Olivia de Havilland represented a throwback to a bygone era, one of the last vestiges of Hollywood during its glamorous golden age. On screen, her characters held their own opposite Scarlett O’Hara and Robin Hood, appearing in black and white and florid color.
Although she was a beautiful, often demure personality in movies, de Havilland exhibited a grit offscreen that might have helped explain her longevity, dying decades after many of her co-stars, at the age of 104.
As if to punctuate that point, the actress sued the FX network production of “Feud: Bette and Joan,” a series devoted to Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, for its depiction of her as a supporting player, making clear that even as a centenarian, she was not someone with which to trifle.
De Havilland, famously, had gone to court to protect her rights before, suing Warner Bros. – at the height of her career – after the studio suspended her for demanding more substantial roles and rejecting scripts. Sidelined for the duration of the lawsuit, de Havilland won the case, and in the process struck a blow for the freedom of actors that had been bound by the strictures of the studio system.
Born in Japan to British parents, de Havilland moved to California as a child and was noticed in a school play by the director Max Reinhardt, who cast her in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” (Her sister, Joan Fontaine, also became a famous actress, although their relationship was notoriously stormy.)
De Havilland was still in her teens when she stunningly arrived on screen opposite the swashbuckling Errol Flynn, co-starring in “Captain Blood” in 1935 before playing Maid Marian in “The Adventures of Robin Hood” three years later.
The next year, Warner Bros. – with whom she had signed a seven-year contract – loaned her to producer David O. Selznick to portray the kindly Melanie in “Gone With the Wind,” losing out on an Oscar for best supporting actress to her history-making African-American co-star, Hattie McDaniel.
After her court victory, de Havilland embarked on a varied series of roles in the 1940s that established her as more than an ingenue and great beauty. She won an Oscar in 1946 for “To Each His Own,” followed by playing a mental patient in “The Snake Pit,” then earned another Academy Award for her performance as an unassuming woman courted for her fortune by an ambitious suitor, played by Montgomery Clift, in “The Heiress.”
In the 1950s, de Havilland’s film career slowed to a trickle, though she continued to appear on stage and TV, and in the movie “Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte.” Her last roles were in TV movies in the late 1980s, and she eventually retired quietly to France.
Throughout her career, de Havilland exhibited a quiet grace and strength, even when cast in what amounted to damsel-in-distress roles. All told, she and Flynn would co-star in eight movies, serving as a virtual model for dashing romance that has survived across the decades. (De Havilland spoke about their relationship, and some of her other Hollywood dalliances, in a People magazine interview that coincided with her 100th birthday.)
In an 2015 interview with Entertainment Weekly, de Havilliand said watching “Gone With the Wind” didn’t make her sad, even though all of her co-stars were gone. “When I see them vibrantly alive on screen, I experience a kind of reunion with them, a joyful one,” she said.
While de Havilland’s long life might be over, her storied career will stay, as she so eloquently put it, vibrantly and joyfully alive.