British Icon of the Week: Dame Olivia de Havilland, the Actress Who Took on the Hollywood Studio System and WonJuly 2, 2020
Dame Olivia de Havilland, who's just turned 104 years old this week, is one of the last surviving stars from Hollywood's golden age. Though she's probably best known for her role in Gone with the Wind, the epic 1939 movie which has been heavily criticized for its depiction of Black characters and now streams on HBO Max with a disclaimer explaining that it "denies the horrors of slavery," the British-American actress has actually appeared in nearly 50 other films.
De Havilland has lived in Paris since the '50s and though she still grants the occasional interview, she's always maintained her privacy and movie star mystique. As she celebrates another milestone birthday, here are a few things you might not know about this genuine Hollywood legend.
1. She was born in Tokyo in 1916, the daughter of Walter de Havilland, an English professor at the city's Imperial University, and Lilian Fontaine, a British stage actress.
However, both de Havilland and her sister Joan Fontaine suffered from poor health as children, so their mother decided to raise them in Saratoga, CA, because she felt the warmer Californian climate would be good for them.
2. Her difficult relationship with Joan Fontaine, who also became an acclaimed actress, has been called "Hollywood's most notorious sibling rivalry."
Their strained relationship has been much discussed over the years – though rarely by de Havilland herself. According to a 1984 biography by Charles Higham, a pivotal moment came when both sisters were nominated for Best Actress at the Oscars in 1942. Fontaine won, but when de Havilland tried to congratulate her, she was reportedly snubbed by her sister and left feeling "offended and embarrassed."
The two sisters are believed to have fallen out for good in 1975 following disagreements over their mother's cancer treatment. Still, when Fontaine passed away in December 2013, de Havilland released a gracious statement saying she was "shocked and saddened" by the news and grateful for "the many kind expressions of sympathies."
3. She won two Oscars – from five nominations.
De Havilland won her first Oscar for 1946's To Each Our Own, in which she plays a woman forced to give up her newborn son after becoming pregnant out of wedlock. She won her second for 1949's The Heiress, in which she plays a wealthy young woman wooed by a man (Montgomery Clift) her family suspects of being a gold-digger.
4. She made nine movies over the years with Errol Flynn.
The two Hollywood greats were often rumored to have been lovers, though de Havilland has always denied this. She told The Independent in 2009 that "nothing did ever happen between us," but added: "What I felt for Errol Flynn was not a trivial matter at all. I felt terribly attracted to him. And do you know, I still feel it. I still feel very close to him to this day."
5. She took on the Hollywood studio system... and won.
In 1943, de Havilland sued Warner Bros. for adding six months to her seven-year contract for times she had been "suspended" for rejecting roles. Most actors under contract accepted this kind of treatment begrudgingly, but de Havilland asked the courts to declare that her contract had been fulfilled after the original seven years. Around 18 months later, in what was known as the "de Havilland decision," the California Court of Appeal ruled in her favor, freeing de Havilland from her contract and reducing the power of the Hollywood studios forever.
Recalling the lawsuit in 2009, de Havilland said: "Everyone in Hollywood knew that I would lose but I knew that I would win. I had read the law. I knew what the studios were doing was wrong."
6. More recently, she filed a lawsuit against FX Networks and Ryan Murphy over her depiction in the miniseries Feud: Bette and Joan.
De Havilland was portrayed in the miniseries by Catherine Zeta-Jones as a gossipy confidante of Susan Sarandon's Bette Davis. According to the BBC, de Havilland alleged that the show's characterization of her damaged her "professional reputation for integrity, honesty, generosity, self-sacrifice, and dignity." However, she lost her case when a California appeals court ruled that under the First Amendment, she had no right to control the way she is portrayed on screen.
7. In 1965, she became the first woman ever to serve as president of the Cannes Film Festival jury.
Recalling the experience in 2017, de Havilland told Variety that though she was initially intimidated, she "did enjoy presiding over a committee entirely composed of men."
8. She made her final screen appearance in the 1988 British TV drama The Woman He Loved.
Two years earlier, she'd won a Golden Globe Award for her performance as Maria, Empress of Russia in the American TV biopic Anastasia: The Mystery of Anna.
A little more recently, she received a lengthy standing ovation when she appeared as a presenter at the 2003 Oscars.
9. She now lives in a luxury hotel suite in the 16th arrondissement of Paris.
According to a 2018 L.A. Times feature, de Havilland is no longer allowed her nightly glass of champagne "on doctor's orders," but she still treats herself to a glass a week. The profile notes that she also enjoys spending time in the hotel's roof garden which has a view of the Eiffel Tower.
10. She's the oldest woman ever to receive a Damehood.
Queen Elizabeth made de Havilland a Dame in recognition of her "services to drama" in June 2017 – just two weeks before her 101st birthday. The actress told The Guardian at the time: "To receive this honor as my 101st birthday approaches is the most gratifying of birthday presents.”
Do you have a favorite movie featuring Dame Olivia de Havilland?