Hand color tinted photo of Olivia de Havilland from the 1935 movie, Captain Blood
Olivia Mary de Havilland (born July 1, 1916) is a British American actress known for her early ingenue roles, as well as her later more substantial roles. Born in Tokyo to British parents, de Havilland and her younger sister, actress Joan Fontaine, moved to California in 1919. She is best known for her performance as Melanie Hamilton in Gone with the Wind (1939), and her eight co-starring roles opposite Errol Flynn, including The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Dodge City (1939), Santa Fe Trail (1940), and They Died with Their Boots On (1941). She is one of the last living actors/actresses from the Golden Age of Hollywood.
De Havilland won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her performances in To Each His Own (1946) and The Heiress (1949); de Havilland and sister Fontaine are the only siblings to have won lead acting Academy Awards. She also received the National Board of Review Award, the New York Film Critics Circle Award, the Italian National Syndicate of Film Journalists Silver Ribbon, and the Venice Film Festival Volpi Cup for her performance in The Snake Pit (1948). She was awarded the Golden Globe Award for her performance in The Heiress in 1950 and for Anastasia: The Mystery of Anna in 1987. In 1960, she was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for her work in films. In 2008, she was presented with the National Medal of Arts by President George W. Bush.
Olivia de Havilland was born on July 1, 1916, in Tokyo, Japan, to parents from the United Kingdom. Her father, Walter Augustus de Havilland (August 31, 1872 – May 23, 1968), was educated at the University of Cambridge and served as an English professor at the Imperial University in Tokyo before becoming a patent attorney with a practice in Japan. Her mother, Lilian Augusta (née Ruse; June 11, 1886 – February 20, 1975), was educated at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London and became a stage actress who left her career after going to Tokyo with her husband. Her mother would return to work with the stage name Lillian Fontaine after her daughters achieved fame in the 1940s. Olivia’s paternal cousin was Sir Geoffrey de Havilland (1882–1965), an aircraft designer, notably of the De Havilland Mosquito, and founder of the aircraft company which bore his name. Her paternal grandfather, the Reverend Charles Richard de Havilland, was from a family from Guernsey, in the Channel Islands.
De Havilland’s parents married in 1914, but the marriage was not a happy one due to her father’s infidelities. Her younger sister, Joan de Havilland (later known as future actress Joan Fontaine), was born on October 22, 1917. In February 1919, Lillian persuaded her husband to take the family back to England to a climate better suited for their ailing daughters. The family stopped in California to treat Olivia’s bronchial condition and high temperature. After Joan developed pneumonia, Lillian decided to remain with her daughters in California, where they settled in the village of Saratoga, about 50 miles south of San Francisco. Her father abandoned the family and returned to his Japanese housekeeper, who would eventually become his second wife. Her parents’ divorce was not finalized until February 1925.
Although she left the acting profession, Lillian taught her daughters to appreciate the arts, reading Shakespeare to her children. She also taught them music and elocution. In April 1925, after her divorce was finalized, Lillian remarried, this time to a department store owner named George M. Fontaine, whose strict parenting soon generated animosity in his new stepdaughters. Only a year apart, the sisters also developed a rivalry between themselves that would last throughout their lives.
De Havilland was educated at Saratoga Grammar School, the Notre Dame High School in Belmont, and Los Gatos High School. In high school, she excelled in oratory and field hockey and participated in the school drama club. In 1933, she made her debut in amateur theatre in the lead role in Alice in Wonderland, a production of the Saratoga Community Players based on the work of Lewis Carroll. She would later remember:
For the first time I had the magic experience of feeling possessed by the character I was playing. I really felt I was Alice and that when I moved across the stage, I was actually moving in Alice’s enchanted wonderland. And so for the first time I felt not only pleasure in acting but love for acting as well.
After graduating high school in 1934, de Havilland was offered the role of Puck in the Saratoga Community Theater production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. That summer, Austrian director Max Reinhardt came to California for a major new production of the same play at the Hollywood Bowl. After one of Reinhardt’s assistants saw Olivia perform in the Saratoga production, he offered her the understudy position for the role of Hermia. One week before the premiere, the actress playing Hermia left to take a part in a film, and de Havilland took her place. After receiving positive reviews, she went on to play Hermia through the entire engagement, as well as the four-week tour that followed. During the tour, Reinhardt received word that he would direct the Warner Bros. film version of his stage production, and he offered de Havilland the film role of Hermia. Wanting to become an English teacher, she was going to matriculate at Mills College with a scholarship in the fall but Reinhardt persuaded her to accept. Soon after, the 18-year-old actress signed a seven-year contract with Warner Bros.
De Havilland made her screen debut in Max Reinhardt’s film A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which was released in October 1935, following the release of her second and third films, Alibi Ike with Joe E. Brown and The Irish in Us with James Cagney, respectively. All three films received mixed reviews and disappointing public response. At this point, Warner Bros. made a decision that would have a profound impact on her career, pairing her with an unknown Tasmanian actor named Errol Flynn in Captain Blood (1935). The casting of de Havilland was due to producer Hal B. Wallis wanting to showcase his “protege”. The popular success of the film, as well as the critical response to the on-screen couple, led to seven additional collaborations, including The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Dodge City (1939), Santa Fe Trail (1940), and They Died with Their Boots On (1941).
Throughout the late 1930s, de Havilland appeared in a variety of light romantic comedy films, including Call It a Day (1937), Four’s a Crowd (1938), and Hard to Get (1938), as well as period films such as Anthony Adverse (1936) and The Great Garrick (1937). Her refined demeanor and beautiful diction made her particularly effective in the latter films. While her performances were generally well received by critics and the public, they did not advance her career toward the more serious roles she desired. One such role was the character of Melanie Hamilton in David O. Selznick’s upcoming film adaptation of Margaret Mitchell’s epic novel Gone with the Wind. Having read the novel, de Havilland knew she could bring the character to life on the screen. According to some sources, her sister Joan Fontaine was approached by director George Cukor to audition for the role. Interested more in playing Scarlett O’Hara, Fontaine reportedly turned him down, recommending her sister. Ultimately, Jack Warner’s wife Ann was instrumental in de Havilland getting the part. She went on to play Melanie Hamilton in Gone with the Wind (1939) and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her performance.
On November 28, 1941, de Havilland became a naturalized citizen of the United States.
Following the critical acclaim she received for her performance in Gone with the Wind, de Havilland sought more serious and challenging roles, but was not supported in her efforts by Warner Bros. After receiving third billing in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939) starring Bette Davis and Errol Flynn, she was loaned out to Samuel Goldwyn for the crime drama Raffles (1939), and then assigned to the light musical comedy My Love Came Back (1940). Throughout the early 1940s, de Havilland was becoming increasingly frustrated by the roles assigned to her, which she felt were unchallenging and insubstantial. Feeling she had proven herself capable of playing more than the demure ingénues and damsels in distress that were typecasting her, she began to reject scripts that offered her this type of role and actively sought out better roles. She concluded her long series of popular films with Errol Flynn with Santa Fe Trail (1940) and They Died with Their Boots On (1941), which contained some of their most telling scenes together. Other highlights from this period include The Strawberry Blonde (1941) with James Cagney, Hold Back the Dawn (1941) with Charles Boyer for which she received fine reviews, and Princess O’Rourke (1943), which she considered one of the few truly satisfying characters she played for Warner Bros. In 1942, de Havilland received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress for her performance in Hold Back the Dawn.
After fulfilling her seven-year Warner Bros. contract with The Male Animal (1942), In This Our Life (1942), Government Girl (1944), and Devotion (1946), her last Warner Bros. film completed in 1943 and released in 1946, de Havilland was informed that six months had been added to her contract for times she had been on suspension. The law then allowed studios to suspend contract players for rejecting a role, and the period of suspension could be added to the contract period. Most contract players accepted this, but a few tried to change the system, including Bette Davis who mounted an unsuccessful lawsuit against Warner Bros. in the 1930s. In August 1943, on the advice of her lawyer, de Havilland took Warner Bros. to court and was supported by the Screen Actors Guild. The Supreme Court of California ruled in her favor (case #487, 685). The decision was one of the most significant and far-reaching legal rulings in Hollywood, reducing the power of the studios and extending greater creative freedom to performers. California’s resulting “seven-year rule”, also known as Labor Code Section 2855, is still known today as the De Havilland Law. Her legal victory won de Havilland the respect and admiration of her peers, among them her own sister Joan Fontaine, who later commented, “Hollywood owes Olivia a great deal”. Warner Bros. reacted to the decision by circulating a letter to other studios that had the effect of a “virtual blacklisting”. As a consequence, de Havilland did not work in a film studio for two years.
Following the release of Devotion—a highly fictionalized biography of the Brontë sisters filmed in 1943 but withheld from release during the suspension and litigation—de Havilland signed a three picture deal with Paramount Pictures. The quality and variety of her roles began to improve. In his review of The Dark Mirror (1946), James Agee noted the change, writing that although she had always been “one of the prettiest women in movies”, her recent performances had proven her acting ability. He also noted that while not possessing “any remarkable talent”, her performances are “thoughtful, quiet, detailed, and well sustained”. Agee concluded that her acting is “founded, as some more talented playing is not, in an unusually healthful-seeming and likable temperament, it is an undivided pleasure to see”. De Havilland received the Academy Award for Best Actress for her performances in To Each His Own (1946) and The Heiress (1949), and was also widely praised for her Academy Award–nominated performance in The Snake Pit (1948), one of the earliest films to attempt a realistic portrayal of mental illness and an “historically important Hollywood exposé of the grim conditions in state mental hospitals”. De Havilland was lauded for her willingness to play a role that was completely devoid of glamor and that confronted such controversial subject matter. She won the New York Film Critics Award for both The Snake Pit and The Heiress.
During this era, she was politically a staunch liberal, campaigning for Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman. In 1946, determined to protect liberalism from infiltration by communists, she provoked a highly publicized row: concerned about reports of Stalinist atrocities, de Havilland removed pro-Communist material from speeches prepared for her by the Independent Citizens’ Committee of the Arts, Sciences and Professions, a group later identified as a communist front organization. She became concerned that the liberal membership of the Independent Citizens’ Committee was being manipulated by a small group of communists in leadership positions and that their pro-Soviet statements were damaging the election chances of the Democrats in the 1946 mid-term elections. She organized a fight to regain control of the committee and upon failing, she resigned, triggering a wave of resignations from other Hollywood figures, including her own star recruit to the reform camp, Ronald Reagan, whose political trajectory after 1952 would be far more dramatic. Despite galvanising Hollywood resistance to Soviet influence, de Havilland was denounced that same year (along with Danny Kaye, Fredric March and Edward G. Robinson) as a “swimming pool pink” in Time Magazine. Due to her vocal liberal activism, she was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1958 yet her career survived.
De Havilland appeared sporadically in films after the 1950s and attributed this partly to the growing permissiveness of Hollywood films of the period. She declined the role of Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire, allegedly citing the unsavory nature of some elements of the script and saying there were certain lines she could not allow herself to speak. De Havilland denied this in a 2006 interview, saying she had declined the role due to having a small son at home to care for. The role went to her Gone with the Wind co-star, Vivien Leigh, who won her second Academy Award for her role.
Of her few film appearances in the 1960s, chiefly notable are de Havilland’s role in Lady in a Cage (1964) as a crippled widow trapped in a lift and terrorised by intruders, Robert Aldrich’s Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte, and Sam Peckinpah’s TV film of Katherine Anne Porter’s novella Noon Wine (1966). In 1965, de Havilland was the first woman to preside over a Cannes jury.
She was the subject of This Is Your Life in April 1964 when she was surprised by Eamonn Andrews in central London.
She continued acting on film until the late 1970s, afterward continuing her career on television until the late 1980s, highlighted by her Golden Globe win and Emmy Award nomination for her performance as the Dowager Empress Maria in the 1986 miniseries Anastasia: The Mystery of Anna. In 2008, she was awarded the United States National Medal of Arts.
Although known as one of Hollywood’s most exciting on-screen couples—having appeared in eight films together—de Havilland and Errol Flynn were never linked romantically. The eight films in which they co-starred are Captain Blood (1935), The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936), The Adventures of Robin Hood and Four’s a Crowd (1938), Dodge City and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939), Santa Fe Trail (1940) and They Died with Their Boots On (1941). Of her feelings for her co-star, de Havilland once observed:
He never guessed I had a crush on him. And it didn’t get better either. In fact, I read in something that he wrote that he was in love with me when we made The Charge of the Light Brigade the next year, in 1936. I was amazed to read that, for it never occurred to me that he was smitten with me, too, even though we did all those pictures together.
In another interview, however, de Havilland claimed she knew the crush was reciprocal and stated that Flynn proposed, though de Havilland turned down the proposal as Flynn was still married to actress Lili Damita at the time. From December 1939 to March 1942, she was romantically involved with single actor James Stewart. At the request of Irene Mayer Selznick, the actor’s agent asked Stewart to escort de Havilland to the New York premiere of Gone with the Wind at the Astor Theater on December 19, 1939. Over the next few days, Stewart took her to the theater several times and to the 21 Club. They continued to see each other back in Los Angeles, where Stewart provided occasional flying lessons and romance. According to de Havilland, Stewart in fact proposed marriage to her in 1940, but she felt that he was not ready to settle down. Their relationship was interrupted by Stewart’s military enlistment in March 1941, but would continue on and off until March 1942, when de Havilland fell in love with director John Huston.
Marcus Goodrich, a Navy veteran, author and screenwriter, married de Havilland on January 24, 1946. They had one child, Benjamin Goodrich. Benjamin was born on December 1, 1949, and died on October 1, 1991 (aged 41), of cancer, three weeks before his father. Goodrich and de Havilland were divorced in 1952.
Pierre Galante, a journalist and editor of Paris Match, married de Havilland on April 2, 1955. They had one child, Gisèle Galante, who was born on July 18, 1956 (age 57). It was this marriage that prompted de Havilland to move to Paris and her adjustments to life there were recounted in her memoir, Every Frenchman Has One. The couple separated in 1962, but did not divorce until 1979.
De Havilland was lifelong best friends with Bette Davis with whom she starred in Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964), The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939), It’s Love I’m After (1937), and In This Our Life (1942). She remained a close friend of actress Gloria Stuart until Stuart’s death in 2010, at the age of 100. In April 2008, she attended the Los Angeles funeral of Charlton Heston. In 2008, she was a surprise guest at the centennial tribute to Bette Davis.
Olivia de Havilland and her sister, Joan Fontaine, are the only siblings to have won lead acting Academy Awards. Of the two sisters, de Havilland was the first to become an actress; when Fontaine tried to follow her lead, their mother, who allegedly favoured de Havilland, refused to let her use the family name. Subsequently, Fontaine was forced to invent a name, taking first Joan Burfield, and later Joan Fontaine. Biographer Charles Higham records that the sisters always had an uneasy relationship, starting in early childhood when de Havilland would rip up the clothes Fontaine had to wear as hand-me-downs, forcing Fontaine to sew them back together. A large part of the resentment between the sisters allegedly stemmed from Fontaine’s belief that de Havilland was their mother’s favorite child.
Havilland and Fontaine were nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress in 1942. Fontaine won that year for her role in Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion over de Havilland’s performance in Hold Back the Dawn. Charles Higham states that Fontaine “felt guilty about winning given her lack of obsessive career drive”. Higham has described the events of the awards ceremony, stating that as Fontaine stepped forward to collect her award, she pointedly rejected de Havilland’s attempts at congratulating her and that de Havilland was both offended and embarrassed by her behavior. Several years later, de Havilland remembered the slight and exacted her own revenge by brushing past Fontaine, who was waiting with her hand extended, because de Havilland allegedly took offense at a comment Fontaine had made about de Havilland’s husband. De Havilland’s relationship with Fontaine continued to deteriorate after the two incidents. Charles Higham has stated that this was almost the last straw in establishing what became a lifelong feud, but the sisters did not completely stop speaking to each other until 1975. According to Fontaine, de Havilland did not invite her to a memorial service for their mother, who had recently died. De Havilland claims she informed Fontaine, but Fontaine brushed her off, claiming she was too busy to attend.
Biographer Charles Higham records that Fontaine had an estranged relationship with her own daughters as well, possibly because she discovered that they were secretly maintaining a relationship with de Havilland. Both sisters refused to comment publicly about their relationship. In a 1979 interview, Fontaine claimed the reason the sisters stopped speaking was that de Havilland wanted their mother (who was suffering from cancer) to be treated surgically, at the advanced age of 88, which Joan apparently did not think was a good idea. Fontaine claimed that after their mother, Lillian Fontaine (née Lilian Augusta Ruse; formerly Mrs. de Havilland) died, Olivia did not bother to try to find out where she could be reached (Fontaine was on tour in a play). Instead, de Havilland sent a telegram, which did not arrive until two weeks later at Fontaine’s next stop.
The sisterly feud lasted until the death of Joan Fontaine in December 2013. Determined to have the last word on the matter, Fontaine once noted, “I married first, won the Oscar before Olivia did, and if I die first, she’ll undoubtedly be livid because I beat her to it!”
After Fontaine’s death, de Havilland released a statement saying she was “shocked and saddened” by the news.