13 Things You Didn't Know About Olivia de Havilland
There’s much, much more to her than Gone with the Wind.
Olivia de Havilland may be best known to Southerners for her role playing the demure-yet-tough belle, Melanie Wilkes in the 1939 epic Gone With the Wind, but the 102-year old actress has a long, storied, and iconic history in Hollywood.
Here are few things you may not realize about the much-beloved, two-time Oscar winner—and they are well worth knowing:
She was born in Tokyo
De Havilland was born in Japan on July 1, 1916, to British parents. Her father, Walter de Havilland, was a patent lawyer, while her mother, Lillian Ruse, was an actress who also taught choral music. She will be turning 103 in 2019.
She got her start in community theater
The family moved to Northern California when de Havilland was still young but already dreaming of stardom. She got her first role in Alice in Wonderland in a 1933 community theater production.
She turned down a college scholarship to pursue acting
She won a scholarship to attend Mills College in Oakland, California, but turned it down to follow her dreams. She made her stage debut as Hermia in in Max Reinhardt's staging of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" at the Hollywood Bowl, appearing with Mickey Rooney.
She made her acting debut in 1934 with a Shakespearean role
After she made her film debut in Warner Bros’ adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, de Havilland signed a long-term contract with the studio in 1934 with a starting salary of $200 a week.
Her sister was famous, too
Her sister was just as famous. De Havilland was just 15 months old when her sister Joan Fontaine came along. While some close-in-age sisters find themselves with a best friend, Joan and Olivia were apparently born rivals. Not only did they compete for their parents’ affection, but they competed for movie roles during Hollywood's Golden Age.
Both sisters were up for an Academy Award at the same time and in the same category
De Havilland was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance in Hold Back the Dawn, but lost to her sister, Joan Fontaine, who took home the Oscar for her work in Suspicion. This did not help their rivalry.
Errol Flynn was her six-time “Hollywood husband”
She made six films with Errol Flynn. After starring with each other in the swashbuckler Captain Blood (1935), they went on to star in seven more films, including The Adventures of Robin Hood and became one of Hollywood’s most popular on-screen couples along the way.
She had to fight to play her role in Gone with the Wind
But not physically! She had to engage in a little subterfuge to get her role in Gone with the Wind. Since de Havilland was under contract with Warner Bros, she couldn’t work with other studios unless they agreed. When she begged them to play Melanie in George Cukor’s sweeping Southern drama, which was being made by rival studio MGM, Warner Bros. said no. De Havilland didn’t give up, though. According to The L.A. Times, De Havilland called up the wife of the studio boss, invited her to tea, and got her to agree to help convince Warner Bros to let her do the part. It worked.
There’s a law named after her
She sued Hollywood and won. De Havilland desperately wanted out of her contract with Warner Bros. but the studio’s contract was weighed heavily in their favor. So in 1943, de Havilland took them to court, was backed by the Screen Actors Guild, and the battle went all the way up to the Supreme Court of California, which ultimately ruled in her favor by deciding that contracts had to be restricted to seven calendar years of service. The lawsuit against Warner Bros. resulted in the collapse of the binding long-term contract system, which had plagued Hollywood for years, and now the De Havilland Law is still in effect.
She has won many, many awards
After leaving Warner, de Havilland earned her first Oscar in 1947 playing an unwed teenage mother in 1946’s romantic drama “To Each His Own.” Over the course of her career, she received five Academy Award nominations, which lead to two wins and one Emmy nomination.
She is a published author
That’s right, she is also an author. Her book Every Frenchman Has One, her memoir on French culture and tradition, was published in 1962.
She received accolades from more than one world leader
In 2008, she received the National Medal of Arts at a White House ceremony attended by U.S. President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush. She was also appointed a chevalier of France’s Legion of Honour in 2010. Not to be outdone, in 2017, Queen Elizabeth II made de Havilland a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire, becoming the oldest person ever to receive the nominal merit.
She is currently suing a TV network
She is suing Ryan Murphy and FX for putting her person in the docu-drama Feud, about the rivalry between de Havilland’s friend Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. While most of us would be flattered to have Catherine Zeta-Jones play us on TV, de Havilland was horrified at the publicity and the portrayal. The case is still ongoing.
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De Havilland may be the last surviving star of Gone with the Wind, but the sweeping Southern tale full of Southern belles and battles will always hold a special place in Southerners' hearts.