Click here to subscribe to the
free Classic Movies Weekly
What strikes me as most ironic about the career of Olivia de Havilland is that even though she was known for playing characters who could usually be described as "pleasant" and "endearing," it was she who sued Warner Brothers in 1943 and essentially broke the studio system that kept actors and actresses in virtual slavery to companies like WB. She should be applauded if only for that.
But, of course, there's much more. Olivia earned five Academy Award nominations and two Best Actress Oscars, for To Each His Own (1946) and The Heiress (1949). Her first Best Actress nomination came for Hold Back the Dawn (1941), but she lost to her younger sister, Joan Fontaine. Her first nomination of any kind came for her supporting role in Gone With the Wind in 1939, and it is probably for that performance, as Melanie, that she is most remembered.
She was born in Tokyo as Olivia Mary De Havilland on July 1, 1916. Her parents were British. Her sister, Joan Fontaine, was born a year later. After her parents divorced when she was very young, she moved to Los Angeles. Growing up there convinced both her and her sister to pursue acting careers, and Olivia was discovered after appearing in a performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream in college. That eventually led to the WB film version of the Shakespeare play in 1935, after which she signed a seven-year contract with the studio. She co-starred with Errol Flynn in several films, including Captain Blood. In 1939, she convinced David Selznick to give her the part of Melanie in Gone With The Wind, and then convinced Warner Brothers to loan her out to them. It proved to be a smart decision on all parts.
Following another Oscar nomination, Olivia asked WB for better parts, but instead they placed her on a six-month suspension. Later, when the contract expired, Warner said it would have to be extended to make up for that time. She sued and won. The court also said that all contracts with performers had to be limited to seven years, which became known as the De Havilland Law. It didn't hurt her career any, and the 1940s were very good for her. However, after 1952, she concentrated more on Broadway and TV. The Fifth Musketeer (1979) was her final film. Today she lives in Paris, where she has been since the mid-50s. She had kept a low profile until June 15, 2006 when she took part in a special tribute in her honor in Hollywood by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Part I: Introduction
Part III: Movie Reviews & Where to Find Her Movies
Part IV: Photos, Art, and Posters
Select A Tribute Article