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The Death of Old Hollywood: Olivia de Havilland – 1916-2020

Olivia de Havilland, the last of Hollywood’s Grande Dames, passed away recently at the age of 104.  Appropriate for a class act, she lived a long, full life, not acquiescing even one day before she was ready.

de Havilland is best known for playing Melanie Hamilton Wilkes in the 1939 epic Gone with the Wind.  But, her career was so much more than that sweet, delicate Southern Belle. She played opposite Errol Flynn in multiple (seven, to be exact) historical dramas, including The Adventures of Robin Hood in 1938.  She won two Best Actress Academy Awards for 1946’s To Each His Own and my personal favorite de Havilland film, The Heiress from 1949 and directed by William Wyler.  In that film, she starts out playing a mousy, meek young lady in the late 1800s New York.  By the end of the film and after a series of personal tragedies and heartbreaks, she has blossomed into a strong, defiant, confident woman who is in control of her own life and destiny.  The Oscar was more than fitting for her extraordinary performance.  Another performance she is known for is her Oscar-nominated role as a woman temporarily confined to a mental hospital in 1948’s The Snake Pit.

But, even with all of those fabulous, varied performances and corresponding awards, she will forever be known as Melanie from the iconic adaptation of Margaret Mitchell’s controversial Southern epic story about love and loss amid the Civil War South.

de Havilland’s sister was fellow Oscar-winner Joan Fontaine (1917-2013), with whom she apparently didn’t have much contact with in the latter part of her life.  This estrangement provided much fodder for the Hollywood gossip columnists.

Also within the Hollywood world, de Havilland was known for suing Warner Brothers studio and winning!  In the early 1940s, post-Gone with the Wind, because of that movie’s success and the shy character she played, de Havilland was only being offered roles of timid women, while other actresses around her, Bette Davis and her own sister Fontaine, were being offered meaty, juicy female parts. She challenged the parts Warner Brothers (with whom she was under contract) was offering her and the studio in turn suspended her, also stating that she would have to make up the suspension time once her contract was up. Not de Havilland! She fought and won! The courts ruled she did not have to make up the time of the suspension and that from now on, studios needed to limit the total length of contracts to seven years, including any suspensions. To this day, the “de Havilland decision” is often sited as one of the first major wins actors and actresses had against the all-powerful Hollywood studio system of the 1920s to the 1960s.

With de Havilland’s passing, the last piece of that Golden Age of Hollywood died.  They really are all now gone with the wind (excuse the pun).

Check out Olivia de Havilland’s list of films available to borrow with your library card here.

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