The truth about Olivia de Havilland

More than 80 years after its release, Gone with the Wind remains one of Hollywood’s most celebrated movies — and also one of its most polarizing. Winning eight Oscars at the 1940 Academy Awards, the film’s setting in the Confederate South during the Civil War saw Gone with the Wind engulfed in controversy in June 2020 for its racist stereotypes, resulting in the film being briefly yanked off streaming service HBO Max before being returned with a disclaimer.

At the time of this controversy, the 1939 classic’s sole surviving star was Olivia de Havilland, who portrayed doomed Southern belle Melanie Hamilton Wilkes. Born in Tokyo in 1916, de Havilland grew up in California, and both she and her sister — who would use the name Joan Fontaine — pursued acting careers, per Biography. On July 1, 2020, de Havilland celebrated her 104th birthday in Paris, her home since the 1950s. Just a few weeks later, however, de Havilland would peacefully pass away in her sleep, according to Entertainment Weekly, on July 25.

With a screen career spanning from the 1930s until her final role in a 1988 made-for-TV movie, there’s no denying the late two-time Oscar winner made her mark on the silver screen. And while she was the dictionary definition of Old Hollywood icon, there’s still much to learn about Olivia de Havilland’s life and career.

Olivia de Havilland's feud with Joan Fontaine was legendary

There have been some legendary Hollywood feuds over the years, yet few can compare to the animosity between Gone with the Wind star Olivia de Havilland (pictured, left) and sister Joan Fontaine (pictured, right). According to Biography, the sibling rivalry began in childhood and never abated. While promoting her 1978 memoir, No Bed of Roses, Fontaine described their relationship to People. “I regret that I remember not one act of kindness from Olivia all through my childhood,” she lamented. Asked how their relationship was at the time, Fontaine sniped, “You can divorce your sister as well as your husbands. I don’t see her at all and I don’t intend to.”

The rivalry hit its zenith when both siblings were nominated for best actress at the 1942 Academy Awards. When Fontaine won, she recalled in her memoir (via USA Today), “I felt Olivia would spring across the table and grab me by the hair. I felt age four, being confronted by my older sister. Damn it, I’d incurred her wrath again!”

Speaking to the Associated Press in 2016, a few years after her younger sister’s death, de Havilland reflected on their relationship. “On my part, it was always loving,” she said (via USA Today), “but sometimes estranged and, in the later years, severed.”

Olivia de Havilland was the oldest person ever to be made a dame

In 2017, Olivia de Havilland received an honor both rare and royal when she was named a Dame Commander by Queen Elizabeth II. At age 100, the Gone with the Wind star made history as the oldest person ever to receive that distinction. In a statement to People, she declared herself “extremely proud that the Queen has appointed me a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire.” She added: “To receive this honor as my 101st birthday approaches is the most gratifying of birthday presents.”

However, de Havilland didn’t actually receive her DBE until the following year, and never met the queen in person. As she wrote in an email to The Oldie, the investiture took place in her Paris home, when “a perfectly darling Ambassador to France, Lord Llewellyn, called on me to make the presentation.”

In an odd bit of coincidence, one of de Havilland’s final acting gigs was portraying the mother of the woman who had made her a Dame Commander. As The Washington Post reported at the time, she played Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, in the 1982 made-for-TV movie The Royal Romance of Charles and Diana.

Olivia de Havilland quit Hollywood and moved to France

By the mid-1950s, Olivia de Havilland was nearing 40, an age when actresses of that era were considered well past their sell-by dates. Still, with two Oscars to her credit, the Gone with the Wind actress was still a bankable star when she pulled up stakes in Los Angeles in 1955 and moved to Paris after marrying Paris Match editor Pierre Galante.

As de Havilland told Vanity Fair in 2016, she was struck by the contrast between the artifice of Hollywood and the authenticity of Paris. “I loved being around real buildings, real castles, real churches — not ones made of canvas,” she explained. “There were real cobblestones. Somehow the cobblestones amazed me. When I would meet a prince or a duke, he was a real prince, a real duke.”

In 1962, de Havilland chronicled her fish-out-of-water experiences as an ex-pat Hollywood star living in the City of Lights, writing her memoir, Every Frenchman Has One. When the book was reissued in 2016 to mark de Havilland’s 100th birthday, a review in Vogue quoted a new postscript in which she revealed what she’d learned from French women after six decades in Paris. “The importance of tact, restraint, subtlety,” she replied, “and the avoidance of banality.”

Her feelings about losing the Oscar to Gone with the Wind co-star Hattie McDaniel changed

Gone with the Wind brought Olivia de Havilland her first Oscar nomination — for best supporting actress — at the 1940 edition of the Academy Awards. Also nominated in that same category was Hattie McDaniel, who played kindhearted slave Mammy. When McDaniel received the award, she made history as the first person of color to ever win an Oscar. 

De Havilland’s initial reaction to McDaniel’s historic win was extreme disappointment. “When I returned home on Oscar night, aged 23 and the loser of the award … I was convinced there was no God,” she told Entertainment Weekly in 2015. However, de Havilland was later able to put her loss in perspective, and even came up with a rationalization to explain it: she was simply nominated in the wrong category, and should have been up for best actress. 

“About two weeks later, I woke up and thought, ‘Oh, how wonderful! I wasn’t a supporting actress, and Hattie was, and she won! Those blessed voters were not misled for one minute,” de Havilland said, adding, “‘I’d rather live in a world where someone who is a supporting actress wins against someone who, instead, is a star playing a starring role! … There is a God, after all!'”

Olivia de Havilland's complicated relationship with frequent co-star Errol Flynn

Gone with the Wind star Olivia de Havilland had some high-profile beaus in her day, including fellow movie star Jimmy Stewart and aviation mogul Howard Hughes. Rumors also persisted that she and frequent co-star Errol Flynn had a torrid affair — speculation primarily based on their sizzling onscreen chemistry in the eight films in which they’d co-starred.

However, de Havilland set the record straight about her relationship with Flynn on several occasions, admitting that it was a complicated dynamic. “What I felt for Errol Flynn was not a trivial matter at all. I felt terribly attracted to him. And do you know, I still feel it. I still feel very close to him to this day,” she told the Independent in 2009. However, nothing ever came of that attraction, given that Flynn was married to actress Lili Damita, and de Havilland had no intention of being a homewrecker.

She elaborated that same year in an interview with The Telegraph, admitting “we did fall in love and I believe that this is evident in the screen chemistry between us.” De Havilland continued, “I have not talked about it a great deal but the relationship was not consummated. Chemistry was there though. It was there.”

Her lawsuit against Warner Bros. brought down the studio system

By the early 1940s, Gone with the Wind star Olivia de Havilland had grown frustrated with the roles coming to her. Within the Hollywood studio system at the time, actors were forced into exclusive contracts that controlled every aspect of their lives. As de Havilland told the Independent, “You were a great celebrity but also a slave,” churning out movie after movie while “whatever private life you had left to you didn’t belong to you but the studio publicists.”

In 1943, de Havilland stood up to the Hollywood establishment by suing Warner Bros. under California’s anti-peonage law. “Everyone in Hollywood knew that I would lose but I knew that I would win,” explained de Havilland, whose father was a lawyer. “I had read the law. I knew what the studios were doing was wrong.”

According to Reuters, the court sided with de Havilland. The California Court of Appeal ruled she couldn’t be forced to work beyond seven years of her contract, and the ruling became state law. “From then on I could choose my own material and play roles that really interested me,” she told the Independent. “Very soon after my victory, To Each His Own came along and brought me not only my third nomination for the Academy Award but also my first Oscar.” 

The surprising reason Olivia de Havilland turned down It's a Wonderful Life

While Olivia de Havilland never acted on her attraction to co-star Errol Flynn, one of her first real romances was with fellow movie star Jimmy Stewart. In a 2016 interview with People, she discussed her relationship with Stewart, who happened to be her date at the 1940 Academy Awards, when she received her first Oscar nomination for Gone with the Wind.

The celeb pairing dated for a couple of years, noted People, but broke up before Stewart enlisted in the U.S. Armed Forces in 1941. When Stewart returned to Hollywood after World War II, his first movie role as a civilian was one that would become one of his most iconic: George Bailey in the holiday classic, It’s a Wonderful Life.

As de Havilland told People, she was offered the role of George’s wife … but turned it down. “It would have meant playing opposite Jimmy Stewart, home from the wars. I knew it would be awkward to work with him because of our many months together in a sort of high school pre-war romance, which came to an end,” she explained, describing Stewart as “a very complex man [who] revealed himself to very few people.”

She was presented with a prestigious award by a U.S. president

Winning two Oscars and being named Dame Commander of the British Empire by the Queen of England aren’t the only accolades to be awarded to Gone with the Wind star Olivia de Havilland. In 2008, the actress was awarded the National Medal of Arts by then-President George W. Bush. The award, noted the National Endowment for the Arts, recognized “her lifetime achievements and contributions to American culture as an actress.”

In a 2015 interview with Entertainment Weekly, nearly three decades after her last onscreen role, de Havilland revealed she was still a dues-paying member of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, and followed each year’s nominations “with extreme interest.” However, her eyesight had started to fail, and she admitted she no longer watched the films or voted. 

But de Havilland certainly wasn’t lamenting the frailties of old age. Living in a luxurious Paris hotel, she reflected on enjoying room service delivered to her suite each morning. “How many women in this world are served breakfast in bed every morning by a gorgeous young man? I am,” the former actress declared. “So how do I feel about older age? Crazy about it! Wouldn’t trade it for anything!”

How a 13-year-old's fan letter sparked a lifelong correspondence

Victoria Amador was just 13 years old and living in rural Wisconsin, reported the Savannah Morning News, when she sent a fan letter to Gone with the Wind star Olivia de Havilland. A few weeks later, a letter arrived with a French postmark, containing an autographed photo of de Havilland as Melanie Hamilton Wilkes. Amador and de Havilland continued corresponding for decades, with Amador eventually asking if she could visit the actress in person and de Havilland continually turned down those requests.

Amador went on to earn a doctorate in creative writing and American literature, becoming a university professor. While teaching in Edinburgh in the mid-1990s, she finally received the response she’d been hoping for when de Havilland invited her to visit her Paris home. At that point, they’d been corresponding for 43 years.

As Amador told the newspaper, she met with de Havilland four more times over the ensuing years, sipping champagne and snacking on canapes during chats that lasted for hours. Amador informed de Havilland she planned to write a book about her life, and the actress did not object. The resulting book, Olivia de Havilland: Lady Triumphant, was published in May 2019. Amador sent a copy of the book to de Havilland, but hadn’t received a reply as of that June.

Olivia de Havilland auctioned off decades of classic haute couture

Gone with the Wind star Olivia de Havilland was 103 years old when she decided it was finally time to part ways with her extensive collection of haute couture outfits. As Town & Country reported, de Havilland had been a longtime collector of clothing from such designers as Yves Saint Laurent and Christian Dior — including some designed by Dior himself.

According to T&C, de Havilland auctioned off her extensive collection via Hindman’s 2019 Haute Couture & Luxury Fall Fashion auction, separated into 27 different lots spanning from 1954 to 1973. “The collection was presented to us quite well-documented and included a lot of research from the family,” Director of the Couture and Luxury Accessories Department, Timothy Long, said. “We’ve been able to bounce questions off them, trying to make sure the provenance is accurate where some details may have been fuzzy.”

T&C noted that some of the items up for auction were actually worn by the actress on screen, including two Dior ensembles de Havilland donned in the 1962 film Light in the Piazza (pictured, above), along with a green chiffon dress and matching shoes she wore in the 1964 psychological horror classic, Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte.

Olivia de Havilland was the oldest living recipient of an Academy Award

Olivia de Havilland’s portrayal of Melanie Hamilton Wilkes in Gone with the Wind earned her the first of five Academy Award nominations. She would go on to win two Oscars, taking home the award for best actress in 1947 for her performance in To Each His Own, and winning best actress again in 1950 for The Heiress. When the former actress celebrated her 104th birthday on July 1, 2020, she held the record as the oldest living Oscar winner.

When de Havilland won her Oscar for The Heiress, the moment was made even more special when it was presented to her by none other than former flame Jimmy Stewart. “Your award for To Each His Own, I took as incentive to venture forward,” de Havilland said in her acceptance speech. “Thank you for this very generous assurance that I have not entirely failed to do so.”

More than 60 years after winning that second Oscar, de Havilland returned to the Academy Awards for the 75th annual ceremony, greeted with a standing ovation that lasted nearly a full minute. “This night is a memorable one for me,” she told the star-studded audience, before introducing a 75th-anniversary reunion of all surviving Oscar winners in acting categories. 

Her lawsuit over a TV docudrama made it to the Supreme Court

The 2017 FX miniseries Feud: Bette and Joan chronicled the fractious relationship between duelling Hollywood stars Bette Davis and Joan Crawford (played by Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange, respectively) while filming their 1964 horror hit, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane. In a small role, Catherine Zeta-Jones played Gone with the Wind star Olivia de Havilland, who was so displeased with the portrayal, reported Vulture, that she sued.

According de Havilland’s attorneys, producers made no attempt to obtain “permission to use her name and identity,” and portrayed her “in a false light” as “gossip mongering.” As she told The New York Times, “When I then learned that the Olivia de Havilland character called my sister Joan ‘a b**ch’ and gossiped about Bette Davis and Joan Crawford’s personal and private relationship, I was deeply offended.”

Eventually, reported Deadline, de Havilland’s case made it all the way to the Supreme Court, which ultimately denied her petition. “One day someone else who is wronged for the sake of Hollywood profits will have the courage to stand on the shoulders of Miss de Havilland and fight for the right to defend their good name and legacy against intentional, unconsented exploitation and falsehoods,” her lawyers said of the SCOTUS decision.

Stars shared their praise when Olivia de Havilland rode a bike at age 104

Gone with the Wind star Olivia de Havilland was certainly not a typical centenarian. In 2016, the actress told Entertainment Weekly that she was eagerly anticipating her milestone 100th birthday: “Oh, I can’t wait for it. I’m certainly relishing the idea of living a century. Can you imagine that? What an achievement.”

On the day de Havilland celebrated her 104th birthday — just weeks before her passing on July 25, 2020 — fellow actress Mia Farrow took to Twitter to share a photo of de Havilland riding a bicycle. “Happy Birthday Olivia de Havilland who turns 104 today- and apparently is still riding her bike,” Farrow wrote. Actress Rosanna Arquette also commented on the snapshot, tweeting, “Amazing. living without bitterness!”

As one of the Golden Age of Hollywood’s last remaining stars, de Havilland clearly refused to slow down as she got older, earning praise from peers and making headlines until her death of natural causes. In true fashion, the movie icon previously shared her thoughts on what she’d like her final moments on the planet to be like while taking Vanity Fair‘s Proust questionnaire back in 2005. “I would prefer to live forever in perfect health,” she declared, “but if I must at some time leave this life I would like to do so ensconced on a chaise lounge, perfumed, wearing a velvet robe and pearl earrings, with a flute of champagne beside me and having just discovered the answer to the last problem in a British cryptic crossword.”

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