July 1, 1916– Dame Olivia de Havilland:
“I would prefer to live forever. but if I must leave this life, I would like to do so ensconced on a chaise longue, perfumed, wearing a velvet robe and pearl earrings, with a flute of Champagne.”
At 104 years old, she is the oldest living recipient of an Academy Award, having last won in 1950 for her role in The Heiress.
De Havilland had romances with Howard Hughes, James Stewart, John Huston, and married writer Marcus Goodrich, divorced him in 1953, then moved to Paris and married Pierre Galante, editor of Paris Match. In 1962, she published a memoir Every Frenchman Has One. She and Galante divorced in 1979. She still lives in Paris.
De Havilland and her sister Joan Fontaine are the only siblings to have won Oscars in a lead acting category. Their lifelong rivalry resulted in an estrangement that lasted more than three decades. A five-time Oscar nominee, she lost out on an Academy Award to Fontaine in 1941 for her performance in Suspicion. De Havilland, who was nominated that year for her role in Hold Back the Dawn, was less than impressed at losing to her estranged sibling:
“My sister was born a lion, and I was born a tiger, and in the laws of the jungle, they were never friends.”
Last year, two weeks before her 101st birthday, de Havilland was appointed a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. She is the oldest woman ever to receive the honor. She called it: “the most gratifying of birthday presents”.
De Havilland had a career in films for 53 years, from 1935 to 1988. She appeared in 49 movies and was one of the leading stars during Hollywood’s Golden Age. She began her career playing demure young women opposite popular male stars, including Errol Flynn, with whom she made her breakout film Captain Blood (1935). One of film’s most popular romantic pairings, they made seven other films together The Adventures Of Robin Hood (1938), The Charge Of The Light Brigade (1936), Four’s A Crowd (1938), Dodge City (1939), The Private Lives Of Elizabeth And Essex (1939), Santa Fe Trail (1940) and They Died With Their Boots On (1941).
When she was 92 years old, de Havilland finally admitted that she and Flynn had shared an emotional love affair, but one she insists was never consummated. Flynn, who was married at the time, and he later admitted in his memoir My Wicked, Wicked Ways (1959) that he had fallen in love with his frequent costar. Flynn died of a heart attack at 50 years old in 1959.
She worked in almost every genre. Her film debut was in an adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935). During the production, de Havilland picked up film acting techniques from the film’s co-director William Dieterle and camera techniques from cinematographer Hal Mohr, who was impressed with her questions about his work. By the end of filming, she had learned the effect of lighting and camera angles on how she appeared on screen and how to find her best lighting. That is what any actor should learn right off.
She could do it all: romantic comedies, westerns, classic adaptations, and dramas, plus she played non-glamorous characters in thrillers such as The Dark Mirror (1946), The Snake Pit (1948) and Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964) opposite her friend Bette Davis.
De Havilland played Melanie Wilkes alongside Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable, and is now the last surviving principal cast member of that Confederate monument Gone With The Wind (1939).
She is also a feminist pioneer, winning a legal battle against Warner Bros. After fulfilling her seven-year contract with the studio in 1943, de Havilland was informed that six months had been added to her contract for the times that she had been suspended for turning down roles. During that era, the studios claimed that California law allowed them to suspend contract players for rejecting a role, and the period of suspension could be added to the contract period. Most contract players accepted this, but a few tried to change the system, including Bette Davis, who mounted an unsuccessful lawsuit against Warner Bros. in the 1930s.
De Havilland took Warner Bros. to court, citing the California Labor Code that forbade an employer from enforcing a contract against an employee for longer than seven years from the date of their first performance. The California Court of Appeals ruled in her favor. The decision was one of the most significant and far-reaching legal rulings in Hollywood, reducing the power of the studios and extending greater creative freedom to performers. California’s resulting “seven-year rule” is still known today as the De Havilland Law.
De Havilland, who was born in Tokyo, became an American citizen in 1941, just days before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. She might have been rounded up and put in an internment camp as a Japanese national.