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Olivia de Havilland

Two Oscars for Best Actress

I would like respect for difficult work well done.

Olivia de Havilland as an infant, with her father, Walter A. de Havilland, her mother, Lilian de Havilland (later Fontaine) and two Japanese nurses. Olivia was born in Japan, where her father had a successful patent law practice. (Getty Images)
Olivia de Havilland as an infant, with her father, Walter A. de Havilland, her mother, Lilian de Havilland (later Fontaine) and two Japanese nurses. Olivia was born in Japan, where her father had a  patent law practice.

Olivia de Havilland was born in Tokyo, Japan to English parents. Her father, Walter, headed a firm of patent attorneys; her mother, Lilian, a trained singer and actress, was active in the theatrical life of the city’s small English community. Her parents separated when she was only two years old, and along with her younger sister, Joan, she was taken by her mother to the United States, where they settled in Saratoga, California, then a small village outside of San Jose. After settling in Saratoga, Mrs. de Havilland divorced Olivia’s father and eventually married a San Jose businessman, George Fontaine. Young Olivia quickly took to life in her new world. She excelled in school, editing her high school yearbook and winning awards for public speaking. She was also active in a local theatrical company, playing the title role in their production of Alice in Wonderland, and Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Olivia had graduated from high school and was planning to attend Mills College on scholarship, when she heard that the renowned director Max Reinhardt was planning a massive outdoor production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream to play in San Francisco and Los Angeles. A friend arranged for her to audition for Reinhardt’s general manager, and she was offered the opportunity to understudy the ingenue role of Hermia. This was an extraordinary opportunity for a novice actress. Reinhardt was the leading international theatrical figure of the early 20th century, famous for his elaborate outdoor spectacles. His Midsummer Night’s Dream was to be the largest of all, using the wooded hills above the 25,000-seat Hollywood Bowl to represent Shakespeare’s enchanted forest and a full orchestra playing Mendelssohn’s celebrated score for the play.

October 10, 1934: The cast of <i>A Midsummer Night's Dream</i> gather together with Warner Brothers executives. Olivia de Havilland, Mickey Rooney, Dick Powell, and James Cagney are the players in the broadcast. (Bettmann/Getty)
October 10, 1934: The cast of A Midsummer Night’s Dream gather together with Warner Brothers executives. Olivia de Havilland, Mickey Rooney, Dick Powell, and James Cagney are the players in the broadcast. (Bettmann/Getty)

Olivia traveled to Los Angeles to watch Reinhardt’s rehearsals, still planning to attend college in the fall, but when the actress playing Hermia dropped out of the production, 18-year-old Olivia found herself playing the role with a cast of seasoned professionals, in front of all Hollywood. The production was a sensation, and audiences were delighted by the young ingenue with the warm, lilting voice and huge dark eyes. Warner Brothers studios hired Reinhardt to direct a film version of the play, using Warner Brothers contract players, but Reinhardt insisted on retaining Olivia de Havilland as Hermia. The film was a surprising success, and Warner Brothers signed Olivia de Havilland to a seven-year contract, a standard practice in Hollywood at that time.

In her first major role after Midsummer Night’s Dream, Olivia de Havilland was paired with an unknown Australian actor, Errol Flynn. The film, Captain Blood, was a swashbuckling costume picture. Audiences were thrilled with the chemistry between the tall blond hero and his petite, brunette leading lady. The film was an enormous success and the studio cast the pair in one picture after another: The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Charge of the Light Brigade, Dodge City, Santa Fe Trail and They Died With Their Boots On, as well as the comedy Four’s a Crowd.

1938: Actors Errol Flynn and 22-year-old Olivia de Havilland embrace in a still from <i>The Adventures of Robin Hood</i>, directed by Michael Curtiz and William Keighley. (Warner Bros./Getty Images)
1938: Actors Errol Flynn and 22-year-old Olivia de Havilland embrace in a still from The Adventures of Robin Hood.

Inspired by Olivia’s success, her mother and sister joined her in Los Angeles. Adopting her stepfather’s surname, Olivia’s sister also enjoyed a successful acting career as Joan Fontaine; and their mother worked intermittently as an actress, using her married name, Lilian Fontaine. At Warner Brothers, Olivia de Havilland became frustrated with the lack of variety in her film roles. In film after film, it seemed, her character’s only purpose was to serve as the love interest of the daring hero, but despite her growing popularity, Warner Brothers consistently refused to assign her more interesting fare.

1939: Actresses Vivien Leigh, Olivia de Havilland and Hattie McDaniel play the roles of Scarlett O'Hara, Melanie Hamilton and Mammy respectively in a scene from the movie <i>Gone with the Wind</i> by Victor Fleming. (Photo by Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images)
1939: Actresses Vivien Leigh, Olivia de Havilland and Hattie McDaniel play the roles of Scarlett O’Hara, Melanie Hamilton and Mammy, respectively, in a scene from the movie Gone With the Wind by Victor Fleming. (Getty)

A breakthrough came when independent producer David Selznick offered her the role of Melanie in Gone With the Wind. Although studio chief Jack Warner initially balked at lending her services to Selznick, he relented when offered to exchange the services of the popular star James Stewart for one picture, in return for those of Olivia de Havilland. De Havilland’s performance in Gone With the Wind is one of the highlights of that enduring classic. Her Melanie is both a believable individual and an archetypal embodiment of selfless womanhood. Although she was billed as one of the stars, Selznick did not want her competing with his other star, Vivien Leigh, for a Best Actress Oscar, so he arranged to have de Havilland nominated in the Best Supporting Actress category instead. The award went to Hattie McDaniel for her performance in the same film. De Havilland appreciated the historic importance of this first Oscar win by an African American. De Havilland received a Best Actress nomination of her own the following year for her performance in Hold Back the Dawn.

The Best Actress nomination placed de Havilland in direct competition with her younger sister, Joan Fontaine, who was enjoying success in a series of dramatic roles. When Fontaine won the Best Actress Oscar, a private sibling rivalry erupted into a public professional feud. The sisters remained distant for the rest of their lives. Joan Fontaine died in Carmel, California in 2013.

1940: British-American actress Olivia de Havilland. (Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)
1940: British-American motion picture actress Olivia de Havilland. (Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)

Like Gone With the Wind, Hold Back the Dawn had been made away from de Havilland’s home studio. Back at Warner Brothers, she appeared with Flynn and Warners’ reigning queen, Bette Davis, in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex. De Havilland and Davis also worked together in the powerful drama, In This Our Life, and the older star proved a supportive friend through de Havilland’s struggles with studio management. Despite her entreaties, studio chief Jack Warner refused to give her the kind of challenging roles other studios were offering her. When Warner insisted on casting her in substandard projects, she voluntarily went on suspension, collecting no salary until she went back to work. She continued to show her range whenever the opportunity presented itself, giving a sparkling performance in the period comedy The Strawberry Blonde.

1945: Olivia de Havilland (Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)
In 1945, Olivia de Havilland began filming the drama, To Each His Own, about an unwed mother who gives up her child for adoption and then spends the rest of her life trying to undo that decision. The role required de Havilland to age nearly thirty years over the course of the film — from an innocent, small-town girl to a shrewd, ruthless businesswoman devoted to her cosmetics company.  Her performance earned her the Academy Award for Best Actress in 1946 — her first Oscar. The award “represented a vindication of de Havilland’s long struggle with Warner Bros. and confirmation of her abilities as an actress.”  (Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)

When her seven-year contract was finally due to expire, Warner added the time she had spent on suspension to the term of her contract. Although this appeared to be a violation of California law, it was a routine practice at all the Hollywood studios. No actor, or other studio employee, had ever successfully challenged the custom. Even Warner Brothers’ leading female star, Bette Davis, had been forced to relent and accept the extension of her contract term. After reading the applicable statute herself, Olivia de Havilland decided to ask the State of California for declaratory relief, releasing her from her contract. When the Superior Court ruled in her favor, Warner Brothers secured injunctions, barring her from working at any other studio. The legal struggle kept her off screen for two years during World War II, but she used the time to tour military hospitals, visiting wounded soldiers, sailors and airmen. Her travels took her as far as Fiji, in the South Pacific, where she received word that the Supreme Court of California had upheld lower court decisions. The contract ingenue had challenged the studio system and won. The “de Havilland decision,” as it is known, set an enduring precedent in labor law and changed the Hollywood studio system forever.

Olivia de Havilland tries to escape from a hellish mental institution in the 1948 film, The Snake Pit. (Getty Images)
Olivia de Havilland tries to escape from a hellish mental institution in the 1948 film The Snake Pit. (Getty Images)

On her return to the United States, Olivia de Havilland, and most other established stars in Hollywood, were free to work at any studio, on whatever project suited them, and to negotiate their own fees. Rather than blacklisting her, as she might have feared, the studios rushed to offer her the most challenging assignments. In 1946, she starred in To Each His Own, playing the same character from her teens to maturity. Her meticulously detailed performance won her the Oscar for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role.

March 25, 1950: Actress Olivia de Havilland proudly displays her second Oscar awarded for her performance as the Best Actress of 1949 for her role in <i>The Heiress</i>. Miss De Havilland also won top honors in 1946. (Bettmann/Getty)
March 25, 1950: Actress Olivia de Havilland proudly displays her second Oscar, awarded for her performance as the Best Actress of 1949 for her role in The Heiress. Miss de Havilland also won top honors in 1946. (Bettman)

During her wartime travels, de Havilland had been struck by the devastating incidence of mental illness among returning servicemen. With war’s end, this problem had become a pressing one for the whole society, but a long-standing taboo inhibited public discussion of the matter. De Havilland leaped at the chance to dramatize the problem in her next project, The Snake Pit. Her fearless performance in this harrowing film exposed shocking conditions in the nation’s mental institutions and ignited public demand for long-overdue reform.

English actress Olivia de Havilland with her two Academy Awards (Photo by Terry O'Neill/Getty Images)
Legendary actress Olivia de Havilland with her two Academy Awards for Best Actress. (Terry O’Neill/Getty Images)

Another historic performance came in a project she originated. After seeing a stage adaptation of Washington Square, by the great American novelist Henry James, de Havilland resolved to bring the story to the screen. She enlisted the distinguished director William Wyler, long recognized for the power of his adaptations of great literature. The production proved a trying one. The distinguished actor Ralph Richardson, the epitome of old-school British acting, posed one set of challenges, while her leading man, Montgomery Clift, an exponent of the new “Method” school, presented another. In one of the most difficult roles of her career, de Havilland found herself isolated on the set. She channeled all of the emotions posed by these difficulties back into the performance. A great story, a stirring musical score by Aaron Copland, masterful direction by Wyler and an unforgettable performance by Olivia de Havilland resulted in an enduring masterpiece, The Heiress. For the second time, Olivia de Havilland was honored with the Best Actress Oscar.

Awards Council member Olivia de Havilland with daughter, Gisele Galante, arrive at the Academy of Achievement dinner reception at U.S. Ambassador’s residence during the 2000 International Achievement Summit in London.

In the 1950s, de Havilland appeared less frequently on screen, and devoted more of her time to raising her children, a son by her first marriage, to novelist Marcus Goodrich, and a daughter with her second husband, French businessman Pierre Galante. She also enjoyed several successes on stage, including an acclaimed run in Romeo and Juliet on Broadway. She returned to Hollywood periodically in the 1950s, giving memorable performances in My Cousin Rachel, Not As a Stranger and The Proud Rebel. After her marriage to Galante, she settled in Paris; she wrote a humorous account of life in France in her 1962 bestseller, Every Frenchman Has One. In the same year, she gave a highly nuanced performance in the film A Light in the Piazza, and starred on Broadway in A Gift of Time. In the 1960s, a new audience of filmgoers discovered the dramatic power of Olivia de Havilland in macabre thrillers such as Lady in a Cage and Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte with her old friend Bette Davis. Through the following decades, she appeared in a number of Hollywood films, and on television in the miniseries Roots: The Next Generation, North and South II and Anastasia: The Mystery of Anna.

Three members of the Academy’s Golden Plate Awards Council: Hollywood legends Olivia de Havilland and Dame Julie Andrews with L.A. Lakers’ Kareem Abdul-Jabbar at 2006 International Achievement Summit in Los Angeles.

With every re-release and anniversary of Gone With the Wind, Olivia de Havilland has been honored as the sole surviving star of that historic motion picture. In 2005, she was awarded the Kennedy Center’s International Medal of the Arts in a ceremony in St. Petersburg, Russia. In 2006, shortly before her 90th birthday, she received a tribute from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles. President George W. Bush presented her with the National Medal of Arts in a ceremony at the White House in November 2008.

De Havilland’s courage in bucking the power structure of the motion picture industry and exposing the shortcomings of America’s mental health care system have had repercussions far beyond the world of cinema. As she meticulously researches her memoirs from her home in Paris, Olivia de Havilland enjoys the satisfaction of seeing her past performances inspire new generations of film fans and filmmakers.

Inducted Badge
Inducted in 1978

An illustrious star of Hollywood’s Golden Age, Olivia de Havilland made her screen debut at 19 and soon became the screen’s favorite romantic heroine, starring in a popular series of adventure films with leading man Errol Flynn, including such favorites as Captain Blood, The Adventures of Robin Hood and The Charge of the Light Brigade. She made movie history with her unforgettable performance as the selfless Melanie in Gone With the Wind, often voted the greatest movie ever made.

Her long struggle with the studio system to gain better roles for herself, and fairer treatment for actors generally, culminated in a landmark court decision, which liberated actors from onerous long-term contracts and opened the door to a new era of artistic freedom in cinema. Her experiences visiting traumatized soldiers during World War II led to a serious interest in mental health issues. Her performance in the film The Snake Pit exposed the shocking conditions prevalent in many mental institutions in the United States and led to widespread reform of mental health practices.

She won Best Actress Oscars for her moving portrayals in To Each His Own and The Heiress. In a brilliant cinematic career spanning more than four decades, her beauty and intelligence charmed her first audiences; her courage and eloquence inspire new generations wherever her films are shown.

Watch full interview

Very early in your film career you were cast opposite Errol Flynn in some wonderful adventure films. What was that partnership like? Were you immediately drawn to Mr. Flynn?

Olivia de Havilland: Yes, I was.

I was called for a test, simply a silent test, just to see how the two of us in costume would look together, and that’s when I first met him. And I walked onto the set, and they said, “Would you please stand next to Mr. Flynn?” and I saw him. Oh my! Oh my! Struck dumb. I knew it was what the French call a coup de foudre. So I took my position next to him, and I was very, very formal with him because that is the way you were in those days. We had never met. We had never met, and we just stood there next to each other. Oh!

April 26, 1948: Film stars Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland, appearing in several movies together, are seen here embracing in one of their films. (Bettmann)
1948: Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland, appearing in several movies together, are seen here embracing. (Getty)

A few weeks later, quite a considerable debate had gone on. Bette Davis, for example, had been photographed with him too, and she was the great star on the lot. They had to weigh casting me as Arabella Bishop, because Errol Flynn and I were both at that time completely unknown, and they were going to invest what was then a very large sum of money, $800,000, in this production. Therefore, they decided that we should work on some scenes together, not to be filmed, but just so that the producer and director could see how we performed together.

So one day, we were called together, and we started to rehearse, and then we had a lunch break. We went off to the commissary, and he walked with me to the commissary. I had never been in it before. I got a tray, and he went ahead, and he took his tray to a table, and I filled my tray and I wanted to go and sit over there next to him, and I thought, “No, he will think I am bold, and I can’t do that.” So I found another place and sat there and ate my lunch in a solitary fashion.

When I turned in my tray, he turned his in at the same time. So we walked back to the stage together, and when we got there, no one was there.  We were the first, and we sat down on the ramp, which leads from the great open door of the stage to the street, and he asked me — he was 25 years of age when this happened, and I was still 18 — he said to me, “What do you want out of life?” and I thought, “What an extraordinary question to be asked!  Nobody has asked me that ever.” And in fact, nobody ever did in the years that followed, and I said, “I would like respect for difficult work well done.” And then I said, “Well, what do you want out of life?” and he said, “I want success.”  And what he meant by that was fame and riches, both of which he certainly did achieve, but when he said it, I thought, “But that’s not enough,” and indeed, it proved in Errol’s life not to be enough.

Of course, they decided to cast us together, and we made the film Captain Blood.

Your films with Errol Flynn were highly successful and very popular films, but I gather from about the time of Dodge City, you were beginning to be frustrated at being typecast.

Olivia de Havilland: Oh yes.

The life of the love interest is really pretty boring.  The objective is the marriage bed.  That’s what the heroine is there for, and “Will he win or will he not? Will they finally make the marriage bed?”  It was obvious it would be the marriage bed, not any other bed, but it was all about would they in the end get together that way, and the route to the marriage bed — and that was promised at the end of the film, of course — was a pretty boring route. The heroine really heroined.  She really had nothing much to do except encourage the hero, and at the right moment… and you can’t imagine how uninteresting that can be, the route.  The objective might have been different, but anyhow the route is very boring.  So I longed to play a character who initiated things, who experienced important things, who interpreted the great agonies and joys of human experience, and I certainly wasn’t doing that on any kind of level of a significance playing the love interest.

Were you especially low on the set of Dodge City?

Olivia de Havilland: Oh, I was. I was very depressed by that time. My ambition had been to play difficult roles or to do difficult work and to do it well. I was getting nowhere with that.

Olivia de Havilland and Errol Flynn from the 1939 film Dodge City. (Bettmann/Getty)
Olivia de Havilland and Errol Flynn from the 1939 film Dodge City.  It was one of the highest-grossing films of the year. This was the seventh of eleven movies that de Havilland and Flynn appeared in together. (Bettmann/Getty)

Was this a result of the studio system that kept you in a certain track?

Olivia de Havilland: Yes. It was a stock company, Warner Brothers. They had one great dramatic actress. That was Bette Davis. They had a great dramatic actor, Paul Muni. They had another one, Edward G. Robinson. And they had a clotheshorse, marvelous Kay Francis. They had two comediennes, Glenda Farrell and Joan Blondell. And then they had two ingenues, one was brunette, and one was blond, and the blond one was Anita Louise — who was really, I thought, marvelous in Midsummer Night’s Dream playing Titania — and they had Olivia de Havilland, the brunette ingenue. Well that’s how the casting went, you see. It was either the brunette ingenue or it was the blond ingenue. It was confining in that way. I had no real opportunity to develop and to explore difficult roles, and that was tiresome.

How did you land the part of Melanie in Gone With the Wind? Wasn’t that at another studio?

Olivia de Havilland: Oh yes.

One day, I came back from location. In Modesto it was. Dodge City. It must have been early December — very late November in any case — of 1938, and the phone rang. The voice said, “You don’t know me. We’ve never met, but I am George Cukor. I have been supervising the preparation of Gone With the Wind, and I will be directing the movie. We are in the process of casting, and I would like to know if you would be interested in playing the role of Melanie.” Well, I said, “I certainly would,” and then he said, “Would you consent to doing something highly illegal?” Well, I said, “What would that be?” And he said, “You are under contract to Warner Brothers. We have no right to ask this of you, but would you come secretly — tell no one — to the studio? We will give you directions to what entrance to go, just a private entrance. Someone will be waiting there for you, and he will unlock the door and let you in and lead you to my office to read some lines, read the part of Melanie.” I said, “Yes. I’d be delighted to do this highly illegal thing.” So, I did, and I read the lines for George Cukor, and he said, “I think I must call David,” and he called David Selznick and said, “David, I think you must hear Miss de Havilland read the part of Melanie.”

So it was all arranged that I would go off to David’s house — which happened to be a Southern mansion, by the way — on Sunday at 3:00, having memorized a scene George then gave me, a scene between Scarlett and Melanie.

I drove myself up in my little green Buick to David’s Southern mansion.  I was shown into this beautiful drawing room, paneled, wood-paneled, a lovely room, and in came George and David.  Now, I have to explain to you that George was very, very rotund.  He also had very dark eyes and very dark hair, very curly and very thick, and he wore very thick glasses, thickly rimmed in dark tortoiseshell, very dark, or maybe not even tortoiseshell.  They were rimmed in thick black rims.  He played Scarlett.  He played Scarlett passionately, clutching the porches.  There we were in this little bay window with the hangings, and I was pleading with “Scarlett! Scarlett!” over something or another, and he was clutching the porches, and there was David standing three feet from us, watching this scene with rapt attention, enthralled. Well, part of my mind, of course, was saying this has to be the most comic thing to witness that has ever, ever happened, ever been performed in the history of the world.

1939: Olivia de Havilland as the selfless Melanie in <i>Gone With the Wind</i>, a performance cherished by generations of moviegoers. (Getty Images)
1939: Olivia de Havilland as the selfless Melanie in Gone With the Wind, a performance cherished by generations.

Extraordinarily, when this was over, David decided that he had found his Melanie. He couldn’t make a screen test with me, of course, Warners would never agree to that, but before making a final decision, he wanted to see the screen tests of the other ladies who had tried out for the part. So I went into the projection room. There was Mrs. Selznick, Irene, a wonderful woman, sitting in a taffeta housecoat in this empty projection room, which abutted on the drawing room. We all sat down, and they began. The projectionists began to run the different tests. Andrea Leeds was marvelous, and Anne Shirley was marvelous. There were at least six. I felt they were all wonderful, and I said so, and then I thought, “Oh Lord, I don’t want to convince him. I don’t want to convince David and George to choose one of them. I must be more restrained in my reaction.” So I sort of calmed down and was much more discreet, and when it was over, unbelievably, David said, “Well, I will start getting in touch with Jack Warner.” So I had survived the acid test of the six screen tests. Now…

Keys to success — Perseverance

Jack Warner utterly refused to lend me for Melanie.  He wouldn’t hear of it.  I even went to call on him and begged him.  He said no, he wouldn’t do it.  He would not lend me to Selznick to play the part of Melanie.  I was desperate, and I did something, age 22, that really was not correct, but I did it.  I called Mrs. Warner, who had been an actress, a lovely, lovely woman — Ann Alvarado was her name before she met Jack — and I told her that I would very much like to see her, and would she be kind enough to have tea with me at the Brown Derby, and she said, “Yes.”  Well, we met.  It was raining.  I remember that.  The Brown Derby, I think, no longer exists.  It’s a terrible thing that they tore that down.  I explained to her how much the part meant to me, and I said, “Would you help me?”  She said, “I understand you, and I will help you,” and it was through her that Jack eventually agreed, and he says so in his biography. It was Ann who did it. Isn’t this wonderful? And finally arrangements were made, an agreement between Selznick and Warner.  Selznick had a one-picture commitment with Jimmy Stewart.  So he loaned — he gave up that.  He gave that over to Jack Warner, who needed him for a film and took me in exchange, so I reported to the set.