Olivia de Havilland
July 1, 1916 – July 26, 2020
Today it was announced that Olivia de Havilland, one of the last remaining stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age, passed away yesterday at her home in Paris, France, where she lived since the 1950s. She had just turned 104 years old on the first day of the month. In recent years, especially since her centennial, her birthday always felt like a special holiday, for me and fellow classic film fans. Olivia lived such a long, healthy life, it truly felt like she’d live forever… but I knew there’d come a day when she’d leave us on Earth, and sadly that day has come.
Like countless others, the first time I saw Olivia de Havilland in a movie was as Melanie Wilkes in Gone with the Wind. I was immediately taken with her character and her performance, and soon enough, I found myself watching more of her films, including her other iconic portrayal as Maid Marian in The Adventures of Robin Hood opposite her most frequent co-star, Errol Flynn. But it was seeing her other, less famous work that made me a fan for life. There are, of course, her two Oscar-winning performances in The Heiress and To Each His Own, her other two Oscar-nominated performances in Hold Back the Dawn and The Snake Pit (the former of which she famously lost the Academy Award to her sister, Joan Fontaine), light-hearted romantic comedies like It’s Love I’m After and Princess O’Rourke, and darker dramas like Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte and The Dark Mirror (the latter of which she played a pair of twins who have completely different personalities). Even in less than stellar films, she was always such a charismatic presence, making her worst films still worthwhile to sit through. But it was because of those movies that she made her greatest contribution to the film industry: her victorious lawsuit against Warner Bros., which reformed the studio system and prevented actors from being tied to oppressive contracts.
It’s her perseverance to fight for what’s right that’s made me a lifelong admirer of hers; my appreciation for her as a person grew exponentially when I wrote about the De Havilland Decision back in 2016, the year she turned 100 years old. It’s still my favorite piece I’ve written on my humble blog. Her centennial year was also one of my favorites in terms of movie-watching as I revisited most of her Oscar-nominated performances in the lead-up to her 100th birthday and dove deeper into her filmography, which included finally discovered the seemingly hidden gem that is her first Oscar-winning role in To Each His Own in preparation for my post covering her most-acclaimed work. When an actor is nominated for more than two or three Oscars, the likelihood of a lesser performance getting nominated is bigger, as the nominations could be honoring the actor’s stature in the industry than the work itself. But I think in Olivia’s case, she was lucky in that her five best roles were also the ones that earned recognition from the Academy. Her work in The Heiress remains one of my favorite performances of all time.
It’s always sad when a star from the classic Hollywood era passes, as there aren’t a lot of them left. Olivia de Havilland was the biggest of them left, as she was the very last cast member of Gone with the Wind to pass away. Still, though I’m sad about her passing, I also feel very grateful today, that we were blessed with the knowledge of her presence for as long as we did. So, while she didn’t live forever physically, she, of course, lives on forever through her legacy, both in her captivating performances and through the De Havilland Law, giving artists like herself the freedom they’ve always deserved. It’s bittersweet now, watching her movies knowing she’s not with us anymore, but I’m happy we have them and the other gifts she left behind (including her wonderful, anecdotal memoir Every Frenchman Has One). So thank you, Olivia, for all the joy you’ve brought me through your work on and off-screen.