Olivia de Havilland: Hollywood grande dame to celebrate 100th birthday

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Oscar-winning actress Olivia de Havilland was born July 1, 1916

The "Gone With the Wind" star is one of the last survivors of Hollywood's golden era

CNN  — 

She was pretty and demure, and usually played sympathetic heroines with ladylike airs in a movie career that spanned three decades.

But off-screen she was a fighter, maneuvering for challenging roles and winning a tough legal battle against a major studio, a victory that still resonates in Hollywood 70 years later.

This Friday, Olivia de Havilland proves once again she’s no ordinary Hollywood survivor. The Oscar-winning actress is celebrating her 100th birthday as the last surviving female superstar from the golden era of movies. Her chief male competitor, Kirk Douglas, will join the centenarian club in December, but de Havilland made her screen debut more than 10 years before him.

She first became famous as a damsel in distress opposite Errol Flynn in swashbuckling epics such as “Captain Blood” (1935) and “The Adventures of Robin Hood” (1938).

Her most enduring role came in “Gone With the Wind” (1939), still Hollywood’s top moneymaking film when adjusted for inflation. Her sweet and gentle Melanie Wilkes seemed too good to be true, but she held her own against the fiery Scarlett O’Hara.

De Havilland won two Academy Awards for best actress – for “To Each His Own” (1946) and “The Heiress” (1949) – after breaking free from what she considered the unworthy parts being offered to her at Warner Bros. She successfully sued the studio in 1943 after it tried to extend her seven-year contract. Under the old contract system, studios wielded enormous power over actors, forcing them to take roles and suspending them without pay if they refused.

De Havilland’s case helped shift the power from the big studios of that era to the mega-celebrities and powerful talent agencies of today, and it remains a cornerstone of entertainment law.

The Hollywood grande dame has lived in Paris for six decades and outlasted most of her contemporaries, including her younger sister, actress Joan Fontaine, with whom she had a notoriously testy relationship.

In an interview last year for a recent Vanity Fair profile, writer William Stadiem remarked of de Havilland: “Her face is unlined, her eyes sparkling, her fabled contralto soaring … her memory photographic. She could easily pass for someone decades younger.”

To see this classic movie star in action, you can tune in to Turner Classic Movies on Friday nights in July. TCM, a Time Warner company like CNN, has named de Havilland its star of the month.