Olivia de Havilland is universally synonymous with her role as the selfless, gentle Melly in 1939’s megahit Gone with the Wind, as well as her eight-picture association with Errol Flynn and her overall regard as a Hollywood star of the highest echelons during its Golden Age. Despite GWTW’s lead character Scarlett O’Hara’s infamous description of Melly as “mealy-mouthed”, it transpired that real-life de Havilland was far more “steely” than “mealy” – and it was a lesson both Warner Bros. and Hollywood would belatedly – and emphatically – learn.
Olivia de Havilland was born in Tokyo in 1916, to English parents – a lawyer father and retired stage actress mother. Just 15 months after her arrival, her sister Joan was born, who would go on to take the surname of their future stepfather and equal Olivia de Havilland’s success in Hollywood as Joan Fontaine. The family made plans to move back to England in 1919, but the stop they made in Saratoga, California proved permanent once their father abandoned the family and returned to his housekeeper, who in time became his second wife.
In Saratoga, de Havilland began to make her mark – quietly, at first – in the dramatic world in the lead role of a local production of Alice in Wonderland. De Havilland’s mother remarried: a shop-owner, George Fontaine. It is supposed that his strict parenting of Olivia and Joan, as well as their mother’s alleged favouritism towards Olivia, is what led the two sisters into a lifelong rivalry, potentially – and popularly – exacerbated by a head-to-head Oscar contest in 1942 (won by Fontaine) and damning portions of an autobiography (No Bed of Roses, also written by Fontaine). The rift remained apparently unhealed before Fontaine’s death in December 2013.
Olivia de Havilland’s exceptionally fortuitous big break came in another Saratoga show, in 1934: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where she played the role of Puck. Flamboyant Austrian director Max Reinhardt came to California that very summer to direct a major production of the same play at the Hollywood Bowl, and when one of his assistants (or the director himself, depending on accounts) watched the Saratoga Community Theater’s version he offered de Havilland the chance to understudy the character of Hermia in Reinhardt’s show. When the original Hermia then left this production for a film part one week before opening night, the path was cleared for de Havilland to make a debut so auspicious that, not only would Reinhardt allow her the role for the entirety of the show’s run, but he would also offer her the same part in the Warner Bros. film version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that he was now due to direct. And so it was that 18 year old de Havilland was set to star in her first picture, alongside the likes of James Cagney, Mickey Rooney and Dick Powell, and would sign a seven year contract with Warner Bros. – something that would go on to define her future in the film industry even more than she could possibly have known.
A few films into her contract, which were all met with rather a lukewarm response, Warner Bros. would decide to pair her up with an exciting but completely unknown Australian actor for 1935’s Captain Blood. The unknown was named Errol Flynn, swashbuckling extraordinaire, and together, on the strength of their sizzling onstage chemistry (carefully kept tantalizingly unconfirmed either way in real life) the pair would star in such 30s adventure classics as The Charge of the Light Brigade, The Adventures of Robin Hood and Dodge City. Olivia de Havilland was now a confirmed Hollywood star, and 1939 would herald her most iconic role of all in MGM’s legendary Gone with the Wind – that of Melanie Hamilton Wilkes, loyal friend to the tempestuous and willful Scarlett O’Hara.
De Havilland was tiring of the fluffy, damsel in distress roles that Warner Bros. were casting her in time and again; she actively campaigned for the part of quiet and feminine Melanie over that of Scarlett though, the hottest role in Hollywood at the time, wanting a challenge. “For four years I had been earning my own living, going through all the problems of a career woman – self-supporting and even contributing to the support of others, which is what Scarlett did… Melanie was someone different… she had these feminine qualities that I felt were very endangered… and that somehow they should be kept alive, and one way I could contribute to their being kept alive was to play Melanie.” De Havilland squeezed permission from Warner Bros. to work for rival studio MGM and claimed the part – and her first Academy Award nomination to boot.
Returning to her home studio, de Havilland’s frustrations continued, with Bette Davis and Ida Lupino as her competition for the best parts, and she began to turn down roles that she deemed too easy or insubstantial. Her exclusive contract with Warner Bros. was drawing to a close in 1943 when she learned that the studio planned on adding a further six months onto it as time in lieu for when she had been suspended (for rejecting parts). A common tactic of the studios in Hollywood’s Golden Age, an actor’s contract rarely ever ran for purely the length legally stated – time was added on for any days that an actor did not work, and seeing as it was virtually impossible for an actor to be on set seven days a week filming, the studios would always succeed in getting their extra pound (or two) of flesh. This was to change, however, with Olivia de Havilland, who sued Warner Bros. in a prolonged legal process that took them all the way to the California Supreme Court in 1945 – where de Havilland was victorious. The new enforcement, whereby contracts must strictly be kept to – at a maximum – seven calendar years, came to be known as the ‘De Havilland Law’. Any actor working in Hollywood today owes a personal debt of gratitude to de Havilland as it was her court battle that paved the way towards actors becoming agents of their own careers, free to choose the parts they want and negotiate for the rates they earn. The studio system effectively began to shut down from this point onwards and, combined with the advent of television, it took just a few short years into the 1950s for things to look (and feel) very different in Hollywood.
Although unable to work throughout the legal battle, de Havilland threw herself back into acting as soon as she could, winning an Oscar in 1947 for her lead role in To Each His Own, an Oscar nomination in 1949 for Best Actress for Snake Pit, and a second Oscar for The Heiress in 1950. Once she moved abroad to Paris in the mid 1950s as a mother and wife, parts began to drop in quality during the 60s and 70s (with her role as Miriam in 1964’s Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte a notable exception). In 1987, she stormed to success again – this time in television – as the Dowager Empress Maria in Anastasia: The Mystery of Anna, achieving an Emmy nomination and Golden Globe win for her part. De Havilland also found time for other pursuits, namely soaking up the enjoyment of living in Paris and writing a humorous observation of her French adventures, published in 1962, titled Every Frenchman Has One. She was also the recipient of the U.S. National Medal of Arts in 2008 and France’s Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur in 2010.
Today, she enjoys a lot of attention as the last-surviving principal cast and crew member of Gone with the Wind, as well as being – arguably – the last-surviving actress or actor of Hollywood’s true Golden Age of the 30s and 40s. She’s due to make her centenary in July of this year – perhaps we can finally hope for the publication of her long-awaited autobiography to mark the occasion?