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Obituary

Hollywood legend Olivia de Havilland: Gone with the wind but not forgotten

US actress Olivia de Havilland, pictured in 2011 in Paris, personified the glamour of Hollywood's Golden Age
US actress Olivia de Havilland, pictured in 2011 in Paris, personified the glamour of Hollywood's Golden Age AFP/File

Olivia de Havilland, the last surviving actress of the Golden Age of Hollywood, died on Sunday in Paris at the age of 104. Parisian for more than 60 years, she said she “felt at home” in the French capital.

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De Havilland won two Academy Awards, for “To Each His Own” in 1946 and “The Heiress” in 1949.

She was most famous for her role as the sweet-natured Melanie in the 1939 civil war film “Gone with the Wind”.

But she is also remembered for her work to improve labour rights after winning a legal battle which changed the studio system in Hollywood and allowed her to take charge of her own career.

Olivia de Havilland en 1945
Olivia de Havilland en 1945 © WIKICOMMONS/DOMAINE PUBLIC

Immeasurable talent

De Havilland was nominated for five Oscars during her long career, and when she presented the Academy Awards in 2003, she received a four-minute standing ovation.

“Olivia de Havillard was a mainstay of Hollywood’s Golden Age and an immeasurable talent," the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which hosts the Oscars, said in a statement. "Here’s to a true legend of our industry.”

Journalist Henry-Jean Servat, who met the star several times, lamented “the lost splendour of an actress whose noble soul and sentiment enchanted everyone she met. With class, elegance, lucidity, humour and character, Olivia de Havilland lit up an era...and [will continue] into eternity”.

Not just a pretty face

De Havilland had grace and beauty on screen. She was also the first woman to preside the Cannes Film Festival in 1965.

“At a time when the place of women in cinema and society in general is being questioned, she should be remembered for her strength in attacking the studio system to release actors from exploitative contracts,” Thierry Frémaux, director general of the Cannes Festival told AFP.

“She showed strength and courage… throughout her long career. She was a queen of Hollywood and will also be revered as such in the history of cinema,” Frémaux continued.

In 1943 de Havilland sued Warner Bros for refusing to free her from her contract.

She won her case and it gave rise to the de Havilland law, which made actors more independent in choosing roles and career paths.

“The resistance she showed in standing up to studios in the 1930s and '40s, taking them to court, was a determining factor in substantially improving the rights of actors”, Culture Minister Roselyne Bachelot told AFP.

A penchant for France?

“She was beautiful, chic, proud of having had a great career and having belonged to a world that no longer exists,” said former culture minister Frédéric Mitterrand, adding that "she was American and she preferred France”.

“France is the only country where I really feel at home,” the actress is reported to have said.

Olivia de Havilland (L.) with British actress Vivien Leigh, her co-star in Gone with the wind
Olivia de Havilland (L.) with British actress Vivien Leigh, her co-star in Gone with the wind ACME/AFP/Archivos

A naturalised American, born to English parents in Japan,  de Havilland moved to Paris in 1953 after meeting French journalist Pierre Galante, head of Paris Match at the time.

He became her second husband and she remained in Paris until her death, residing in the plush 16th arrondissement, close to the Eiffel Tower.

She found Hollywood in the 1950s stifling and Paris seemed like "a breath of fresh air" she told The Irish Independent in 2009.

But despite speaking good French, she wasn't inundated with roles in her adopted country.

"I thought that I had made great progress with my French when a grande dame said to me one day: 'You speak French very well Olivia, but you have a slight Yugoslav accent.' I suppose there were no parts in French movies for actresses with Yugoslav accents," she said in the interview.

Olivia de Havilland and fellow actress Jacqueline Bisset receive their Chevalier of the Legion of Honour from president Nicolas Sarkozy at the Elysée Palace on 9 September 2010.
Olivia de Havilland and fellow actress Jacqueline Bisset receive their Chevalier of the Legion of Honour from president Nicolas Sarkozy at the Elysée Palace on 9 September 2010. AFP/Archivos

 

Nonetheless, in 2010 she was awarded the Chevalier of the Légion d‘honneur by then-president Nicolas Sarkozy.

Vivien Leigh, Olivia De Havilland (C) et Hattie McDaniel dans une scène du film «Autant en emporte le vent», en 1939.
Vivien Leigh, Olivia De Havilland (C) et Hattie McDaniel dans une scène du film «Autant en emporte le vent», en 1939. Photo by Mondadori via Getty Images

 

‘Gone with the Wind’

De Havilland made an enduring impression as the demure Southern belle Melanie Hamilton Wilkes, Scarlett O’Hara’s sister-in-law, in the film "Gone With the Wind".

The actress' gentle but wilful personality helped make the role of Melanie an intriguing part.

“I felt very drawn to Melanie,” de Havilland later said in a video. “She was a complex personality compared to the heroines I’d been playing over and over.”

Henry-Jean Servat recalled how "rather than battling to get the role of Scarlett, like most other actresses, she immediately wanted the role of Melanie, the archetype of a good-hearted woman. 

"She liked the character a lot. She was deeply religious in real life.”

The role earned de Havilland an Oscar nomination, but the award went to her co-star Hattie McDaniel, who played Mammy in the film. McDaniel became the first Black actor to win an Oscar.

 

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