Olivia de Havilland, a star of 'Gone With the Wind,' dies at 104

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Olivia de Havilland, a star of 'Gone With the Wind,' dies at 104
In this file photo taken on December 14, 1939 US actress Olivia de Havilland (L) and British actress Vivien Leigh are pictured as they leave a plane upon their arrival in Atlanta for the premiere of "Gone with the wind". Golden Age Hollywood star Olivia de Havilland has died aged 104 in Paris, according to her publicist on July 26, 2020. ACME / AFP.

by Robert Berkvist

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Olivia de Havilland, an actress who gained movie immortality in “Gone With the Wind,” then built an illustrious film career punctuated by a successful fight to loosen studios’ grip on contract actors, died Sunday at her home in Paris. She was 104 and one of the last surviving stars of Hollywood’s fabled Golden Age.

Her death was confirmed by her publicist Lisa Goldberg.

De Havilland was both a classic Hollywood beauty and an honored screen actress whose very name and bearing suggested membership in a kind of aristocracy of moviedom. Although she was typecast early in her career as the demure ingénue, she went on to earn meatier roles that led to five Academy Award nominations, two of which brought her the Oscar, for “To Each His Own” (1946) and “The Heiress” (1949).

Those roles came to her in no small part because of the resolve she showed when she stood up to the studios and won a battle that helped push Hollywood into the modern era, surprising the movie moguls, who may not have expected such steel in an actress so softly attractive and, at 5-foot-3, so unintimidatingly petite.

She had shown similar grit a decade earlier, in her breakthrough role, when she held her own against her formidable co-stars — Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh and Leslie Howard — in “Gone With the Wind.”

The 1939 Civil War epic was briefly pulled from the HBO Max streaming service last month and returned with an introduction saying that the film presents the Georgia plantation at its center as “a world of grace and beauty, without acknowledging the brutalities of the system of chattel slavery upon which this world is based.”

As Melanie Hamilton Wilkes, the fiancee and then wife of Howard’s Ashley Wilkes, she brought intelligence and grace to her portrait of a woman whose shy, forgiving, almost too kindly nature stood in sharp contrast to the often venomous jealousy of her high-spirited sister-in-law, Scarlett O’Hara (Leigh).

De Havilland’s performance led to an Oscar nomination as best supporting actress, though the award went to another member of the cast, Hattie McDaniel, who played Mammy, Scarlett’s housekeeper. (Leigh won in the best actress category.)

De Havilland was under contract to Warner Bros. when the film’s original director, George Cukor, working for MGM, invited her to audition for the role of Melanie. (He was later replaced by Victor Fleming.) After getting the part, she had to plead with her studio boss, Jack Warner, to lend her to the MGM production, which was being overseen by David Selznick.

By then she had established herself at Warner as a familiar heroine in some 20 films and had begun a long collaboration with prolific director Michael Curtiz, encompassing nine films. Most notable was a string of action features and costume dramas opposite the dashing Errol Flynn, among them “Captain Blood” (1935), “The Charge of the Light Brigade” (1936) and “The Adventures of Robin Hood” (1938), in which she played Maid Marian.

De Havilland and Flynn were such a popular on-screen couple that rumors flew of an on-set romance, fueled in part by Flynn’s reputation for bedding his co-stars and reports that he was infatuated with her. By all accounts there was no truth to the whisperings of an affair, though some years later de Havilland admitted to having had “a great crush” on Flynn and suggested that “circumstances at the time” — he was married when they met — stood in the way of a romance.

“So naughty and so charming,” she said of him.

Warner had signed de Havilland to a seven-year contract in 1935 on the strength of her performance that year as Hermia, the defiant daughter who resists an arranged marriage, in Max Reinhardt’s film adaptation of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” (The year before, she had made her professional stage acting debut in the same role in a Hollywood Bowl production by Reinhardt.)

After her success in “Gone With the Wind,” de Havilland returned to Warner with the expectation of more challenging roles. For the most part, they did not materialize.

One exception was “Hold Back the Dawn” (1941), in which she played an American schoolteacher who is seduced in Mexico by a wily European exile (Charles Boyer). Her performance earned her another Oscar nomination, but this time she lost to her sister, Joan Fontaine, who won for “Suspicion.” The two were rarely on speaking terms after that. (They are the only sisters to win best actress Academy Awards, and their sibling rivalry was called the fiercest in Hollywood history.)

The formula roles kept coming. When de Havilland complained, she was told that she had been hired because she photographed well and that she wasn’t required to act.

The studio had misread her determination. She began to refuse roles she considered inferior. Warner retaliated by suspending her several times, for a total of six months, and, after her contract expired, insisting that because of the suspensions she was still the studio’s property for six more months.

De Havilland sued. The case dragged on for a year and a half, but David finally beat Goliath when the California Supreme Court upheld a lower-court ruling in her favor in 1945. What became known as the de Havilland decision established that a studio could not arbitrarily extend the duration of an actor’s contract.

When she resumed her career, de Havilland appeared in four films in rapid succession, all released in 1946. In one, “The Dark Mirror,” she played twins, one good and one evil. In her Oscar-winning performance in “To Each His Own,” she was an unwed mother who must give up her infant son when his father, her lover, a World War I flying ace, is killed in action.

De Havilland soon took on one of her most demanding roles, that of a young bride who becomes mentally ill and is sent to an institution, in “The Snake Pit” (1948). The film, directed by Anatol Litvak, was an unflinching study of mental illness and the treatments available then, from narcotics to electroshock. De Havilland was nominated for a best actress Oscar but did not win.

She captured her second Oscar the next year with “The Heiress,” directed by William Wyler and adapted by Ruth and Augustus Goetz from their Broadway play based on Henry James’ “Washington Square.” De Havilland presented an affecting portrait of a repressed, spinsterish young woman dominated by her rigidly protective father (Ralph Richardson).

It was one of de Havilland’s favorite roles. “The films I loved,” she said in 1964, “the great loves, are ‘The Snake Pit,’ ‘The Heiress’ and, of course, ‘Gone With the Wind.’”

But she did not love Hollywood, and in the 1950s she startled the town when she abandoned it to live in Paris with a new husband, though she kept her U.S. citizenship.

“For Olivia,” William Stadiem wrote in a profile of her in Vanity Fair magazine in 2016, “there was a whiff of decay and disappointment about Hollywood.”

Olivia Mary de Havilland was born July 1, 1916, to British parents in Tokyo, where her father, Walter, a cousin of aviation pioneer Sir Geoffrey de Havilland, ran a firm of patent lawyers, though he was not a lawyer himself. In 1919, her mother, the former Lillian Ruse, an elocution teacher, moved with Olivia and Joan, her younger sister by 15 months, to Saratoga, California, near San Francisco. The de Havillands divorced, and Lillian married George Fontaine, a department store executive, whose surname Joan later took as her stage name.

Olivia de Havilland was married twice. Both marriages ended in divorce. The first, in 1946, was to Marcus Aurelius Goodrich, a Texas-born novelist, screenwriter and journalist; they had a son, Benjamin, and divorced in 1952. She married Pierre Galante, the author of military histories and at one point editor of the magazine Paris Match, in 1955 after the couple met in France. They moved to Paris, had a daughter, Gisele, and divorced in 1979. De Havilland’s son died of Hodgkin’s disease in 1991.

Before she was married, de Havilland had romantic relationships with James Stewart, Howard Hughes and director John Huston, with whom she reunited for a time after her first divorce. By her account she also turned away a smitten young John F. Kennedy, who was visiting Hollywood after his PT-boat service in World War II.

She is survived by her daughter, Giselle Galante Chulack. Joan Fontaine died in 2013 at 96.

Although she had decamped to Paris, de Havilland remained a creature of Hollywood for most of her career. But she did try her hand at theater again, making her Broadway debut in 1951, to good reviews, as Juliet in a short-lived production of “Romeo and Juliet.”

She returned to Broadway in 1952 for another brief run in Shaw’s “Candida” and was last seen there in 1962, when she starred with Henry Fonda in “A Gift of Time,” adapted by Garson Kanin from Lael Tucker Wertenbaker’s book “Death of a Man,” about the last days of the author’s husband, Charles, who died of cancer.

The movies kept calling, however. In 1952, she starred in “My Cousin Rachel,” based on the best-selling novel by Daphne du Maurier. She played the bride of an older man, and Richard Burton, in his Hollywood debut, played the son who thinks his attractive new stepmother may be capable of murder.

By the time she traveled to Italy to film “The Light in the Piazza” (1962), in which she played the protective mother of a beautiful but mentally impaired young woman (Yvette Mimieux), de Havilland had appeared in some 40 movies and was living in semiretirement in Paris. She also published a book in 1962, a collection of lighthearted observations about life in France titled “Every Frenchman Has One.”

De Havilland made only a handful of films after that. She was in her mid-40s by then, receiving fewer acting offers and finding many scripts too prurient for her tastes.

One she liked, however, was “Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte” (1964), which gave her the opportunity to co-star with Bette Davis, another Hollywood legend nearing the end of her career.

The film — a weaker echo of the similarly gothic Davis and Joan Crawford melodrama, “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” — tells the tale of an increasingly demented woman (Davis) and a scheming relative who comes to live with her (de Havilland, who replaced Crawford after filming began).

From the mid-60s onward, de Havilland’s acting was largely confined to sporadic roles in television series like “The Love Boat”; television movies like “The Royal Romance of Charles and Diana” (1982), in which she played the Queen Mother; and miniseries like “Roots: The Next Generation” (1979). Her work in the 1986 NBC miniseries “Anastasia: The Mystery of Anna,” in which she played a Russian empress, brought her a Golden Globe Award and an Emmy nomination.

In 1965, she became the first woman to head the jury at the Cannes Film Festival.

She returned to feature films only occasionally, among them the hugely successful 1977 disaster movie “Airport ’77,” in which she joined a ensemble cast of veteran actors. Her last Hollywood film was “The Fifth Musketeer” (1979), in which she played the mother of Louis XIV (Beau Bridges).

But even when she was well into her 80s, she had not entirely given up the idea of returning to the spotlight. She was a presenter at the Academy Awards in 2003. She narrated “I Remember Better When I Paint,” a 2009 documentary about the positive impact of art therapy on people with Alzheimer’s disease.

In Paris, de Havilland had lived in a five-story town house, built around 1880, since 1958 (in recent years next door to former French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing), all the while never missing Hollywood, she said.

“I loved being around real buildings, real castles, real churches — not ones made of canvas,” she told Vanity Fair.

She maintained an active lifestyle there into her second century, defying her advancing years.

“Olivia doesn’t seem 99,” Stadiem wrote in his 2016 Vanity Fair profile. “Her face is unlined, her eyes sparkling, her fabled contralto soaring (only Orson Welles had an equally imposing instrument), her memory photographic. She could easily pass for someone decades younger.”

She was in the news — and in court — once again in 2018, when she sued FX network and Ryan Murphy Productions over her portrayal by Catherine Zeta-Jones in the miniseries “Feud: Bette and Joan,” about the rivalry between Davis and Crawford.

She maintained that her portrayal constituted unauthorized use of her name and likeness and showed her in “a false light” as a hypocrite “with a public image of being a lady and a private one as a vulgarity-using gossip.” A California appellate court dismissed the suit, ruling that the portrayal was “not highly offensive to a reasonable person as a matter of law.”

De Havilland’s readings of scripture on Christmas and Easter at the American Cathedral, on the Avenue George V, became annual events in Paris. In 2010, Nicolas Sarkozy, then the president of France, awarded her the Légion d’Honneur. And her association with a distant era of Hollywood glamour made her a living legend in her adopted city.

In 1999, she was honored with a party in Paris to celebrate the 60th anniversary of “Gone With the Wind.” At one point, one of the hosts recalled, with a glass in hand, she toasted the film and its leading actors, reminding the room that she was the last one still standing.

“Let us raise a mint julep to our stars,” she proclaimed, “on that great veranda in the sky!”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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