Olivia de Havilland, Hollywood Beauty and Determination

Olivia de Havilland

Olivia de Havilland is one of the legendary Hollywood Golden Age stars, well known for her portrayal of Melanie in 'Gone With the Wind' as well as supporting 'love interest' roles to swashbucklers like Errol Flynn. She was nominated 5 times for Academy Awards and twice won the Award for Best Actress.

As well as her highly successful acting career Olivia de Havilland is justly famous for the courageous stand which she took against the mighty studios over their one-sided contracts with their actors. She won an important and historic courtroom victory in 1946, and the ensuing enactment is still known as 'de Havilland's Law.'

Olivia de Havilland - Early Years

Olivia de Havilland was born on July 1, 1916, in Tokyo, Japan. Her parents were British, her father a lawyer, and her mother an actress. They separated when Olivia was 3 and she, her mother and her younger sister, Joan, (later to become famous in Hollywood as Joan Fontaine) moved to Saratoga, California. Olivia  attended high school in Saratoga, and then the Notre Dame  Girls’ School in Belmont, CA. 

As Hermia in 'A Midsummer Night's Dream', 1933
As Hermia in 'A Midsummer Night's Dream', 1933

Whilst still at school she made her amateur theatrical debut as Alice in 'Alice in Wonderland', and after leaving school she was cast as Puck in the Saratoga Players production of 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'. It proved to be a very significant role for her as she was spotted by a talent scout and chosen, aged 18, to play Hermia in a forthcoming Hollywood Bowl version of the same play. When Warner Bros made a movie version, they kept Olivia on. The film, and Olivia, proved to be very successful, and she was signed on to a 7 year contract. Olivia was now a fully fledged Hollywood star.

Olivia and Flynn in 'Robin Hood'
Olivia and Flynn in 'Robin Hood'

The Young Actress

During her first years as film actress Olivia made some light hearted comedies such as 'The Irish in Us' and 'Alibi Ike' and in 1935 she starred with the up and coming young superstar, Errol Flynn, in 'Captain Blood'. The chemistry between the two struck a chord with audiences and they would be paired together in a total of nine films between 1935 and 1943. A pattern developed of Olivia playing demure, one-dimensional, love interest parts which she found frustrating and which did not help to further her career as a serious actress.

On loan to MGM from Warner Brothers in 1939 she gained an Oscar nomination, for Best Supporting Actress, for her portrayal of Melanie Wilkes in Gone With The Wind. She had worked hard to secure the role and it caused a reappraisal of her work by Warners. She gradually got better scripts and she made more impact at Warners, especially in Walsh's 'Strawberry Blonde' in 1941, Huston's 'In This Our Life', and 'The Male Animal'. Loaned to Paramount, she was excellent in Mitchell Leisen's 'Hold Back the Dawn' in 1941, for which she was again nominated for an Oscar, this time for Best Actress, while at RKO she was in 'Government Girl' i n 1943. She finished at Warners with Norman Krasna's ' Princess O'Rourke', also in 1943.

As Melanie Wilkes, Gone With the Wind, 1939

Olivia in 1946
Olivia in 1946 | Source

Victory in Court

By this time, despite the slight improvement in roles, she made her dissatisfaction clear to the studio. She did not want any more vapid, 'love-interest' parts.  Jack Warner refused and eventually she went on suspension without pay for 6 months. Hitherto when this happened the studio would simply add the the period of suspension to the contract term. Olivia decided to fight and she took the case to the California Supreme Court and won in a landmark victory.

Henceforth, and to this day known as 'de Havilland's Law', any studio contract would have to include the suspensions already given out. No longer would actors and actresses be treated as chattels. They can now negotiate their own fees and projects, thanks to Olivia de Havilland's courageous stand.

With her Oscar for 'To Each His Own' in 1946
With her Oscar for 'To Each His Own' in 1946
With Montgomery Clift in 'The Heiress'.
With Montgomery Clift in 'The Heiress'.

Vindication

Olivia was not able to work during the court case and she spent the time visiting wounded servicemen in overseas military hospitals. With the case over she started to gain critical acceptance as she was able to shake off the 'sweet girl' image and give her genuine acting talents a chance at last to be seen.

The next few years provided a splendid affirmation of Olivia's talent, determination, and faith in her own ability.

She made 'The Well-Groomed Bride' in 1945 and Robert Siodmak's 'The Dark Mirror' in 1946 playing twins. She then won the Best Actress Oscar in 1946 for her meticulous performance in 'To Each His Own', playing the same character from her teens through to middle age, and she won again in 1949 for her role in 'The Heiress'. In between these successes she won wide acclaim for her depiction of a mentally ill woman in 'The Snake Pit' in 1948, a decidedly unglamorous role for which she was also nominated for an Oscar.

Career Fade Out

After her marriage (her second) to Pierre Galante, the editor of 'Paris Match', in 1955, she moved to Europe and  the quality of her work, or at least, her scripts, diminished.  'My Cousin Rachel' in 1952, and 'That Lady' in 1955, were disappointing,  and after the delightful 'The Ambassador's Daughter' in 1956, she again disappointed  in 'Lady in a Cage' in 1964, 'The Adventurers' in 1969,  and 'The Swarm' in 1978.

Towards the end of her acting career she played royal roles in TV dramas: 'Murder Is Easy in 1982, playing the Queen Mother in 'The Royal Romance of Charles and Diana' in 1982, in the Helen Hayes role, opposite Amy Irving, in 'Anastasia;The Mystery of Anna' in 1986, and 'The Woman He Loved' in 1988 as Wallis Simpson's aunt.


Olivia Today

Olivia is now in her nineties, is retired and lives in Paris, France. She rarely makes public appearances but on November 17, 2008, at the age of 92, she received the National Medal for the Arts from President George W. Bush. What a lady!


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Comments 8 comments

William F. Torpey profile image

William F. Torpey 7 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

Thanks for a great hub about a magnificent actress: Olivia de Havilland. "The Snake Pit" and "The Heiress" were spellbinding movies. Anyone who hasn't seen them should do so now. My late wife loved "The Heiress," which we had on videotape -- and we watched it numerous times. There was no greater scoundrel than Montgomery Clift, and Ralph Richardson was priceless in the movie. The picture of Olivia in her later years is fascinating.


gunsock profile image

gunsock 7 years ago from South Coast of England Author

Thanks for those interesting comments William. I love Olivia de Havilland and 'The Heiress' is one of my favorites too. I think its just wonderful that a star from so long ago is still alive and well.


Scott 7 years ago

I think she's a national treasure. She's been entertaining folks, young and old, for decades--ever since those wonderfully entertaining movies with Errol Flynn as co-star. She aged gracefully and has kept her reputation as a fine actress intact, whatever highs and lows her career has had, largely because of films like "The Snake Pit" and "The Heiress." Nice to see her receiving an award at the White House from Pres. George W. Bush. My favorite actress of all time!


gunsock profile image

gunsock 7 years ago from South Coast of England Author

Thanks for droppng by Scott. Yes, she's a national treasure and its good to see her being appreciated.


BamBamT@aol.com 5 years ago

Nicely written


htodd profile image

htodd 5 years ago from United States

Nice


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 4 years ago from Taos, NM

I throughly enjoyed this hub. Olivia de Havilland is one of my favorite actress' from the Golden Age. I love classic movies from days gone by and the performances of the "golden age stars."


gunsock profile image

gunsock 4 years ago from South Coast of England Author

Thanks suzettenaples, Olivia is one of my favorite actresses too.

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