Olivia de Havilland, who has died in Paris at the age of 104, starred in dozens of films including "Gone with the Wind" and was one of the last links with Hollywood's golden era
Sister of another Hollywood starlet Joan Fontaine, double Oscar winner de Havilland embodied the glamour of the 1930s and 1940s silver screen, acting alongside Errol Flynn, Clark Gable and Vivian Leigh.
“If you can be dignified in an all-star epic about insect apocalypse — which she was — you can be dignified anywhere and everywhere,” wrote film critic Nigel Andrews in the Financial Times in 2016, referring to her part in “The Swarm” (1978).
“That was de Havilland’s ace as a star. Dignity everywhere.”
When a silver-haired de Havilland presented an award at the 2003 Oscars ceremony, she was greeted with a standing ovation lasting nearly four minutes as modern Hollywood paid homage to one of the enduring emblems of its past glory.
“Gone with the Wind” (1939) brought de Havilland wide acclaim for her role as the long-suffering Melanie, love rival to the fiery Scarlett O’Hara played by Leigh.
The film was the highest-grossing movie of all time, adjusted for inflation, but its depiction of contented slaves and heroic slaveholders has garnered criticism in recent years.
Following this year’s mass protests against racism and police brutality, it was removed from the HBO Max streaming platform in June pending a return at a later date along with a discussion of its historical context.
The film, however, led to de Havilland’s first Oscar nomination.
But on the back of this roaring success, she frustrated her bosses at Warner Brothers, who at the time effectively owned their stars, by rejecting script after script when she found the roles uninspiring.
And in a shocking move for the era, she sued the studios, demanding release from a seven-year contract.
In 1945 she won the case — a far-reaching ruling that gave actors the right to choose their own roles and career paths that is still known as the de Havilland law.
“You were a great celebrity but also a slave,” she said of the previous system in a 2009 interview with The Irish Independent.
Having been blacklisted for three years and unable to work, her career was revived by the legal victory, bringing her the freedom to pick her roles.
In 1946 she won her first Oscar for “To Each His Own” with her portrayal of an unmarried mother’s heartbreaking struggle over a child she could not acknowledge.
She won her second Oscar for her role as a socially inept spinster in “The Heiress” three years later.
Famous sister, infamous feud
De Havilland was also involved in her own real-life Hollywood drama: a long-running estrangement from her sister Joan, one year her junior and the lead in classic films by Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles and Max Ophuls.
Neither actress ever spoke publicly about their feud and their careers shuttled along in frosty parallel.
In 1941 de Havilland lost out to Fontaine for an Oscar and the sisters, born to British parents living in Tokyo, remain the only siblings in Academy Award history to have both won lead acting honours.
Twice married and with two children, de Havilland’s second husband was French journalist Pierre Galante and the relationship took her to Paris in the mid-1950s where she remained.
In the 1970s and 1980s she shuttled back to the US for film and television work, but she progressively retreated from the limelight.
Roles were hardly forthcoming in her adoptive France.
“I thought that I had made great progress with my French when a grande dame said to me one day: ‘You speak French very well Olivia, but you have a slight Yugoslav accent.’ I suppose there were not parts in French movies for actresses with Yugoslav accents,” she told The Irish Independent.
Still fighting at 101
In 2018, aged 101, de Havilland took on the industry in another major court battle, suing the FX network over a depiction of her in its Emmy-nominated miniseries “Feud: Bette and Joan”, about the enmity between Joan Crawford and Bette Davis.
De Havilland argued the series put her in a bad light, with her fictional version describing her sister as a “bitch”.
An appeals court unanimously tossed out the lawsuit, prioritising the rights of the show’s creators to freedom of speech over her complaint.
Interviewed by the New York Times weeks before the ruling, de Havilland cautioned that if there were no consequences for fictional portrayals of real personalities, then “lies about well-known public figures masquerading as the truth will become more and more common”.