Oscar winner synonymous with Hollywood’s golden age
Dame Olivia de Havilland was a British actress whose name was synonymous with the golden era of Hollywood.
In a career that spanned more than 50 years she was twice an Oscar winner. She shot to international stardom in the classic epic Gone With The Wind and was at the peak of her career throughout the 1940s and 1950s.
Although she lived most of her life abroad, she was descended from an old English family whose name remains equally famous in the world of aeronautical engineering.
Olivia Mary de Havilland was born in Tokyo the daughter of patent attorney Walter de Havilland and his wife Lilian.
Her parents moved to California when she was three, divorcing when she was still a girl. Both Olivia and her sister Joan remained with their mother in Saratoga.
Their mother had studied drama in London and proved to be an excellent teacher for her daughters.
Having taken on lead roles in school plays, Olivia intended to become a speech arts teacher and won a scholarship to study at Mills College, Berkeley.
But she never took up the scholarship because, while playing Puck in a school production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, she was spotted by a scout for Max Reinhardt.
Her decision at 16 to become an actress led to a furious row with her stepfather who ordered her to leave home. But Olivia was undeterred and left to become understudy for Gloria Stuart in the role of Hermia in Reinhardt’s Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Hollywood Bowl.
Stuart was suddenly recalled to her film studio and Olivia stepped straight into the part.
She was an immediate success, with the Warner studio offering her a film test which gave her the chance to reprise the role in Reinhardt’s 1935 film production of the play.
Spurred on by this success, her younger sister Joan decided to become an actress as well and moved into Olivia’s flat. She decided to take on their stepfather’s surname, Fontaine, to avoid confusion between them.
Joan’s career also flourished, but professional rivalry between the sisters soon led to an irreconcilable rift.
Meanwhile, Olivia had signed a contract with Warner Brothers and there followed a couple more films.
The studio then decided to feature her with an unknown actor called Errol Flynn in Captain Blood.
The chemistry between the two of them caused a sensation. It was to be the first of many films they made together and placed them both unquestionably in the Hollywood galaxy of stars.
Among the films of those early days were Anthony Adverse, The Great Garrick, The Adventures Of Robin Hood, Dodge City, The Private Lives Of Elizabeth and Essex and The Male Animal.
At the age of 22, George Cukor took Olivia to see David O Selznick for a screen test for the role of Melanie in Gone With The Wind, a part for which several distinguished actresses had auditioned.
She was given the opportunity to pursue the role, on loan to MGM from Warner Brothers in exchange for James Stewart. The film’s release in 1939 turned her into a megastar.
There followed continued acclaim for her acting in films such as Hold Back The Dawn, My Cousin Rachel and The Ambassador’s Daughter, but it was her performances in To Each His Own in 1946 and The Heiress in 1949 for which she was awarded Oscars to add to her numerous other awards.
As well as her success as an actress, she achieved a significant victory for her profession when she won a contract battle in court against Warner. She said the greatest significance of winning her case was that studios were unable to enforce contracts at pre-war salaries on stars who had served during the Second World War.
Olivia was married twice, in 1946 to author Marcus Goodrich, whom she divorced in 1953 and with whom she had a son. Following the divorce she made her home in Paris and in 1955 married journalist Pierre Galante, with whom she had a daughter.
She continued to live in France, despite divorcing Galante in 1979.
In 1988, she coincidentally played the aunt of Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor, in a television film The Woman He Loved – having been a neighbour and friend of the Windsors who also made their home in France.
In her later years she retained the elegance and professionalism for which she had been renowned and still appeared on the big screen.
But it was perhaps inevitable that she remained associated with Gone With The Wind and she was frequently invited to make lecture tours on the film.
In 2008, aged 92, she was conferred the National Medal of Arts by President George W Bush.
In 2010, she received another state honour, this time in France, where President Nicolas Sarkozy made her a Chevalier of the Legion d’Honneur. He told the actress: “You honour France for having chosen us.”
In June 2017, two weeks before her 101st birthday, Olivia was appointed Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in the 2017 Birthday Honours for services to drama by the Queen. She remains the oldest woman ever to receive the honour.
De Havilland’s son Benjamin Goodrich, who was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease at 17, died aged 42.
She is survived by one daughter, Gisele Galante.