It appeared to take Hollywood a long time to realise that there was more to Olivia de Havilland than a winsome smile. Even when she started demanding roles that required more of her than decorative support, executives and critics alike seemed surprised that she was capable of more than merely melting into her leading man's arms for a dewy-eyed kiss. She lobbied hard to play Melanie Hamilton in David O. Selznick's adaptation of Margaret Mitchell's bestseller, Gone With the Wind (1939), and was deeply dismayed when the Warner Bros front office responded to her Oscar nomination by returning her to love interest duties. The studio soon realised the folly of taking De Havilland lightly, however, and it says much for the way in which she controlled her later career that she bowed out of movies on her own terms at a time of her own choosing.
The Runaway Wannabe
Born in Tokyo on 1 July 1916, Olivia de Havilland was the daughter of RADA-trained stage actress Lilian Ruse and Walter de Havilland, a patent lawyer whose cousin, Geoffrey, was the founder of the De Havilland aircraft company. Rather resenting the arrival of a younger sister, Joan, Olivia competed for Lilian's attention when she left her philandering spouse and settled in Saratoga, California after being forced to abandon plans to return to London when Joan contracted pneumonia in transit.
A bright child who took ballet, piano and elocution lessons, Olivia had little time for her stepfather, department store manager George Fontaine, and rebelled when he disapproved of her involvement with the drama club at Los Gatos High School. Yet, she was planning to become an English teacher when she made her debut in an amateur production of Alice in Wonderland in 1933 and it was only when Fontaine made her choose between living at home and the part of Elizabeth Bennet in a production of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice that De Havilland realised she had caught the acting bug and moved in with a family friend.
Fate intervened again in 1934 when De Havilland was offered a scholarship to Mills College in Oakland at precisely the same time she was cast as Puck in the Saratoga Community Theatre's version of William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. Legendary Austrian stage director Max Reinhardt was in Los Angeles to present his own interpretation of the play and one of his assistants was so taken by De Havilland's performance that Reinhardt asked her to play Hermia when Gloria Stuart quit the show. Moreover, when Warners hired Reinhardt to film the play, he insisted that De Havilland kept her place and she was signed to a five-year contract on a weekly $200 salary in November 1934.
In Like Flynn
Not sure what to do with a well-spoken 18 year-old, Warners pitched their new starlet into a couple of modest comedies, Alibi Ike with Joe E. Brown and The Irish in Us with James Cagney, while Reinhardt and co-director William Dieterle completed their Bard. Had anyone been paying attention during the shoot, they would have seen De Havilland asking cinematographer Hal Mohr about lighting and camera angles so that she knew how to modulate her performance and make the most of her looks. Reinhardt wanted her for his biopic of the French Revolutionary leader Georges Danton. But, while the project failed to materialise, the screen test struck a chord somewhere on the Warner lot and De Havilland found herself playing against a dashing Australian in Michael Curtiz's rousing take on Rafael Sabatini's adventure novel, Captain Blood (1935).
The studio had largely shied away from expensive costume dramas during the Depression, as a box-office flop could have major ramifications. But Jack Warner recognised that Errol Flynn was a superstar in the making and he soon saw from the daily rushes that there was a spark between the Irish physician wrongfully sold into slavery following a rebellion against James II and the daughter of a Jamaican plantation owner. Flynn and De Havilland also felt an attraction. But, as he was married to actress Lily Damita, De Havilland refused to entertain his unusually discreet advances. After their first teaming scooped five Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, they were soon reunited on Curtiz's The Charge of the Light Brigade, after De Havilland had co-starred with Fredric March in Mervyn LeRoy's costume saga, Anthony Adverse (both 1936), which also drew a Best Picture citation among its six nominations.
Convinced that Flynn was the new Douglas Fairbanks, Warners decided to make his next swashbuckler in Technicolor and cast De Havilland as Maid Marian to his Lincoln Green outlaw in Michael Curtiz and William Keighley's The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). The studio was delighted at snaring another Best Picture nomination and plans were made to send the duo into the Wild West for Curtiz's Dodge City (1939), In the meantime, however, the pair had to settle for the same director's flat-footed screwball comedy, Four's a Crowd (1938), in which Flynn's newspaper editor discovers that proprietor Patric Knowles is engaged to De Havilland, whose grandfather is the tycoon Flynn hopes will launch his public relations business.
De Havilland's haughty settler has a similar change of heart about Flynn in Dodge City, as he accepts the post of sheriff to clean up a lawless Texan cattle town. Despite enjoying working with Flynn again, De Havilland detested the project and later confessed, 'I was in such a depressed state that I could hardly remember my lines.' Her mood changed when she found herself alongside Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh and Leslie Howard in the most talked about picture of the decade. But no sooner had she returned from making Gone With the Wind than Jack Warner sought to show De Havilland who was boss by giving her third billing behind Bette Davis and Errol Flynn in Michael Curtiz's The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939), as lady-in-waiting Penelope Grey, who hopes to keep Flynn's ambitious earl out of Good Queen Bess's bed and off her gallows.
De Havilland found herself in another love triangle in Curtiz's Santa Fe Trail (1940), as the daughter of the railway contractor who catches the eye of West Point cadets, Jeb Stuart (Flynn) and George Custer (Ronald Reagan). Unfortunately, when De Havilland and Flynn travelled to Santa Fe by train to attend the premiere, she had to be rushed to hospital after being diagnosed with appendicitis. On returning to work, she joined forces with Flynn for one last time on Raoul Walsh's They Died With Their Boots On (1941), in which they played Custer and his wife, Libbie Bacon. Flynn had personally requested De Havilland as his co-star and she always recalled the poignancy of his final line to her on screen: 'Walking through life with you, ma'am, has been a very gracious thing.'
The Seven-Year Itch
While making her Crimean War epic with Flynn, the 20 year-old De Havilland had signed a seven-year contract that saw her weekly salary rise to $500. But any hopes she might have had of landing weightier roles were soon dashed. Despite getting to team with close friend Bette Davis on Archie Mayo's screwball, It's Love I'm After (1937), De Havilland had little to celebrate outside her partnership with Flynn. But not even her Technicolor bow in Michael Curtiz's Gold Is Where You Find It (1938) resulted in any more prestigious assignments.
Doubtless, she had hopes of being loaned out to Samuel Goldwyn to play alongside David Niven in Raffles (1939). However, she found the shoot enormously frustrating and returned to Warners intent on following Davis's tactic of rejecting roles she considered beneath her. Moreover, following her emergency operation, De Havilland underwent a prolonged period of convalescence that was dimly viewed by the front office. While Anne Warner had sweet-talked her husband into letting De Havilland make Gone With the Wind, she knew better than trying to tell him how to run his own studio. Thus, despite her Oscar nomination, Jack Warner coerced her into making mediocre musical comedies.
She was better served by Raoul Walsh's The Strawberry Blonde (1941), in which she competed for the affections of James Cagney with Rita Hayworth. But she had to engineer a loan to Paramount in order to co-star with Charles Boyer in Mitchell Leisen's Hold Back the Dawn (1942), which brought De Havilland her first Oscar nomination for Best Actress for her performance as a small-town teacher who comes out of her shell under the tutelage of a European roué. The best Warners could offer her was The Male Animal (1942), a middling rom-com with Henry Fonda, whom she had got to know while dating his best buddy, James Stewart. A romance with her director blossomed while making John Huston's In This Our Life (1942), an adaptation of Ellen Glasgow's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel that paired De Havilland with Bette Davis as feuding sisters.
As we shall see below, this storyline hit close to home. But De Havilland had other pressing issues at hand after Warners refused to release her after the completion of Princess O'Rourke (1943) by insisting that she owed them an extra six months because of her protracted periods of recuperation and suspension. However, the lawyer's daughter did her homework and took the studio to the California Superior Court after uncovering a clause in the state's labour code that forbade the arbitrary extension of contracts. Unable to work while awaiting the verdict, De Havilland became a regular at the Hollywood Canteen that had been set up by Davis to provide US service personnel with a hint of glamour before being posted overseas. Having become a naturalised citizen in November 1941, she also felt it was her duty to go on a USO tour to the South Pacific.
She got her reward two years later when the court found in her favour and loosened the grip that the studios had over their employees. Even Joan Fontaine was moved to concede that 'Hollywood owes Olivia a great deal,' and, to this day, the judgement is still known as the De Havilland Law. Warners got their revenge, however, by cajoling the other studios into imposing an unofficial blacklist that lasted almost two years.
Bigger Than Hiroshima
Despite being born 15 months apart, sisters Olivia and Joan had never been close. As the latter had been a sickly child, she resented the fact that her sibling was allowed to do things she wasn't ('Livvie can, Joan can't') and she never forgave Olivia for ripping hand-me-down clothing that had to be repaired before it could be worn. She also recalled Olivia fracturing her collarbone during a furious rage some time in 1933. When Fontaine decided she also wanted to become an actress, De Havilland made it clear that she couldn't use the family name and blocked Warner director Mervyn LeRoy's efforts to sign Fontaine to a personal contract because she didn't want her sister working at the same studio. She even dated the aviation tycoon Howard Hughes because she knew Fontaine was sweet on him.
Things came to a head in 1942, however, when De Havilland and Fontaine were both nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress. Many people in Hollywood felt that Fontaine had unfairly lost out to Ginger Rogers in Sam Wood's Kitty Foyle after her fine performance in Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca (both 1940). So, when Fontaine was nominated again for the same director's Suspicion (1941), several voters seemed keen to make amends for the previous year's oversight by favouring her over De Havilland, even though she had excelled in Hold Back the Dawn. Seizing on the rivalry, Life Magazine ran an article entitled 'Sister Act', in which it reported that the nine year-old Joan had planned to kill her sibling by letting her hit her three times before she plugged her between the eyes.
According to legend, De Havilland proclaimed, 'We've got it!', when Fontaine's name was announced at the Oscar ceremony. However, she later admitted that she had thought, 'Oh, my God! I've lost prestige with my own sister. And it was true. She was haughty to me after that.' Yet, it was De Havilland who turned her back on Fontaine when she tried to congratulate her backstage after she had won the Oscar for Mitchell Leisen's To Each His Own (1946).
They remain the only sisters to win Best Actress and, years later, while publicising her autobiography, No Bed of Roses (1978) - which De Havilland retitled 'No Shred of Truth' - Fontaine told People Magazine, 'we may not get along personally, but I am absolutely thrilled that my sister has accomplished what she has. Imagine what we could have done if we had gotten together. We could have selected the right scripts, the right directors, the right producers - we could have built our own empire. But it was not to be.'
Instead, Fontaine opted to 'divorce' De Havilland, who subsequently referred to her sister as 'Dragon Lady'. They attempted a reconciliation over Christmas in 1961. But things didn't go well and, when Fontaine was asked if they could ever patch things up, she suggested, 'There would be a slight problem of temperament, In fact, it would be bigger than Hiroshima.' De Havilland hit back by claiming Fontaine 'was a brilliant, multi-talented person, but with astigmatism in her perception of people and events which often caused her to react in an unfair and even injurious way'. In another interview, she mused on their relationship: 'On my part, it was always loving, but sometimes estranged and, in the later years, severed.'
The final parting of the ways came in 1975 when they disagreed over the best way to treat Lilian's cancer. Fontaine was touring in a stage production of Cactus Flower (which had earned Goldie Hawn an Oscar when it was filmed in 1969) when her mother's condition deteriorated and she was deeply hurt that De Havilland failed to inform her. Seemingly, a dispatched telegram had taken two weeks to reach Fontaine, who always maintained that she had not been invited to the memorial service and had arrived to be handed a box containing Lilian's ashes in stony silence.
Although they never spoke to each other again, words were exchanged. When asked by People how she would like to die, Fontaine had replied: 'At age 108, flying around the stage in Peter Pan, as a result of my sister cutting the wires. Olivia has always said I was first at everything - I got married first, got an Academy Award first, had a child first. If I die, she'll be furious, because again I'll have got there first!' When Fontaine did pass away at the age of 96 on 15 December 2013, De Havilland issued a statement revealing that she had been 'shocked and saddened' by the news. In an interview to mark her centenary in 2016, however, she insisted on having the last word on the matter: 'A feud implies continuing hostile conduct between two parties. I cannot think of a single instance wherein I initiated hostile behaviour.'
The Peak of Her Powers
De Havilland didn't work between finishing RKO's flag-waving comedy, Government Girl (1943), and the first day of shooting on To Each His Own in June 1945. Indeed, her mother Lilian made more films during this period than she did, after she was cast as Jane Wyman's mother in Billy Wilder's Best Picture winner, The Lost Weekend (1945). Now berthed at Paramount on a two-picture deal that allowed her to keep her options open, De Havilland spent hours in the company of make-up artists Wally Westmore and Norbert A. Myles to enable her to age 30 years in following the fortunes of the son she had given up for adoption. The effort proved worthwhile, as she won the Oscar for Best Actress and embarked upon a run of classic pictures that was only interrupted by the misfiring Brontë biopic, Devotion, and her penultimate romcom, The Well-Groomed Bride (both 1946).
She demonstrated the new depth to her playing as twin sisters Ruth and Terry Collins in Robert Siodmak's The Dark Mirror (1946), which she followed with another searing study of mental health, Anatole Litvak's The Snake Pit (1948), an adaptation of a Mary Jane Ward novel that was based on her own eight-month recovery from a nervous breakdown. De Havilland strove hard for authenticity in her performance and was rewarded with the Volpi Cup at the Venice Film Festival, as well as receiving another Oscar nomination. While she lost out on this occasion, De Havilland joined Luise Rainer and Bette Davis in winning the Best Actress statuette twice when she was victorious for William Wyler's The Heiress (1949), an adaptation of Henry James's novel, Washington Square, that she had begged the director to make after seeing the stage version on Broadway.
Rather than cashing in on her success, however, De Havilland took extended maternity leave following the birth of her son, Benjamin, even turning down the role of Blanche DuBois in Elia Kazan's adaptation of Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) that earned a second Best Actress Oscar for her GWTW co-star, Vivien Leigh. Sadly, her marriage to novelist Marcus Goodrich (who was 18 years her senior) didn't last and she dipped out of the spotlight again having taken the title role in Henry Koster's interpretation of Daphne Du Maurier's period novel, My Cousin Rachel (1952).
During her screen sabbatical, De Havilland returned temporarily to the theatre. But the critics unkindly suggested she was too old at 35 to play Romeo and Juliet and she began her slow withdrawal from acting after marrying Pierre Galante, an executive editor at Paris Match, in April 1955. Indeed, having moved to the three-storey Parisian property that remains her home, she had to commute to the British and Spanish locations to make Terence Young's That Lady (1955) and to Hollywood to team with Robert Mitchum in Stanley Kramer's Not As a Stranger (1955), in which De Havilland plays an older woman helping a workaholic doctor fulfil his ambitions.
A Long Parisian Sunset
Unimpressed by romcom roles like the one in The Ambassador's Daughter (1956), De Havilland realised that the studios had little to offer an actress entering her fifth decade. 'Hollywood was a dismal, tragic place,' she later reflected, as longer periods elapsed between pictures like her final assignment with Michael Curtiz on The Proud Rebel (1958), a Western with Alan Ladd that she made the year before the passing of her most frequent co-star, Errol Flynn. Indeed, her next two pictures were directed by Brits, but despite endearing herself to her new compatriots with Every Frenchman Has One, a 1962 book about her efforts to adapt to the Gallic lifestyle, she was never offered a single part in a French feature.
Instead, she doted on Benjamin and her toddler daughter, Gisèle, and made the occasional return to Broadway. In 1964, she shattered her screen image in two psychological thrillers, Walter Grauman's Lady in a Cage and Robert Aldrich's Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte, in which she respectively played a poet being terrorised in her mansion lift by a trio of home invaders and the cousin helping Bette Davis resist plans to build a highway through her property. The latter had been intended as a follow up to Aldrich's What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) and De Havilland had agreed to reunite with her old friend after Joan Crawford was forced to withdraw with illness. This period is covered in Ryan Murphy's controversial mini-series, Feud (2017), in which De Havilland is played by Catherine Zeta-Jones, while Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon lock horns as Crawford and Davis. But De Havilland was so angry at her depiction that she sued the programme makers for inaccuracy and using her likeness without permission. After a lengthy court process, however, the verdict went against her.
This soured De Havilland's relationship with the small screen, which had started with an uncredited cameo alongside Barbara Stanwyck in a 1965 episode of The Big Valley. In 1972, De Havilland revisited the theme of mental anguish in her first starring teleplay, The Screaming Woman, while she reunited with Henry Fonda as a Confederate officer's wife in Roots: The Next Generations (1979). However, she proved less fortunate in her choice of feature projects as, having turned down the Jennifer Jones role in John Guillermin's The Towering Inferno (1974), she found herself in a markedly less acclaimed disaster movie, Irwin Allen's The Swarm (1978), which co-star Michael Caine ranks among the worst films he ever made (which, of course, makes it unmissable).
Following her big-screen swan song in her 49th feature, The Fifth Musketeer (1979), De Havilland became a suspect for Helen Hayes's Miss Marple in Claude Whatham's Agatha Christie whodunit, Murder Is Easy (1982), and followed return to the Civil War era in North and South, Book II by winning a Golden Globe for her performance as the Dowager Empress Maria Romanoff in Marvin J. Chomsky's Anastasia: The Mystery of Anna (both 1986). She also played the Queen Mother in The Royal Romance of Charles and Diana (1982) and Wallis Simpson's aunt in The Woman He Loved (1988). Buckingham Palace appeared to forgive her, however, as she was created a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in the 2017 Birthday Honours.