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If you like Olivia de Havilland's story, you might also like:
Julie Andrews,
Carol Burnett,
Sally Field,
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Ron Howard,
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Olivia de Havilland can also be seen and heard in our Podcast Center

Olivia de Havilland's recommended reading: Edmund Dulac's Picture Book

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Olivia de Havilland
Olivia de Havilland
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Olivia de Havilland Biography

Legendary Leading Lady

Olivia de Havilland Date of birth: July 1, 1916

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  Olivia de Havilland

Olivia de Havilland Biography Photo
Olivia de Havilland was born in Tokyo, Japan to English parents. Her father, Walter, headed a firm of patent attorneys; her mother, Lilian, a trained singer and actress, was active in the theatrical life of the city's small English community. Her parents separated when she was only two years old, and along with her younger sister, Joan, she was taken by her mother to the United States, where they settled in Saratoga, California, then a small village outside of San José.

After settling in Saratoga, Mrs. de Havilland divorced Olivia's father and eventually married a San José businessman, George Fontaine. Young Olivia quickly took to life in her new world. She excelled in school, editing her high school yearbook and winning awards for public speaking. She was also active in a local theatrical company, playing the title role in their production of Alice in Wonderland, and Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Olivia had graduated from high school and was planning to attend Mills College on scholarship, when she heard that the renowned director Max Reinhardt was planning a massive outdoor production of A Midsummer Night's Dream to play in San Francisco and Los Angeles. A friend arranged for her to audition for Reinhardt's general manager, and she was offered the opportunity to understudy the ingenue role of Hermia. This was an extraordinary opportunity for a novice actress. Reinhardt was the leading international theatrical figure of the early 20th century, famous for his elaborate outdoor spectacles. His Midsummer Night's Dream was to be the largest of all, using the wooded hills above the 25,000-seat Hollywood Bowl to represent Shakespeare's enchanted forest and a full orchestra playing Mendelssohn's celebrated score for the play.

Olivia de Havilland Biography Photo
Olivia traveled to Los Angeles to watch Reinhardt's rehearsals, still planning to attend college in the fall, but when the actress playing Hermia dropped out of the production, 18-year-old Olivia found herself playing the role with a cast of seasoned professionals, in front of all Hollywood. The production was a sensation, and audiences were delighted by the young ingenue with the warm, lilting voice and huge dark eyes. Warner Brothers studios hire Reinhardt to direct a film version of the play, using Warner Brothers contract players, but Reinhardt insisted on retaining Olivia de Havilland as Hermia. The film was a surprising success, and Warner Brothers signed Olivia de Havilland to a seven-year contract, a standard practice in Hollywood at that time.

In her first major role after Midsummer Night's Dream, Olivia de Havilland was paired with an unknown Australian actor, Errol Flynn. The film, Captain Blood, was a swashbuckling costume picture. Audiences were thrilled with the chemistry between the tall blond hero and his petite, brunette leading lady. The film was an enormous success and the studio cast the pair in one picture after another: The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Charge of the Light Brigade, Dodge City, Santa Fe Trail and They Died With Their Boots On, as well as the comedy Four's A Crowd.

Inspired by Olivia's success, her mother and sister joined her in Los Angeles. Adopting her stepfather's surname, Olivia's sister also enjoyed a successful acting career as Joan Fontaine. Their mother also worked intermittently as an actress, using her married name, Lilian Fontaine. At Warner Brothers, Olivia de Havilland became frustrated with the lack of variety in her film roles. In film after film, it seemed, her character's only purpose was to serve as the love interest of the daring hero, but despite her growing popularity, Warner Brothers consistently refused to assign her more interesting fare.

Olivia de Havilland Biography Photo
A breakthrough came when independent producer David Selznick offered her the role of Melanie in Gone With the Wind. Although studio chief Jack Warner initially balked at lending her services to Selznick, he relented when offered to exchange the services of the popular star James Stewart for one picture, in return for those of Olivia de Havilland. De Havilland's performance in Gone With the Wind is one of the highlights of that enduring classic. Her Melanie is both a believable individual and an archetypal embodiment of selfless womanhood. Although she was billed as one of the stars, Selznick did not want her competing with his other star, Vivien Leigh, for a Best Actress Oscar, so he arranged to have de Havilland nominated in the Best Supporting Actress category instead. The award went to Hattie McDaniel for her performance in the same film. De Havilland appreciated the historic importance of this first Oscar win by an African American. De Havilland received a Best Actress nomination of her own the following year for her performance in Hold Back the Dawn.

The Best Actress nomination placed de Havilland in direct competition with her younger sister, Joan Fontaine, who was enjoying success in a series of dramatic roles. When Fontaine won the Best Actress Oscar, a private sibling rivalry erupted into a public professional feud. The sisters remained distant for the rest of their lives. Joan Fontaine died in Carmel, California in 2013.

Like Gone With the Wind, Hold Back the Dawn had been made away from de Havilland's home studio. Back at Warner Brothers, she appeared with Flynn and Warners' reigning queen, Bette Davis, in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex. De Havilland and Davis also worked together in the powerful drama, In This Our Life, and the older star proved a supportive friend through de Havilland's struggles with studio management. Despite her entreaties, studio chief Jack Warner refused to give her the kind of challenging roles other studios were offering her. When Warner insisted on casting her in substandard projects, she voluntarily went on suspension, collecting no salary until she went back to work. She continued to show her range whenever the opportunity presented itself, giving a sparkling performance in the period comedy, The Strawberry Blonde.

Olivia de Havilland Biography Photo
When her seven-year contract was finally due to expire, Warner added the time she had spent on suspension to the term of her contract. Although this appeared to be a violation of California law, it was a routine practice at all the Hollywood studios. No actor, or other studio employee, had ever successfully challenged the custom. Even Warner Brothers' leading female star, Bette Davis, had been forced to relent and accept the extension of her contract term. After reading the applicable statute herself, Olivia de Havilland decided to ask the State of California for declaratory relief, releasing her from her contract. When the Superior Court ruled in her favor, Warner Brothers secured injunctions, barring her from working at any other studio. The legal struggle kept her off screen for two years during World War II, but she used the time to tour military hospitals, visiting wounded soldiers, sailors and airmen. Her travels took her as far as Fiji, in the South Pacific, where she received word that the Supreme Court of California had upheld lower court decisions. The contract ingenue had challenged the studio system and won. The "de Havilland decision," as it is known, set an enduring precedent in labor law and changed the Hollywood studio system forever.

On her return to the United States, Olivia de Havilland, and most other established stars in Hollywood, were free to work at any studio, on whatever project suited them, and to negotiate their own fees. Rather than blacklisting her, as she might have feared, the studios rushed to offer her the most challenging assignments. In 1946, she starred in To Each His Own, playing the same character from her teens to maturity. Her meticulously detailed performance won her the Oscar for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role.

Olivia de Havilland Biography Photo
During her wartime travels, de Havilland had been struck by the devastating incidence of mental illness among returning servicemen. With war's end, this problem had become a pressing one for the whole society, but a long-standing taboo inhibited public discussion of the matter. De Havilland leaped at the chance to dramatize the problem in her next project, The Snake Pit. Her fearless performance in this harrowing film exposed shocking conditions in the nation's mental institutions and ignited public demand for long-overdue reform.

Another historic performance came in a project she originated. After seeing a stage adaptation of Washington Square, by the great American novelist Henry James, de Havilland resolved to bring the story to the screen. She enlisted the distinguished director William Wyler, long recognized for the power of his adaptations of great literature. The production proved a trying one. The distinguished actor Ralph Richardson, the epitome of old-school British acting, posed one set of challenges, while her leading man, Montgomery Clift, an exponent of the new "Method" school, presented another. In one of the most difficult roles of her career, de Havilland found herself isolated on the set. She channeled all of the emotions posed by these difficulties back into the performance. A great story, a stirring musical score by Aaron Copland, masterful direction by Wyler and an unforgettable performance by Olivia de Havilland resulted in an enduring masterpiece, The Heiress. For the second time, Olivia de Havilland was honored with the Best Actress Oscar.

Olivia de Havilland Biography Photo
In the 1950s, de Havilland appeared less frequently on screen, and devoted more of her time to raising her children, a son by her first marriage, to novelist Marcus Goodrich, and a daughter with her second husband, French businessman Pierre Galante. She also enjoyed several successes on stage, including an acclaimed run in Romeo and Juliet on Broadway. She returned to Hollywood periodically in the 1950s, giving memorable performances in My Cousin Rachel, Not As a Stranger and The Proud Rebel. After her marriage to Galante, she settled in Paris; she wrote a humorous account of life in France in her 1962 best-seller, Every Frenchman Has One. In the same year, she gave a highly nuanced performance in the film A Light in the Piazza, and starred on Broadway in A Gift of Time. In the 1960s, a new audience of filmgoers discovered the dramatic power of Olivia de Havilland in macabre thrillers such as Lady in a Cage and Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte with her old friend Bette Davis. Through the following decades, she appeared in a number of Hollywood films, and on television in the miniseries Roots: The Next Generation, North and South II and Anastasia: The Mystery of Anna.

With every re-release and anniversary of Gone With the Wind, Olivia de Havilland has been honored as the sole surviving star of that historic motion picture. In 2005, she was awarded the Kennedy Center's International Medal of the Arts in a ceremony in St. Petersburg, Russia. In 2006, shortly before her 90th birthday, she received a tribute from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles. President George W. Bush presented her with the National Medal of Arts in a ceremony at the White House in November 2008.

De Havilland's courage in bucking the power structure of the motion picture industry and exposing the shortcomings of America's mental health care system have had repercussions far beyond the world of cinema. As she meticulously researches her memoirs from her home in Paris, Olivia de Havilland enjoys the satisfaction of seeing her past performances inspire new generations of film fans and filmmakers.

This page last revised on Dec 16, 2013 15:24 EDT
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