The Survivors of Old Hollywood: Olivia de Havilland

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Am I the only one who just recently learned that this woman is still alive? I knew her sister Joan Fontaine was but I was amazed to learn this woman still survivors at the stunning age of 94. Fontaine and her are one of the last living leading ladies of the 1930’s. She is also the last surviving main cast member of Gone with the Wind (1939).

She was born on July 1, 1916 in Tokyo, Japan to British parents. Her mother was an actress (her professional name being Lillian Fontaine) and her father was a patent attorney. De Havilland and Fontaine have heavily feuded for years and altogether stopped speaking since 1975.

Her film debut was A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935). That same year she starred in Alibi Ike with Joe E. Brown and The Irish in Us with James Cagney. She started with Errol Flynn in eight films including hits such as Captain Blood (1935), The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936), and The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). In Gone with the Wind she’s plays Melanie Hamilton Wilkes in which she received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress.¬†

Over the following years, she was quickly becoming aggravated with her frequent typecasting of a “damsel in distress” and soon began refusing roles of this nature. Following suit of Bette Davis’s unsuccessful lawsuit against Warner Bros. in the 30’s, De Havilland (supported by the Screen Actors Guild) sued the studio and won for (source: Wikipedia) “the law then allowed for studios to suspend contract players for rejecting a role and the period of suspension to be added to the contract period. In theory, this allowed a studio to maintain indefinite control over an uncooperative contractee.” Which gained De Havilland great recognition and adoration among her fellow actors.

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Unfortunately though, Warner Brothers never hired her again, even suspended the release of a Hollywoodized (very much sensationalized) bio on the Bronte sisters Devotion (1946). In rebuttal, she signed a three-year contract with Paramount Studios. After this decision, she quickly found the diversity she yearned for in her career. First realized in the 1946 thriller The Dark Mirror. That same year she won the Academy Award for Best Actress for To Each His Own (1946). Again she won the statue for The Heiress (1949). 

Most consider The Snake Pit (1948) to be her finest performance (she received an Oscar nod, losing to Jane Wyman for Johnny Belinda (1948)). It is often cited as the first realistic portrayal of Mental Illness in a Hollywood film.

After the 1950’s, her film appearances soon decreased. Her most notables roles were the psycho-biddies (films depicting older women in peril) Lady in a Cage (1964) and Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964) (Replacing Joan Crawford, which was supposed to reunite Bette Davis and her but Crawford dropped out for unspoken, obvious feuding reasons with Davis after Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)). In 1965 she was the first woman to oversee a Canes Jury. She kept on acting until the late 70’s, switching over to television until the late 80’s.

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Despite rumors, Errol Flynn and her never pursued a romantic relationship. Although Flynn admitted having had a crush on her, as she did at one point. Supposedly he proposed to her but she turned him down since he was still married at the time to Lili Damita. De Havilland married author Marcus Goodrich in 1946 and they divorced in 1953. They had a son Benjamin, who went on to become a mathematician but died from Hodgkin’s lynphoma in 1991. She was married to the Paris Match editor Pierre Galante from 1955 to 1979. They’re daughter Giselle (born in 1956) became a journalist.

De Havilland rarely makes public appearances. She was supposed to be finished with an autobiography in September 2009, but the book has ceased to appear. She was a presenter at the 75th Academy Awards in 2003. She narrated the 2009 documentary I Remember Better When I Paint which is about how much art helps with the treatment of Alzheimer’s. On March 22, 2011, she presented the film at a special screening in Paris.

She is a special part of Hollywood history that I am so thankful is still alive. I hope she is living a wonderful life and will remain happy for hopefully many more years to come. I encourage everyone to watch her very colorful filmography while cherishing her remaining years on Earth. Nonetheless as well, long after she may leave.

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So if any of you have a survivor in mind from the golden age of film (actor, actress, director, screenwriter, producer, etc.) you would like me to feature. Please just let me know and I would be pleased to write up about them.