Olivia de Havilland, Star of ‘Gone With the Wind,’ Dies at 104
(Bloomberg) -- Olivia de Havilland, the last surviving star of the 1939 classic film “Gone With the Wind” and the instigator of a landmark lawsuit that ended studios’ control over their actors, has died. She was 104.
The actress died in Paris, her publicist told the Associated Press. No cause of death was given.
Though de Havilland appeared in about 60 movies and television shows, she was best known for her role in David O. Selznick’s production of the Margaret Mitchell novel. She played the gentle Melanie Hamilton, who marries Ashley Wilkes, the man loved by Vivien Leigh’s tempestuous Scarlett O’Hara. Wilkes’s character was portrayed by Leslie Howard.
Nominated for an Academy Award as best supporting actress, de Havilland lost to “Gone With the Wind” co-star Hattie McDaniel, who played Mammy, the matriarchal maid who cares for Scarlett. McDaniel was the first Black winner of the acting prize.
“Gone With the Wind” is still the biggest box-office smash ever when adjusted for inflation. It’s been criticized for its portrayal of Black characters, including McDaniel’s Mammy and Butterfly McQueen’s Prissy -- famously slapped by Scarlett -- and for glorifying slave culture in the U.S. South. HBO Max in June temporarily pulled the film from its lineup until historical context could be added.
De Havilland later won Oscars for best actress in 1947 and 1950.
“Playing bad girls is a bore; I have always had more luck with good girl roles because they require more from an actress,” she said after winning her second Oscar, for “The Heiress” (1949).
De Havilland was the older sister of Joan Fontaine, known for her roles in “Rebecca” (1940) and “Suspicion” (1941), though the two famously didn’t get along. They competed for the Oscar for best actress in 1942; Fontaine won, for Alfred Hitchcock’s “Suspicion.” Fontaine died in 2013 at age 96.
In the 1940s, de Havilland tried to expand her repertoire beyond the “nice girl” roles the film studios were typecasting her to play. To gain the right to do so, she had to bring a lawsuit, which succeeded in watering down the power of the studios to suspend actors who turned down assigned roles.
The landmark court ruling in 1944 -- Bette Davis had failed to win against Warner Brothers in a similar legal challenge in the 1930s -- changed the way actors were hired, compensated and managed, making them the equivalent of free agents.
“For the studio heads, the ideal woman was slightly helpless and in need of protection,” de Havilland said in a 2010 interview with Bloomberg News in Paris. “They didn’t believe I would be any different in real life.”
And she suffered after the ruling, she said.
“I wasn’t especially popular socially. Nobody invited me to their parties, not even Errol, in fear that I might bump into a studio head and give him a piece of my mind,” she said, referring to actor Errol Flynn.
It wasn’t her last lawsuit. In June 2017, she sued FX Networks for portraying her without permission in a docudrama about the rivalry between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. De Havilland contended her character, played by Catherine Zeta-Jones, put her in a “false light” by showing her to be a gossip monger. A Los Angeles judge allowed the lawsuit to proceed but it was reversed by a California state appeals court. Both the California Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court rejected her request to review that decision.
In 2010, French President Nicolas Sarkozy made de Havilland a Knight of the Legion of Honor, an order of merit in France.
“We love you here,” Sarkozy said. “I’m the president of France and I have sweet Melanie in front of me. I’m sure everyone in France would like to be in my place.”
Olivia Mary de Havilland was born July 1, 1916, in Tokyo. Her father was a British patent attorney and a relative of Geoffrey de Havilland, the aviation pioneer. Her mother, an actress, soon moved the two young sisters to California and the couple divorced.
De Havilland began appearing in films in 1935. Among her best-known were “Hold Back the Dawn” (1941) the film for which she lost the best-actress Oscar to her sister; “To Each His Own” (1946), for which she won her first Academy Award; and “The Snake Pit” (1948).
She appeared with Flynn in “Captain Blood” (1935), “The Charge of the Light Brigade” (1936) and “The Adventures of Robin Hood” (1938); with Clark Gable in “Gone With the Wind”; and with Montgomery Clift in “The Heiress.”
In 1987, de Havilland won a Golden Globe award for her supporting role as Dowager Empress Maria in the TV movie “Anastasia: The Mystery of Anna” (1986).
At a White House ceremony in 2008, she was presented with a National Medal of Arts “for her lifetime achievements and contributions to American culture.” In June 2017, she became the oldest woman recipient ever to be made a Dame, an award given by Queen Elizabeth II.
De Havilland, who wrote the 1962 memoir “Every Frenchman Has One,” spent most of her life in Paris. She moved there after marrying Pierre Galante, the editor of Paris Match magazine, in 1955. The couple divorced in 1979, though she nursed him through cancer until his death in 1998.
Benjamin Goodrich, her son from a previous marriage to novelist Marcus Goodrich, died of Hodgkin’s disease in 1991. She also had a daughter, Gisele Galante, who became a journalist.
De Havilland was a parishioner at the American Cathedral in Paris and a fixture in the expatriate community. She enjoyed telling the story of how it was actually she who had made the gagging noise in the film that Scarlett O’Hara utters after she returns to her ruined plantation, Tara, and attempts to eat a carrot pulled from the soil. Then de Havilland would make the noise, to the delight of those listening.
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