“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 both 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 US Supreme Court rejected her request to review that decision.
An illustrious career
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, recognising her lifetime achievements and contributions to American culture.
In June 2017, she became the oldest woman recipient ever to be made a British Dame.
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.
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.”
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 from the garden. Then de Havilland would make the noise, to the delight of those listening.
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