthearted and thoroughly believable", according to Judith Kass.[70] Variety praised the film, calling it "a production of superlative workmanship".[71][72] Despite the positive reviews, the film did not do as well at the box office.[72][Note 6] The Michael Curtiz-directed romantic drama Gold Is Where You Find It[75] is a film about the late 19th-century conflict in the Sacramento Valley between gold miners and their hydraulic equipment and farmers whose land is being flooded.[76] De Havilland played the daughter of a farmer, Serena Ferris, who falls in love with the mining engineer responsible for the flooding.[77] The film was released in February 1938,[78] and was her first appearance in a Technicolor film.[75]

1938–1940: Movie stardom[]

In September 1937, de Havilland was selected by Warner Bros. studio head Jack L. Warner to play Maid Marian opposite Errol Flynn in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938).[79] Principal photography for this Technicolor production took place between September 26, 1937, and January 14, 1938, including location work at Bidwell Park, Busch Gardens in Pasadena, and Lake Sherwood in California.[80] Directed by William Keighley and Michael Curtiz, the film is about the legendary Saxon knight who opposes the corrupt and brutal Prince John and his Norman lords while good King Richard is away fighting in the Third Crusade.[81] The king's ward, Maid Marian, initially opposes Robin Hood, but later supports him after learning his true intentions of helping his oppressed people.[82] [83] No mere bystander to events, Marian risks her life to save Robin by providing his men with a plan for his escape.[84] As defined by de Havilland, Marian is both a beautiful fairy-tale heroine and a spirited, intelligent woman "whose actions are governed by her mind as well as her heart", according to author Judith Kass.[85] The Adventures of Robin Hood was released on May 14, 1938,[80] and was an immediate critical and commercial success, earning an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture. It went on to become one of the most popular adventure films of the Classical Hollywood era.[86][87]

The success of The Adventures of Robin Hood raised de Havilland's status, but this was not reflected in her subsequent film assignments at Warner Bros.[64] Her next several roles were more routine and less challenging.[64] In the romantic comedy Four's a Crowd (also 1938), she played Lorri Dillingwell, a ditzy rich girl being romanced by a conniving public relations man looking to land an account with her eccentric grandfather.[88] In Ray Enright's romantic comedy Hard to Get (1938), she played another ditzy rich girl, Margaret Richards, whose desire to exact revenge on a gas station attendant leads to her own comeuppance.[89] In the summer of 1938, she portrayed the love interest between two U.S. Navy pilot brothers in Wings of the Navy, released in early 1939.[90] While de Havilland was certainly capable of playing these kinds of characters, her personality was better suited to stronger and more dramatic roles, according to Judith Kass.[91] By this time, de Havilland had serious doubts about her career at Warner Bros.[92][93]

Some film scholars consider 1939 to be the high point of the golden age of Classic Cinema,[94] producing award-winning, box office hits in many genres, including the Western.[95][Note 7] Warner Bros. produced Michael Curtiz's Technicolor adventure Dodge City (1939), Flynn and de Havilland's first Western film.[95] Set during the American Civil War, the film is about a Texas trailblazer who witnesses the brutal lawlessness of Dodge City, Kansas, and becomes sheriff to clean up the town. De Havilland played Abbie Irving, whose initial hostility towards Flynn's character Wade Hatton is transformed by events, and the two fall in love‍—‌by now a proven formula for their on-screen relationships.[96] Curtiz's action sequences, Sol Polito's cinematography, Max Steiner's expansive film score, and perhaps the "definitive saloon brawl in movie history"[95] all contributed to the film's success.[97] Variety described the film as "a lusty western, packed with action".[98] For de Havilland, playing yet one more supporting love interest in a limited role, Dodge City represented the emotional low point of her career to that point.[99] She later said, "I was in such a depressed state that I could hardly remember my lines."[96]

Wearing a flowing dress and bonnet
Studio publicity portrait for Gone with the Wind, 1939

In a letter to a colleague dated November 18, 1938, film producer David O. Selznick wrote, "I would give anything if we had Olivia de Havilland under contract to us so that we could cast her as Melanie."[100] The film he was preparing to shoot was Gone with the Wind, and Jack L. Warner was unwilling to lend her out for the project.[101] De Havilland had read the novel, and unlike most other actresses, who wanted the Scarlett O'Hara role, she wanted to play Melanie Hamilton‍—‌a character whose quiet dignity and inner strength she understood and felt she could bring to life on the screen.[102]

De Havilland turned to Warner's wife Anne for help.[103] Warner later recalled: "Olivia, who had a brain like a computer concealed behind those fawn-like eyes, simply went to my wife and they joined forces to change my mind."[104] Warner relented, and de Havilland was signed to the project a few weeks before the start of principal photography on January 26, 1939.[105] Set in the American South during the Civil War and Reconstruction eras, the film is about Scarlett O'Hara, the strong-willed daughter of a Georgia plantation owner in love with the husband of her sister-in-law Melanie, whose kindness stands in sharp contrast to those around her. According to film historian Tony Thomas, de Havilland's skillful and subtle performance effectively presents this character of selfless love and quiet strength in a way that keeps her vital and interesting throughout the film.[106] Gone with the Wind had its world premiere in Atlanta, Georgia, on December 15, 1939, and was well received.[105] Frank S. Nugent of The New York Times wrote that de Havilland's Melanie "is a gracious, dignified, tender gem of characterization",[107] and John C. Flinn Sr. in Variety called her "a standout".[108] The film won 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and de Havilland received her first nomination for Best Supporting Actress.[109][110]

Melanie was someone different. She had very, deeply feminine qualities ... that I felt were very endangered at that time, and they are from generation to generation, and that somehow they should be kept alive, and ... that's why I wanted to interpret her role. ... The main thing is that she was always thinking of the other person, and the interesting thing to me is that she was a happy person ... loving, compassionate.[12]

— Olivia de Havilland

Within days of completing her work in Gone with the Wind in June 1939, de Havilland returned to Warner Bros. and began filming Michael Curtiz's historical drama The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (also 1939) with Bette Davis and Errol Flynn.[111] She had hoped her work on Selznick's prestige picture would lead to first-rate roles at Warner Bros., but instead, she received third billing below the title as the queen's lady-in-waiting.[112] In early September, she was lent out to Samuel Goldwyn Productions for Sam Wood's romantic caper film Raffles (also 1939) with David Niven,[113] about a high-society cricketer and jewel thief.[114] She later complained, "I had nothing to do with that style of film."[115]

Wearing a silver dress and broach
Studio publicity portrait for Santa Fe Trail, 1940

In early 1940, de Havilland refused to appear in several films assigned to her, initiating the first of her suspensions at the studio.[115] She did agree to play in Curtis Bernhardt's musical comedy drama My Love Came Back (1940) with Jeffrey Lynn and Eddie Albert, who played a classical music student turned swing jazz bandleader. De Havilland played violinist Amelia Cornell, whose life becomes complicated by the support of a wealthy sponsor.[115][Note 8] In his review in The New York Times, Bosley Crowther described the film as "a featherlight frolic, a rollicking roundelay of deliciously pointed nonsense", finding that de Havilland "plays the part with pace and wit".[117]

That same year, de Havilland was re-united with Flynn in their sixth film together, Michael Curtiz's Western adventure Santa Fe Trail, set against the backdrop of abolitionist John Brown's fanatical anti-slavery attacks in the days leading up to the American Civil War.[118] The mostly fictional story follows West Point cadets J. E. B. Stuart, played by Flynn, and George Armstrong Custer, played by Ronald Reagan, as they make their way west, both vying for the affection of de Havilland's Kit Carson Halliday.[118] Playing Kit in a provocative, tongue-in-cheek manner, de Havilland creates a character of real substance and dimension, according to Tony Thomas.[119] Following a world premiere on December 13, 1940, at the Lensic Theatre in Santa Fe, New Mexico‍—‌attended by cast members, reporters, the governor, and over 60,000 fans [120] ‍—‌ Santa Fe Trail became one of the top-grossing films of 1940.[121] De Havilland, who accompanied Flynn on the well-publicised train ride to Santa Fe, did not attend the premiere, having been diagnosed with appendicitis that morning and rushed into surgery.[120]

1941–1944: War years and lawsuit[]

Following her emergency surgery, de Havilland began a long period of convalescence in a Los Angeles hospital during which time she rejected several scripts offered to her by Warner Bros., leading to another suspension.[122] She appeared in three commercially successful films released in 1941, beginning with Raoul Walsh's romantic comedy The Strawberry Blonde with James Cagney.[123] Set during the Gay Nineties, the story involves a man who marries an outspoken advocate for women's rights after a rival steals his glamorous "strawberry blonde" girlfriend, and later discovers he ended up with a loving and understanding wife.[124] The film was a critical and commercial success.[125] In Mitch Leisen's romantic drama Hold Back the Dawn with Charles Boyer for Paramount Pictures, she transitioned to a different type of role for her‍—‌an ordinary, decent small-town teacher whose life and sexuality are awakened by a sophisticated European gigolo, whose own life is positively affected by her love.[126] Leisen's careful direction and guidance appealed to de Havilland‍—‌much more than the workman-like approach of her Warner Bros. directors.[127] Bosley Crowther of The New York Times wrote that the actress "plays the school teacher as a woman with romantic fancies whose honesty and pride are her own‍—‌and the film's‍—‌chief support. Incidentally, she is excellent."[128] For this performance, she garnered her second Academy Award nomination‍—‌this time for Best Actress.[129]

De Havilland was re-united with Flynn for their eighth movie together, Raoul Walsh's epic They Died with Their Boots On. The film is loosely based on the courtship and marriage of George Armstrong Custer and Elizabeth "Libbie" Bacon.[130] Flynn and de Havilland had a falling out the previous year‍—‌mainly over the roles she was being given‍—‌and she did not intend to work with him again.[131] Even Flynn acknowledged, "She was sick to death of playing 'the girl', and badly wanted a few good roles to show herself and the world that she was a fine actress."[132] After she learned from Warner that Flynn had come to his office saying he needed her in the film, de Havilland accepted.[122] Screenwriter Lenore Coffee was brought in to add several romantic scenes, and improve the overall dialogue.[122] The result is a film that includes some of their finest work together.[133] Their last appearance on screen is Custer's farewell to his wife.[134] "Errol was quite sensitive", de Havilland would later remember, "I think he knew it would be the last time we worked together."[134] Flynn's final line in that scene would hold special meaning for her: "Walking through life with you, ma'am, has been a very gracious thing."[135] They Died with Their Boots On was released on November 21, 1941, and while some reviewers criticised the film's historical inaccuracies, most applauded the action sequences, cinematography, and acting.[136] Thomas M. Pryor of The New York Times found de Havilland "altogether captivating".[137] The film went on to earn $2,550,000 (equivalent to $44,900,000 in 2020), Warner Bros' second-biggest money-maker of that year.[138]

De Havilland appeared in Elliott Nugent's romantic comedy The Male Animal (1942) with Henry Fonda, about an idealistic professor fighting for academic freedom while trying to hold onto his job and his wife Ellen. While her role was not particularly challenging, de Havilland's delineation of an intelligent, good-natured woman trying to resolve the unsettling circumstances of her life played a major part in the film's success, according to Tony Thomas.[139] The film was a critical and commercial success, with Bosley Crowther of The New York Times noting that de Havilland "concocts a delightfully pliant and saucy character as the wife".[140] Around the same time, she appeared in John Huston's drama In This Our Life (also 1942) with Bette Davis. Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name by Ellen Glasgow, the story is about two sisters whose lives are destroyed by the anger and jealousy of one of the sisters.[141] Crowther gave the film a negative review, but praised de Havilland's "warm and easy performance".[142] During production, de Havilland and Huston began a romantic relationship that lasted three years.[143]

According to de Havilland, one of the few truly satisfying roles she played for Warner Bros. was the title character in Norman Krasna's romantic comedy Princess O'Rourke (1943), with Robert Cummings.[144] Filmed in July and August 1942,[145] the story is about a European princess in Washington, DC, visiting her diplomat uncle, who is trying to find her an American husband. Intent on marrying a man of her own choosing, she boards a plane heading west and ends up falling in love with an American pilot, who is unaware of her true identity.[146][Note 9] The film was released on October 23, 1943,[145] and did well at the box office.[148] Bosley Crowther called it "a film which is in the best tradition of American screen comedy", and found de Havilland's performance "charming".[149]

I wanted to do complex roles, like Melanie for example, and Jack Warner saw me as an ingénue. I was really restless to portray more developed human beings. Jack never understood this, and ... he would give me roles that really had no character or quality in them. I knew I wouldn't even be effective.[150]

— Olivia de Havilland

After fulfilling her seven-year Warner Bros. contract in 1943, de Havilland was informed that six months had been added to her contract for the times that she had been suspended.[151] At the time, the studios had adopted the position that California law allowed them to suspend contract players for rejecting a role, and the period of suspension could be added to the contract period.[152] Most contract players accepted this, but a few tried to challenge this assumption, including Bette Davis, who mounted an unsuccessful lawsuit against Warner Bros. in the 1930s.[153] On August 23, 1943, acting on the advice of her lawyer, Martin Gang, de Havilland filed suit against Warner Bros. in Los Angeles County Superior Court seeking declaratory judgement that she was no longer bound by her contract[154][155] on the grounds that an existing section of the California Labor Code forbade an employer from enforcing a contract against an employee for longer than seven years from the date of first performance.[156] In November 1943, the Superior Court found in de Havilland's favour, and Warner Bros. immediately appealed.[157] A little over a year later, the California Court of Appeal for the Second District ruled in her favour.[155][Note 10] The decision was one of the most significant and far-reaching legal rulings in Hollywood, reducing the power of the studios and extending greater creative freedom to performers.[159] California's resulting "seven-year rule", as articulated by the Court of Appeal in analysing Labor Code Section 2855 in the De Havilland case, is still known today as the De Havilland Law.[159][160] Her legal victory, which cost her $13,000 (equivalent to $190,000 in 2020) in legal fees, won de Havilland the respect and admiration of her peers, among them her own sister, Joan Fontaine, who later commented, "Hollywood owes Olivia a great deal."[161] Warner Bros. reacted to de Havilland's lawsuit by circulating a letter to other studios that had the effect of a "virtual blacklisting".[154] As a consequence, de Havilland did not work at a film studio for nearly two years.[154]

Visiting a wounded soldier in a hospital
At the Naval Air Station in Kodiak, Alaska (March 20, 1944)

De Havilland became a naturalized citizen of the United States on November 28, 1941, 10 days before the United States entered World War II militarily, alongside the Allied Forces.[162][163] During the war years, she actively sought ways to express her patriotism and contribute to the war effort. In May 1942, she joined the Hollywood Victory Caravan, a three-week train tour of the country that raised money through the sale of war bonds.[164] Later that year she began attending events at the Hollywood Canteen, meeting and dancing with the troops.[165] In December 1943 de Havilland joined a USO tour that travelled throughout the United States and the South Pacific, visiting wounded soldiers in military hospitals.[152][12] She earned the respect and admiration of the troops for visiting the isolated islands and battlefronts in the Pacific.[166] She survived flights in damaged aircraft and a bout with viral pneumonia requiring several days' stay in one of the island barrack hospitals.[12][166][Note 11] She later remembered, "I loved doing the tours because it was a way I could serve my country and contribute to the war effort."[167]

1945–1952: Vindication and recognition[]

After the California Court of Appeal[168] ruling freed her from her Warner Bros. contract, de Havilland signed a two-picture deal with Paramount Pictures.[169] In June 1945, she began filming Mitchell Leisen's drama To Each His Own,[170] (1946) about an unwed mother who gives up her child for adoption and then spends the rest of her life trying to undo that decision.[171] De Havilland insisted on bringing in Leisen as director, trusting his eye for detail, his empathy for actors, and the way he controlled sentiment in their previous collaboration, Hold Back the Dawn.[171] The role required de Havilland to age nearly 30 years over the course of the film‍—‌from an innocent, small-town girl to a shrewd, ruthless businesswoman devoted to her cosmetics company. While de Havilland never formally studied acting, she did read Stanislavsky's autobiography My Life in Art and applied one of his "methods" for this role.[172] To help her define her character during the four periods of the story, she used a different perfume for each period. She also lowered the pitch of her voice incrementally in each period until it became a mature woman's voice.[173] Her performance earned her the Academy Award for Best Actress for 1946‍—‌her first Oscar.[174] According to film historian Tony Thomas, the award represented a vindication of her long struggle with Warner Bros. and confirmation of her abilities as an actress.[173]

Smiling softly
De Havilland with the first of her two Oscars, this one for To Each His Own, March 13, 1947

Her next two roles were challenging. In Robert Siodmak's psychological thriller The Dark Mirror (also 1946), de Havilland played twin sisters Ruth and Terry Collins‍—‌one loving and normal, the other psychotic.[175] In addition to the technical problems of showing her as two characters interacting with each other on screen at the same time, de Havilland needed to portray two separate and psychologically opposite people.[176] While the film was not well received by critics‍—‌Variety said the film "gets lost in a maze of psychological gadgets and speculation"[177]‍—‌de Havilland's performance was praised by Tony Thomas, who called her final scene in the film "an almost frighteningly convincing piece of acting".[178] In his review in The Nation, James Agee wrote that "her playing is thoughtful, quiet, detailed, and well sustained, and since it is founded, as some more talented playing is not, in an unusually healthful-seeming and likable temperament, it is an undivided pleasure to see".[179][180] Later that year while appearing in a summer stock production of What Every Woman Knows in Westport, Connecticut, her second professional stage appearance, de Havilland began dating Marcus Goodrich, a U.S. Navy veteran, journalist, and author of the novel Delilah (1941). The couple married on August 26, 1946.[181]

De Havilland was praised for her performance as Virginia Cunningham in Anatole Litvak's drama The Snake Pit (1948), one of the first films to attempt a realistic portrayal of mental illness and an important exposé of the harsh conditions in state mental hospitals, according to film critic Philip French.[182] Based on a novel by Mary Jane Ward and produced by Darryl F. Zanuck, the film is about a woman placed in a mental institution by her husband to help her recover from a nervous breakdown.[183] Virginia Cunningham was one of the most difficult of all her film roles, requiring significant preparation both mentally and physically‍—‌she deliberately lost weight to help create her gaunt appearance on screen.[184] She consulted regularly with psychiatrists hired as consultants for the film, and visited Camarillo State Mental Hospital to research her role and observe the patients. The extreme physical discomfort of the hydrotherapy and simulated electric shock therapy scenes were especially challenging for the slight 5-foot-3-inch (160 cm) actress.[185] In her performance, she conveyed her mental anguish by physically transforming her face with furrowed brow, wild staring eyes, and grimacing mouth.[186]

I met a young woman who was very much like Virginia, about the same age and physical description, as well as being a schizophrenic with guilt problems. ... What struck me most of all was the fact that she was rather likable and appealing. It hadn't occurred to me before that a mental patient could be appealing, and it was that that gave me the key to the performance.[185]

— Olivia de Havilland

According to author Judith Kass, de Havilland delivered a performance both "restrained and electric", portraying varied and extreme aspects of her character‍—‌from a shy young woman to a tormented and disorientated woman.[187] For her performance in The Snake Pit, de Havilland received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress, the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actress, and the Venice Film Festival Volpi Cup.[188]

De Havilland appeared in William Wyler's period drama The Heiress (1949), the fourth in a string of critically acclaimed performances.[189] After seeing the play on Broadway, de Havilland called Wyler and urged him to fly to New York to see what she felt would be a perfect role for her. Wyler obliged, loved the play, and with de Havilland's help arranged for Paramount to secure the film rights.[190] Adapted for the screen by Ruth and Augustus Goetz and based on the 1880 novel Washington Square by Henry James, the film is about a young naïve woman who falls in love with a young man (Montgomery Clift), over the objections of her cruel and emotionally abusive father, who suspects the young man of being a fortune seeker.[186] As she had done in Hold Back the Dawn, de Havilland portrayed her character's transformation from a shy, trusting innocent to a guarded, mature woman over a period of years.[191] Her delineation of Catherine Sloper is developed through carefully crafted movements, gestures, and facial expressions that convey a submissive and inhibited young woman. Her timid voice, nervous hands, downcast eyes, and careful movements all communicate what the character is too shy to verbalise.[186] Throughout the production, Wyler pressed de Havilland hard to elicit the requisite visual points of the character. When Catherine returns home after being jilted, the director had the actress carry a suitcase filled with heavy books up the stairs to convey the weight of Catherine's trauma physically instead of using a planned speech in the original script.[192] The Heiress was released in October 1949 and was well received by critics. For her performance, she received the New York Film Critics Award, the Golden Globe Award, and the Academy Award for Best Actress‍—‌her second Oscar.[193]

After giving birth to her first child, Benjamin, on September 27, 1949, de Havilland took time off from making films to be with her infant son.[194] She turned down the role of Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire, later explaining that becoming a mother was a "transforming experience" and that she could not relate to the character.[195] In 1950, her family moved to New York City, where she began rehearsals for a major new stage production of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet; it was her life-long ambition to play Juliet on the stage.[194] The play opened at the Broadhurst Theatre on March 11, 1951, to mixed reviews, with some critics believing the 35-year-old actress was too old for the role.[194] The play closed after 45 performances.[194] Undaunted, de Havilland accepted the title role in the stage production of George Bernard Shaw's comedy Candida, which opened at the National Theatre on Broadway in April 1952.[194] While reviews of the play were mixed, de Havilland's performance was well received, and following the scheduled 32 performances, she went on tour with the company and delivered 323 additional performances, many to sold-out audiences.[194] While de Havilland achieved major accomplishments during this period of her career, her marriage to Goodrich, 18 years her senior, had grown strained due to his unstable temperament.[196] In August 1952, she filed for divorce, which became final the following year.[197]

1953–1962: New life in Paris[]

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.[198]

— Olivia de Havilland in Every Frenchman Has One
Smiling while holding her newborn child with her husband
With Pierre Galante and daughter Gisèle, 1956

In April 1953, at the invitation of the French government, she travelled to the Cannes Film Festival, where she met Pierre Galante, an executive editor for the French journal Paris Match.[199] Following a long-distance courtship and the requisite nine-month residency requirement, de Havilland and Galante married on April 12, 1955, in the village of Yvoy-le-Marron, and settled together in a three-storey house near the Bois de Boulogne park in Paris' 16th Arrondissement.[200][201][202] That same year, she returned to the screen in Terence Young's period drama That Lady (1955), about a Spanish princess and her unrequited love for King Philip II of Spain, whose respect she earned in her youth after losing an eye in a sword fight defending his honor.[203] According to Tony Thomas, the film uses authentic Spanish locations effectively, but suffers from a convoluted plot and excessive dialogue, and while de Havilland delivered a warm and elegant performance as Ana de Mendoza, the film was disappointing.[203] Following her appearances in the romantic melodrama Not as a Stranger (1955)[204] and The Ambassador's Daughter (1956)[205]‍—‌neither of which were successful at the box office‍—‌de Havilland gave birth to her second child, Gisèle Galante, on July 18, 1956.[202]

De Havilland returned to the screen in Michael Curtiz's Western drama The Proud Rebel (1958),[206] a film about a former Confederate soldier (Alan Ladd) whose wife was killed in the war and whose son lost the ability to speak after witnessing the tragedy. De Havilland played Linnett Moore, a tough yet feminine frontier woman who cares for the boy and comes to love his father.[207] The movie was filmed on location in Utah, where de Havilland learned to hitch and drive a team of horses and handle a gun for her role.[208] The Proud Rebel was released May 28, 1958, and was well received by audiences and critics. In his review for The New York Times, A. H. Weiler called the film a "truly sensitive effort" and "heartwarming drama", and praised de Havilland's ability to convey the "warmth, affection and sturdiness needed in the role".[209]

One of de Havilland's best received performances during this period was in Guy Green's romantic drama Light in the Piazza (1962) with Rossano Brazzi.[210] Filmed in Florence and Rome,[210] and based on Elizabeth Spencer's novel of the same name, the film is about a middle-class American tourist on extended vacation in Italy with her beautiful 26-year-old daughter (Yvette Mimieux), who is mentally disabled as a result of a childhood accident.[210] Faced with the prospect of her daughter falling in love with a young Italian, the mother struggles with conflicting emotions about her daughter's future.[211] De Havilland projects a calm maternal serenity throughout most of the film, only showing glimpses of the worried mother anxious for her child's happiness.[212] The film was released on February 19, 1962, and was well received, with a Hollywood Reporter reviewer calling it "an uncommon love story ... told with rare delicacy and force", and Variety noting that the film "achieves the rare and delicate balance of artistic beauty, romantic substance, dramatic novelty and commercial appeal". Variety singled out de Havilland's performance as "one of great consistency and subtle projection".[213]

In early 1962, de Havilland traveled to New York City, and began rehearsals for Garson Kanin's stage play A Gift of Time. Adapted from the autobiographical book Death of a Man by Lael Tucker Wertenbaker, the play explores the emotionally painful struggle of a housewife forced to deal with the slow death of her husband, played by Henry Fonda. The play opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on Broadway to positive notices, with de Havilland receiving her best reviews as a stage actress.[202] Theatre critic Walter Kerr praised her final scene, writing, "As darkness gathers, the actress gains in stature, taking on the simple and resolute willingness to understand."[214] The New York World Telegram and Sun reviewer concluded: "It is Miss de Havilland who gives the play its unbroken continuity. This distinguished actress reveals Lael as a special and admirable woman."[214] She stayed with the production for 90 performances.[202] The year 1962 also saw the publication of de Havilland's first book, Every Frenchman Has One, a lighthearted account of her often amusing attempts to understand and adapt to French life, manners, and customs.[202] The book sold out its first printing prior to the publication date and went on to become a bestseller.[215][201]

1963–1988: Later films and television[]

De Havilland appeared in her final motion picture leading roles in two films released in 1964, both of which were psychological thrillers. In Walter Grauman's Lady in a Cage, she played a wealthy poet who becomes trapped in her mansion's elevator and faces the threat of three terrorising hooligans in her own home.[216] Critics responded negatively to the graphic violence and cruelty shown on screen.[214] A. H. Weiler of The New York Times called it a "sordid, if suspenseful, exercise in aimless brutality".[217] That same year, de Havilland appeared in Robert Aldrich's Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte with her close friend Bette Davis.[218] After Joan Crawford left the picture due to illness, Davis had Aldrich fly to Switzerland to persuade a reluctant de Havilland to accept the role of Miriam Deering, a cruel, conniving character hidden behind the charming façade of a polite and cultured lady.[219] Her quiet, restrained performance provided a counterbalance to Davis. Film historian Tony Thomas described her performance as "a subtle piece of acting" that was "a vital contribution to the effectiveness of the film".[220] The film was mainly well received and earned seven Academy Award nominations.[221] In 1965 she served as the President of the Jury of the 18th Cannes Film Festival, the first woman to do so.[222]

As film roles became more difficult to find, a common problem shared by many Hollywood veterans from her era, de Havilland began working in television dramas, despite her dislike of the networks' practice of breaking up story lines with commercials.[223] Her first venture into the medium was a teleplay directed by Sam Peckinpah called Noon Wine (1966) on ABC Stage 67,[223] a dark tragedy about a farmer's act of murder that leads to his suicide.[223] The production and her performance as the farmer's wife Ellie were well received.[224] In 1972, she starred in her first television film, The Screaming Woman, about a wealthy woman recovering from a nervous breakdown.[225] In 1979, she appeared in the ABC miniseries Roots: The Next Generations in the role of Mrs. Warner, the wife of a former Confederate officer played by Henry Fonda. The miniseries was seen by an estimated 110 million people‍—‌nearly one-third of American homes with television sets.[226] Throughout the 1970s, de Havilland's film work was limited to smaller supporting roles and cameo appearances.[227] Her last feature film was The Fifth Musketeer (1979).[227] During this period, 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", a programme of personal reminiscences about her life and career. She also attended tributes to Gone with the Wind.[228]

In the 1980s, her television work included an Agatha Christie television film Murder Is Easy (1982), the television drama The Royal Romance of Charles and Diana (1982) in which she played the Queen Mother, and the 1986 ABC miniseries North and South, Book II.[1] Her performance in the television film Anastasia: The Mystery of Anna (1986), as Dowager Empress Maria, earned her a Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress in a Series, Miniseries or Television Film.[229] In 1988, de Havilland appeared in the HTV romantic television drama The Woman He Loved; it was her final screen performance.[1]

1989–2020: Retirement, honors and death[]

De Havilland at the Smithsonian Institution in 2001

In retirement, de Havilland remained active in the film community. In 1998, she travelled to New York City to help promote a special showing of Gone with the Wind.[230] In 2003, she appeared as a presenter at the 75th Academy Awards, earning an extended standing ovation upon her entrance.[229][231] In 2004, Turner Classic Movies produced a retrospective piece called Melanie Remembers in which she was interviewed for the 65th anniversary of the original release of Gone with the Wind.[232] In June 2006, she made appearances at tributes commemorating her 90th birthday at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.[195]

On November 17, 2008, at the age of 92, de Havilland received the National Medal of Arts, the highest honor conferred to an individual artist on behalf of the people of the United States. The medal was presented to her by President George W. Bush, who commended her "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."[233][234] The following year, de Havilland narrated the documentary I Remember Better When I Paint (2009),[235] a film about the importance of art in the treatment of Alzheimer's disease.[235]

In 2010, de Havilland almost made her return to the big screen after a 22-year hiatus with James Ivory's planned adaptation of The Aspern Papers, but the project was never made.[236][237] On September 9, 2010, de Havilland was appointed a Chevalier (knight) of the Légion d'honneur, the highest decoration in France, awarded by President Nicolas Sarkozy, who told the actress, "You honor France for having chosen us."[238] In February the following year, she appeared at the César Awards in France, where she was greeted with a standing ovation.[Note 12] De Havilland celebrated her 100th birthday on July 1, 2016.[240]

In June 2017, two weeks before her 101st birthday, de Havilland was appointed Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in the 2017 Birthday Honours for services to drama by Queen Elizabeth II.[241] She is the oldest woman ever to receive the honor. In a statement, she called it "the most gratifying of birthday presents".[242][243] She did not travel to the investiture ceremony at Buckingham Palace and received her honor from the hands of the British Ambassador to France at her Paris apartment in March 2018, four months before her 102nd birthday. Her daughter Gisèle was by her side.[244]

De Havilland died of natural causes in her sleep at her home in Paris, France on July 26, 2020, at the age of 104.[Note 13] Her funeral was held on August 1, 2020, at the American Cathedral in Paris. After cremation her ashes were placed in the crematorium-columbarium of the cemetery of Père-Lachaise; the urn containing them will later be transferred to a family burial place on the British island of Guernsey in the English Channel.[248]

Personal life[]


Although known as one of Hollywood's most exciting on-screen couples,[229] de Havilland and Errol Flynn were never involved in a romantic relationship.[249] Upon first meeting her at Warner Bros. in August 1935, Flynn was drawn to the 19-year-old actress with "sky blue eyes" and "extraordinary charm".[250] In turn, de Havilland fell in love with him,[249][Note 14] but kept her feelings inside. Flynn later wrote, "By the time we made The Charge of the Light Brigade, I was sure that I was in love with her."[250] Flynn finally professed his love on March 12, 1937, at the coronation ball for King George VI at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, where they slow danced together to "Sweet Leilani" at the hotel's Coconut Grove nightclub.[251] "I was deeply affected by him," she later remembered, "It was impossible for me not to be."[252] The evening ended on a sobering note, however, with de Havilland insisting that despite his separation from his wife Lili Damita, he needed to divorce her before their relationship could proceed.[252] Flynn re-united with his wife later that year,[253] and de Havilland never acted on her feelings for Flynn.[249][Note 15]

In July 1938, de Havilland began dating business tycoon, aviator, and filmmaker Howard Hughes,[254] who had just completed his record-setting flight around the world in 91 hours.[12] In addition to escorting her about town, he gave the actress her first flying lessons.[254] She later said, "He was a rather shy man ... and yet, in a whole community where the men every day played heroes on the screen and didn't do anything heroic in life, here was this man who was a real hero."[12]

In December 1939, she began a romantic relationship with actor James Stewart. At the request of Irene Mayer Selznick, the actor's agent asked Stewart to escort de Havilland to the New York premiere of Gone with the Wind at the Astor Theater on December 19, 1939. Over the next few days, Stewart took her to the theatre several times and to the 21 Club.[255] They continued to see each other back in Los Angeles, where Stewart provided occasional flying lessons and romance.[256] According to de Havilland, Stewart proposed marriage to her in 1940, but she felt that he was not ready to settle down.[256] Their relationship ended in late 1941 when de Havilland began a romantic relationship with film director John Huston while making In This Our Life.[257] "John was a very great love of mine", she would later admit, "He was a man I wanted to marry."[258][Note 16]

Marriages and children[]

Smiling while holding her son in her arms
With her son Benjamin, c. 1952

On August 26, 1946, she married Marcus Goodrich, a U.S. Navy veteran, journalist, and author of the novel Delilah (1941).[181] The marriage ended in divorce in 1953.[197] They had one child, Benjamin Goodrich, who was born on September 27, 1949.[194] He was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma at the age of 19,[229] and graduated from the University of Texas. He worked as a statistical analyst for Lockheed Missiles and Space Company in Sunnyvale, California, and as an international banking representative for the Texas Commerce Bank in Houston.[229] He died on September 29, 1991, in Paris at the age of 42 of heart disease brought on by treatments for Hodgkin's disease, three weeks before the death of his father.[260][261]

On April 2, 1955, de Havilland married Pierre Galante, an executive editor for the magazine Paris Match.[199] Her marriage to Galante prompted her relocation to Paris. The couple separated in 1962, but continued to live in the same house for another six years to raise their daughter together.[202][230][262] Galante moved across the street and the two remained close, even after the finalisation of the divorce in 1979.[230] She looked after him during his final bout with lung cancer prior to his death in 1998. They had one child, Gisèle Galante, who was born on July 18, 1956.[202] After studying law at the Université de Droit de Nanterre School of Law, she worked as a journalist in France and the United States.[229] Since 1956, de Havilland lived in a three-storey house near the Bois de Boulogne in Paris.[201]

Religion and politics[]

De Havilland was raised in the Episcopal Church and remained an Episcopalian throughout her life.[263][Note 17] In the 1970s, she became one of the first women lectors at the American Cathedral in Paris, where she was on the regular rota for Scripture readings. As recently as 2012, she was doing readings on major feast days,[263] including Christmas and Easter. "It's a task I love", she once said.[195] In describing her preparation for her readings, she once observed, "You have to convey the deep meaning, you see, and it has to start with your own faith. But first, I always pray. I pray before I start to prepare, as well. In fact, I would always say a prayer before shooting a scene, so this is not so different, in a way."[263] De Havilland preferred to use the Revised English Bible for its poetic style.[263] She raised her son Benjamin in the Episcopal Church and her daughter Gisèle in the Roman Catholic Church, the faith of each child's father.[265]

As a United States citizen,[163] de Havilland became involved in politics as a way of exercising her civic responsibilities.[195] She campaigned for Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt's ultimately successful re-election bid in 1944.[195] After the war, she joined The Independent Citizens' Committee of the Arts, Sciences, and Professions, a national public policy advocacy group that included Bette Davis, Gregory Peck, Groucho Marx, and Humphrey Bogart in its Hollywood chapter.[195] In June 1946, she was asked to deliver speeches for the committee that reflected the Communist Party line‍—‌the group was later identified as a Communist front organisation.[266] Disturbed at seeing a small group of communist members manipulating the committee, she removed the pro-communist material from her speeches and rewrote them to reflect Democratic President Harry S. Truman's anti-communist platform. She later recalled, "I realised a nucleus of people was controlling the organisation without a majority of the members of the board being aware of it. And I knew they had to be Communists."[195]

She organised a fight to regain control of the committee from its pro-Soviet leadership, but her reform efforts failed. Her resignation from the committee triggered a wave of resignations from 11 other Hollywood figures, including future President Ronald Reagan.[195][Note 18] In 1958, she was secretly called before the House Un-American Activities Committee and recounted her experiences with the Independent Citizens' Committee.[195]

Relationship with Joan Fontaine[]

Joan Fontaine and Gary Cooper holding Oscars
Joan Fontaine and Gary Cooper at the Academy Awards, 1942

De Havilland and her sister Joan Fontaine are the only siblings to have each won Academy Awards in a lead acting category.[270] According to biographer Charles Higham, the sisters always had an uneasy relationship, starting in early childhood when Olivia had trouble accepting the idea of having a younger sister, and Joan resenting her mother's favouring Olivia. Olivia would rip up the clothes that her sister was given to wear as hand-me-downs, forcing Joan to stitch them together again.[271] This tension was made worse by Fontaine's frequent childhood illnesses, which led to her mother's overly protective expression "Livvie can, Joan can't."[14] De Havilland was the first to become an actress, and for several years Fontaine was overshadowed by her sister's accomplishments. When Mervyn LeRoy offered Fontaine a personal contract, her mother told her that Warner Bros. was "Olivia's studio" and that she could not use the family name "de Havilland".[272]

In 1942, de Havilland and Fontaine were both nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress‍—‌de Havilland for Hold Back the Dawn and Fontaine for Suspicion. When Fontaine's name was announced as winner, de Havilland reacted graciously saying "We've got it!"[273] According to biographer Charles Higham, Fontaine rejected de Havilland's attempts to congratulate her, leaving the other offended and embarrassed.[274]

Their relationship was strained further in 1946 when Fontaine made negative comments to an interviewer about de Havilland's new husband Marcus Goodrich. When she read her sister's remarks, de Havilland was deeply hurt and waited for an apology that never was offered.[275] The following year after accepting her first Academy Award for To Each His Own, de Havilland was approached backstage by Fontaine, who extended her hand to congratulate her; de Havilland turned away from her sister.[275] The two did not speak for the next five years after the incident.[Note 19] This may have caused an estrangement between Fontaine and her own daughters, who maintained a covert relationship with their aunt.[274]

Following her divorce from Goodrich, de Havilland resumed contact with her sister,[275] coming to her apartment in New York City and spending Christmas together in 1961.[275][276] The final break between the sisters occurred in 1975 over disagreements over their mother's cancer treatment‍—‌de Havilland wanted to consult other doctors and supported exploratory surgery; Fontaine disagreed.[277] Fontaine later claimed her sister had not notified her of their mother's death while she was touring with a play‍—‌de Havilland in fact had sent a telegram, which took two weeks to reach her sister.[271] The sibling feud ended with Fontaine's death on December 15, 2013.[275][Note 20] The following day, de Havilland released a statement saying she was "shocked and saddened" by the news.[279]


Five-pointed star with her name and an image of an old film camera
Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, at 6762 Hollywood Blvd.[280]

De Havilland's career spanned 53 years, from 1935 to 1988.[1] During that time, she appeared in 49 feature films. She began her career playing demure ingénues opposite male stars such as Errol Flynn, with whom she made her breakout film Captain Blood in 1935. They would go on to make eight more feature films together, and became one of Hollywood's most successful on-screen romantic pairings.[229] Her range of performances included roles in most major movie genres. Following her film debut in the Shakespeare adaptation A Midsummer Night's Dream, de Havilland achieved her initial popularity in romantic comedies, such as The Great Garrick and Hard to Get, and Western adventure films, such as Dodge City and Santa Fe Trail.[1] In her later career, she was most successful in drama films, such as In This Our Life and Light in the Piazza, and psychological dramas playing non-glamorous characters in films such as The Dark Mirror, The Snake Pit, and Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte.[229]

During her career, de Havilland won two Academy Awards (To Each His Own and The Heiress), two Golden Globe Awards (The Heiress and Anastasia: The Mystery of Anna), two New York Film Critics Circle Awards (The Snake Pit and The Heiress), the National Board of Review Award, and the Venice Film Festival Volpi Cup (The Snake Pit), and a Primetime Emmy Award nomination (Anastasia: The Mystery of Anna).[281]

For her contributions to the motion picture industry, de Havilland received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6762 Hollywood Boulevard on February 8, 1960.[280] Following her retirement in 1988, her lifetime contribution to the arts was honored on two continents. She received an honorary doctorate from the University of Hertfordshire in 1998 and another from Mills College in 2018.[282][283] She was one of 500 stars nominated for the American Film Institute's list of 50 greatest screen legends.[284]

With a glowing smile looking up at the president
Receiving the National Medal of Arts from President George W. Bush, November 2008

In 2006, she was inducted into the Online Film & Television Association Award Film Hall of Fame.[285]

The moving-image collection of Olivia de Havilland is held at the Academy Film Archive, which preserved a nitrate reel of a screen test for Danton, Max Reinhardt's never-produced follow-up to A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935).[286]

De Havilland, as a confidante and friend of Bette Davis, is featured in the series Feud: Bette and Joan, portrayed by Catherine Zeta-Jones. In the series, de Havilland reflects on the origins and depth of the DavisCrawford feud and how it affected contemporary female Hollywood stars. On June 30, 2017, a day before her 101st birthday, she filed a lawsuit against FX Networks and producer Ryan Murphy for inaccurately portraying her and using her likeness without permission.[287] Although FX attempted to strike the suit as a strategic lawsuit against public participation, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Holly Kendig denied the motion in September 2017, and also granted de Havilland's request to advance the trial date (a motion for preference) and set trial for November 2017.[288] An interlocutory appeal of Judge Kendig's ruling was argued in March 2018.[289] A three-justice panel of the California Court of Appeal for the Second District ruled against the defamation suit brought by De Havilland (that is, by ruling the trial court erred in denying the defendants' motion to strike), in a published opinion by Justice Anne Egerton that affirmed the right of filmmakers to embellish the historical record and that such portrayals are protected by the First Amendment.[290][291] De Havilland appealed the decision to the Supreme Court in September 2018, which declined to review the case.[292][293]

Honors and awards[]

Year Award Category Film Result Ref
1940 Academy Award Best Actress in a Supporting Role Gone with the Wind Nominated [281]
1941 Academy Award Best Actress in a Leading Role Hold Back the Dawn Nominated [281]
1946 Academy Award Best Actress in a Leading Role To Each His Own Won [281]
1948 Academy Award Best Actress in a Leading Role The Snake Pit Nominated [281]
1948 National Board of Review Award Best Actress The Snake Pit Won [188]
1948 New York Film Critics Circle Award Best Actress The Snake Pit Won [188]
1949 Academy Award Best Actress in a Leading Role The Heiress Won [281]
1949 Golden Globe Award Best Motion Picture Actress The Heiress Won [294]
1949 New York Film Critics Circle Award Best Actress The Heiress Won [188]
1949 Venice Film Festival Volpi Cup Best Actress The Snake Pit Won [188]
1952 Grauman's Chinese Theatre Hand prints and footprints Honored [295]
1953 Golden Globe Award Best Motion Picture Actress My Cousin Rachel Nominated [294]
1960 Hollywood Walk of Fame Star Motion Picture at 6762 Hollywood Blvd, February 8, 1960 Honored [280]
1986 Golden Globe Award Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role Anastasia: The Mystery of Anna Won [294]
1986 Primetime Emmy Award Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Miniseries Anastasia: The Mystery of Anna Nominated [281]
1998 Honorary Doctorate University of Hertfordshire Honored [282]
2006 Online Film & Television Association Film Hall of Fame Honored [285]
2008 National Medal of Arts Honored [233]
2010 Chevalier of the Légion d'honneur Honored [238]
2016 Oldie of the Year Honored [239]
2017 Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire Honored [296]

National honors[]

Country Date Decoration Post-nominal letters
 United States of America 2008 – July 26, 2020 National Medal of Arts
 France 2010 – July 26, 2020 Chevalier of the Légion d'honneur
 United Kingdom 2017 – July 26, 2020 Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire DBE

Honorary degrees[]

Location Date School Degree Status
 France 1994 American University of Paris Doctorate [297]
 England 1998 University of Hertfordshire Doctor of Letters (D.Litt.) [298]
 California 12 May 2018 Mills College Doctor of Humane Letters (DHL) [299]

Memberships and fellowships[]

Location Date Organisation Position
 United States of America 1940 – July 26, 2020 Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Member (Actors Branch)
 United States of America 1978 – July 26, 2020 American Academy of Achievement[300][301] Awards Council Member


See also[]

  • List of actors with two or more Academy Awards in acting categories


  1. ^ After living in an apartment near Golden Gate Park while the sisters were being treated, the family moved to San Jose and stayed at the Hotel Vendome.[11] Soon after, they moved to the foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains, where they stayed at a boarding house called Lundblad's Lodge on Oak Street owned by a Swedish family.[12][13]
  2. ^ Olivia was named after a character in Twelfth Night.[17]
  3. ^ Lilian and George were introduced to each other in 1920 by four-year-old Olivia who noticed him sitting on a park bench and referred to him in Japanese as "Daddy".[21]
  4. ^ The on-screen attraction of the characters reflected the actual feelings of the actors at the time.[42] De Havilland would later admit that she had a crush on him through the entire production, and he would later acknowledge the same.[42]
  5. ^ De Havilland hired the Ivan Kahn Agency to represent her in the contract negotiations with Warner Bros.[60] The contract she signed provided for yearly increases in her weekly salary, starting at $500, and then increasing to $750, $1000, $1250, $1500, $2000, and $2500 in her last year (equivalent to $48,400 in 2020).[59]
  6. ^ During the production, Brian Aherne found de Havilland "young and entrancing" and organised her 21st birthday party on the set. They also dated during the making of the picture.[73] He later wrote, "I little thought that I would one day marry her younger sister, Joan Fontaine."[72] Aherne and Fontaine married two years later, on August 19, 1939.[74]
  7. ^ Following the success of Cecil B. DeMille's epic adventure The Plainsman (1937), studios began investing their top talent and budgets to produce films such as Stagecoach, Union Pacific, and Destry Rides Again‍—‌all released in 1939.[95]
  8. ^ The performance sequences in My Love Came Back were accomplished by placing a professional female violinist behind the actress to perform the complicated left hand fingering while the actress played the bow with her right hand.[116]
  9. ^ The plot and several story devices‍—‌including the princess waking up in the bed of an honorable bachelor‍—‌would be resurrected a decade later in Roman Holiday with Audrey Hepburn.[147]
  10. ^ Two months later, the Supreme Court of California refused to review the case.[158]
  11. ^ In 1957, in appreciation of her support of the troops during World War II and the Korean War, de Havilland was made an honorary member of the 11th Airborne Division and was presented with a United States Army jacket bearing the 11th's patch on one sleeve and the name patch "de Havilland" across the chest.[166]
  12. ^ In February 2016, de Havilland was named "Oldie of the Year" by the satirical magazine The Oldie. Unable to travel to the ceremony in London, she recorded a message saying she was "utterly delighted" the judges deemed "sufficient snap in my celery" existed to win the accolade.[239]
  13. ^ De Havilland's publicist, Lisa Goldberg, confirmed that she had died of natural causes in her sleep on Sunday, July 26, 2020.[245] However, due to the wording of some of the announcements (such as her former lawyer Suzelle M. Smith stating de Havilland had died "last night"[246]) some media outlets misreported the date of death as the 25th.[247]
  14. ^ In a 2009 interview, de Havilland acknowledged, "Yes, we did fall in love and I believe that this is evident in the screen chemistry between us. But his circumstances at the time prevented the relationship going further. I have not talked about it a great deal, but the relationship was not consummated. Chemistry was there, though. It was there."[249]
  15. ^ During the making of Robin Hood in November 1937, de Havilland playfully decided to tease Flynn who was being watched closely on the set by his wife. In a 2005 interview, de Havilland said, "And so we had one kissing scene, which I looked forward to with great delight. I remember I blew every take, at least six in a row, maybe seven, maybe eight, and we had to kiss all over again. And Errol Flynn got really rather uncomfortable, and he had, if I may say so, a little trouble with his tights."[254]
  16. ^ On April 29, 1945, at the home of producer David O. Selznick, Huston, who knew about de Havilland's three-year crush on Flynn, confronted the Australian actor‍—‌who suffered from tuberculosis‍—‌about his not serving in the military during the war.[259] When Flynn responded by alluding to his former "relationship" with de Havilland, Huston initiated an extended fistfight with the expert amateur boxer which landed them both in the hospital.[259]
  17. ^ In a 2015 interview, de Havilland stated that her religious beliefs had lapsed in her adult years, but that she regained her faith when her son was ill. Her renewed faith inspired her sister to return to the Episcopal Church.[264]
  18. ^ Reagan was a relatively new board member when he was invited to join 10 other film-industry colleagues, including MGM studio head Dore Schary, for a meeting at de Havilland's house where he first learned that Communists were trying to gain control of the committee.[267] During the meeting, he turned to de Havilland, who was on the executive committee, and whispered, "You know, Olivia, I always thought you might be one of them." Laughing, she responded, "That's funny. I thought you were one of them." Reagan suggested they propose a resolution at the next meeting that included language reaffirmed the committee's "belief in free enterprise and the Democratic system" and repudiated "Communism as desirable for the United States"‍—‌the executive committee voted it down the following week.[268] Shortly afterwards, the committee disbanded, only to resurface as a newly named front organisation.[267] Despite organising Hollywood resistance to Soviet influence, de Havilland was denounced later that year as a "swimming-pool pink" in Time magazine for her involvement in the committee.[269]
  19. ^ In 1957, in the only interview in which she ever commented on her relationship with her sister, de Havilland told the Associated Press "Joan is very bright and sharp and has a wit that can be cutting. She said some things about Marcus that hurt me deeply. She was aware there was an estrangement between us."[275]
  20. ^ Fontaine once remarked, "I married first, won the Oscar before Olivia did, and if I die first, she'll undoubtedly be livid because I beat her to it!"[278]



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External links[]

Elmo Williams
Oldest living Oscar winner
November 25, 2015 – July 26, 2020
Succeeded by
Walter Mirisch
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