He went from black and white to color, and became a movie star when Hollywood was the Mecca of the global film industry and its stereotypes and rules.
Olivia de Havilland was the last living protagonist of gone With the Wind (1939), and ceased to exist on Saturday, at age 104, in a very different world. The questioning of the racism of that film led to its withdrawal from the streaming platform HBO Max in June, to return with the clear warning that it “denies the horrors of slavery.”
With her portrayal of Melanie, the virtuous rival of Scarlett, Vivien Leigh’s perfidious character, the British actress earned her first Oscar nomination, but the award went to Hattie McDaniel, the first African-American to win it.
Five years ago, de Havilland confessed that he watched the movie from time to time, because he missed the rest of the cast. “When I see them vibrantly alive on screen, I experience a kind of joyous reunion with them,” he said.
She also said that she and Vivien Leigh were very upset when they replaced director George Cukor with Victor Fleming, Clark Gable’s hunting partner. She confessed that everything that has been said about Leigh’s erratic behavior on set is true, “but it’s understandable. He had to act like this, he had to defend himself. I supported her. It was women against men, but we rarely won ”.
The daughter of a British lawyer and actress, Olivia de Havilland was born in 1916 in Tokyo, and had a younger sister who would become the famous actress Joan Fontaine. The rivalry between them has been the subject of celebrity to this day.
De Havilland’s rise was meteoric: producer Max Reinhardt saw her at a school performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and included her in a theatrical montage, and another film, in 1935, which earned him a contract with Warner Bros. That same year he debuted with Errol Flynn in Captain Blood (1935) and the formula was explosive; filmed seven more movies, including The Adventures of Robin Hood (1937).
“There was definitely chemistry between me and Errol,” de Havilland declared in 2005. She confessed that in those years she was “madly in love” with Flynn, and that the heartthrob proposed to her. “But I didn’t accept, because I was married,” he said. “I’m not going to regret it, that could have destroyed my life.”
During that decade they only assigned him good-natured and innocent characters. “I wanted to do complex roles, more developed human beings. Jack L. Warner never understood that, ”he recalled recently.
The study punished her daring by suspending her for six months and refused to release her after that period. De Havilland filed a lawsuit with the help of the Screen Actors Guild. She was not the first actress to go to court for creative freedom, but she was the first to win a trial, and the ruling is known as the De Havilland Law. “They told me that I would never go back to work if I lost or won,” he later confessed. And, indeed, it was two years without filming.
But he made up for lost time. Won an Oscar for The intimate life of Julia Norris (1946) and another by The heiress (1949). In between, critics hailed her for Nest of vipers (1948). During that decade, she was the most relevant actress in classic Hollywood.
Other notable roles went to My first Rachel (1952), Trapped woman (1964) Anastasia: The Mystery of Anna (1986), for which he won a Golden Globe. In 1997, he said that “the offers keep coming, but they are not what I’m looking for.”
In 2006 they asked him if he missed acting: “No, not at all. Life is too full of events of great importance. That is more absorbing and enriching than a fantasy life. I no longer need a fantasy life like before ”.
One of the few things he seems to have regretted was replacing Joan Crawford in the film. Lullaby for a corpse (1964), with Bette Davis. “Had I been able to choose, I would not have deprived her of that honor,” he declared. The decision had a collateral effect. In the docudrama Bette and Joan, a fantasy about Davis and Crawford’s conflict when filming Baby Jane, de Havilland was included as a character. “The show was designed to make it look like I said those things and acted that way, including publicly calling my sister, Joan Fontaine, a ‘bitch,'” he detailed in an interview. “I have defended the film industry my entire life, but studios that decide to chronicle the lives of real people have a legal and moral responsibility to do so with integrity.”
Precisely the strange relationship he seemed to have with his younger sister was the greatest public drama of his life. Before he died in 2013, Fontaine accused the press of making it all up. However, there were aggressive statements from both over the years, especially since they were nominated for the Oscar the same year; De Havilland by If it didn’t dawn (1941) and Fontaine by Suspicion (1941). The latter won.
In addition to being the first woman to preside over the jury at Cannes, in 1965, Olivia de Havilland received the United States Medal of Arts, the Legion of Honor in France, and was made a Dame in England.
He has lived in France since 1955, and is survived by his 64-year-old daughter Gisèle Galante. His son Benjamin Goodrich died at age 42 from Hodgkin’s disease. Before marrying, she had romances with James Stewart, Howard Hughes and John Huston, and the latter considered him “the love of her life.”
On his Facebook account, yesterday some words of his were remembered: “I would prefer to live forever in perfect health. But if I ever have to leave this life, I’d like to do it on a chaise-longue, scented, with a velvet robe and pearl earrings. I would like to be with a glass of champagne and finish deciphering the last answer of a cryptic British crossword ”.