01 July 2011

Happy Birthday Olivia

Olivia de Havilland turns 95 today. She may be the last surviving cast member of Gone With the Wind but there’s more to her than just playing Melanie Wilkes. She won the Academy Award twice, had a notorious long running public feud with her sister, Joan Fontaine, and starred in some of the great classics of the 1930s and 1940s.

As Arabella Bishop in Captain Blood.

A beauty with a cultured voice, she could play plain when called upon and do comedy while always maintaining a certain dignity. She made her film debut in 1935 as Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream after being spotted in a production of the play at the Hollywood Bowl. That same year she played the flirty Arabella Bishop in Captain Blood, the first of eight films that would see her paired with Errol Flynn. 

Olivia de Havilland and Errol Flynn in The Adventures of Robin Hood.

The chemistry between the two stars was palpable and they remain one of the great screen duos from the glory days of Hollywood. Perhaps their best vehicle was The Adventures of Robin Hood in which Olivia played the regal Maid Marion who helps Robin Hood and his Merry Men, all in glorious Technicolor.

As Melanie Hamilton Wilkes in Gone With the Wind.

But it was her role as the caring Melanie Hamilton Wilkes in Gone With the Wind in 1939 that would make her a film legend. Olivia gave just the right amount of compassion and steely determination to the seemingly milk toast Melanie. And when Vivien Leigh couldn’t produce the appropriate retching sounds in the “As God as my Witness” scene, Olivia dubbed the noises. She wound up with an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actress but lost out to co-star Hattie McDaniel. She would later say, "Hattie deserved it and she got it. I thought I'd much rather live in a world where a black actress who gave a marvelous performance got the award instead of me. I'd rather live in that kind of world." 

In the 1940s, frustrated with the parts given her by Warner Bros, she began to reject scripts. The studio countered with suspending her, which caused her contract to be extended, a common practice at the time. Olivia decided to stand up to the studios and with the backing of the Screen Actor’s Guild filed a lawsuit in 1943. The following year she won and what became known as the de Havilland Law was enacted, which states that a personal service contract is for seven consecutive calendar years. This landmark decision changed the stronghold the studios had on its stars and allowed them more artistic freedom. The law is still helping artists today.

De Havilland’s roles started to improve and she was finally rewarded for her acting abilities. She not only took home two Academy Awards for best actress for To Each His Own (1946) and The Heiress (1949) but won acclaim for her nominated role as a woman who finds herself in a state insane asylum in The Snake Pit (1948), one of the first films to shine a light on the conditions in asylums.

Olivia’s talents extended beyond the big screen to both stage and television, and she even authored a humorous account of her experience living in France, where she moved in the 1950s, in Every Frenchman Has One, published in 1962.

Today she lives quietly in Paris, a shining example of a true classic Hollywood star. Happy Birthday Olivia.

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