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Olivia de Havilland, Hollywood Beauty with Steel

Updated on August 4, 2015

Not to Mention Talent with Steel

Olivia de Havilland was nominated 5 times for Academy Awards and is one of an elite group who have twice won the Best Actress Award.

She is one of the last surviving female stars from Hollywood of the 1930s and became famous for playing demure, damsel in distress 'love interest' roles.

As well as her great beauty and highly successful acting career she will always be remembered for her courageous battle with the all powerful studio heads over their contractual hold over their actors. Her eventual courtroom victory in 1946 is still called 'de Havilland's Law.'

Early Days

Olivia was born in Tokyo, Japan, to British parents in July 1916. Her father, Walter, was an attorney, her mother, Lilian, a stage actress. Her sister, Joan, later to become famous as Joan Fontaine, was born the following year. After her parents divorced Olivia moved, aged 3, with her mother and sister to Saratoga, California. In 1925 Lilian married George M. Fontaine, a department store owner.

After attending Saratoga, California, public schools where she won awards for public speaking, and the Notre Dame Convent at Belmount, California, Olivia made her stage debut in 1933 in the title role of the Saratoga Community Players production of "Alice in Wonderland," and the following summer after she graduated from high school, she was cast as Puck in their production of William Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream.". She was extremely impressive in the production, and was seen by a talent scout for director Max Reinhardt who picked her for his Hollywood Bowl version of the play.

And so, in 1934 18-year-old Olivia found herself playing the role of Hermia with a cast of seasoned professionals, in front of all Hollywood.

The production and Olivia's role in particular, was a great success, and when Warner Brothers studios hired Reinhardt to direct a film version of the play, he insisted on retaining Olivia de Havilland as Hermia. The film also was a success, and Warner Brothers signed Olivia to a seven-year contract.

With Errol Flynn - A Selection of Movies

Early Hollywood Career

And meeting Errol Flynn

In her first full year as a film actress Olivia made three films and in the third one, Captain Blood, was paired with the up and coming young Errol Flynn. Audiences warmed to the duo and in total, the pair appeared in nine films together between 1935 and 1943, including The Charge Of The Light Brigade (1936), The Adventures Of Robin Hood (1938) (picture right) and They Died With Their Boots On (1941). The films were great box office successes but they did little to further de Havilland's career as a serious actress. She began to get frustrated with the demure, one dimensional roles she was being given. She did not keep silent and Warner Bros loaned her out to David Selznick and she immediately received her first Academy nomination, for Best Supporting Actress, for her portrayal of Melanie Wilkes in Gone With The Wind in 1939 but lost out to her co-star, Hattie McDaniel.

Olivia then returned to Warner Bros. and in 1941 received her second Oscar nomination, this time for Best Actress in Hold Back the Dawn. Again she lost, this time to her sister Joan Fontaine for her role in Suspicion. She and Joan Fontaine are the first sisters to win Oscars and the first ones to be Oscar-nominated in the same year.

Showing The Steel - Olivia Takes on Warner Bros.

After such conspiculus successes Olivia again spoke up for herself and demanded more serious roles. Despite her obviously increasing popularity at the Box Office her employer, Jack Warner, refused and eventually she went on voluntary suspension without pay for 6 months. Hitherto when this happened the period of suspension would be added to the contract term, further tying the star to the studio. The ruling had never before been successfully challenged but Olivia decided to fight and she took the case to the California Supreme Court.

In a landmark decision, the Court said not only that Olivia did not have to make up the time, but that all performers were to be limited to a seven-year contract that would include any suspensions handed down. This became known, and is still known as the "de Havilland decision". It set an enduring precedent in labor law and changed the Hollywood studio system forever. Today's actors and actresses are free to work at any studio, on whatever project suits them, and to negotiate their own fees. They have a lot to thank Olivia de Havilland for.

Oscar Success - Throwing Off The Shackles

During her two years off screen which was during World War II, Olivia made regular tours of overseas military hospitals, visiting wounded servicemen.

On her return to the United States, the studios rushed to offer her their most challenging assignments and the postwar years saw Olivia shaking off the shackles of being typecast as a sweet damsel in distress, and giving her great talent at last a\ chance to shine.

In 1946 her meticulously detailed performance as Josephine Norris in To Each His Own, playing the same character from her teens to maturity won her the Best Actress Oscar. She was nominated again in 1948 for her portrayal of a woman suffering a mental breakdown in The Snake Pit and she won her second Best Actress Oscar the following year in The Heiress.

Up to date

After a three year marriage and childbirth break, Olivia returned in 1952 to star in My Cousin Rachel. From that point on her film career began to fade as she concentrated more of her time on family and home. She had a son by her first marriage, to novelist Marcus

Goodrich, and a daughter with her second husband, Frenchman Pierre Galante, editor of Paris Match. After her marriage to Galante, she settled in Paris. She wrote a humorous account of life in France in her 1962 best-seller, Every Frenchman Has One. Also in 1962, de Havilland achieved a major stage success when she appeared opposite Henry Fonda in the New York production of "The Gift of Time," a play about a woman caring for her husband who is terminally ill with cancer. Her last screen appearance was The Fifth Musketeer in 1979.

In 2003 she appeared at the Academy Awards ceremony and introduced the 59 previous winners who attended. Olivia, serene, fit and healthy, now enjoys a quiet retirement in Paris, France.

Olivia de Havilland - Talent and Courage

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      anonymous 5 years ago

      One of my most favorite actresses! I loved her in "The Heiress". Beautiful, a lady. Wish there were more like her today.

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      anonymous 5 years ago

      love her I adore her can't wait to get her book. The screens greatest and what a charming modest lady. Olivia will always be remembered.