Olivia de Havilland

Active - 1935 - 2008  |   Born - Jul 1, 1916 in Tokyo, Japan  |   Genres - Drama, Romance, Comedy, Historical Film

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Biography by Hal Erickson

Born in Japan to a British patent attorney and his actress wife, Olivia de Havilland succumbed to the lure of Thespis while attending high school in Los Gatos, CA, where she played Hermia in an amateur production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. The older sister of actress Joan Fontaine, de Havilland was spotted by famed director Max Reinhardt, who cast her in his legendary Hollywood Bowl production of the play. This led to her part in the Warner Bros. film adaptation of Midsummer in 1935, and being signed to a long-term contract wiht the company. Considering herself a classical actress, de Havilland tried to refuse the traditional ingenue roles offered her by the studio, which countered by telling her she'd be ruined in Hollywood if she didn't cooperate. Loaned out to David O. Selznick, de Havilland played Melanie Hamilton in Gone With the Wind (1939), earning an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress in the process. Although she didn't come out on top that year, she would later win two Best Actress Oscars, the first for 1946's To Each His Own, and then again for 1949's The Heiress. De Havilland also made news when she sued Warner Bros. for extending her seven-year contract by tacking on the months she'd been on suspension for refusing to take a part. The actress spent three long years off the screen, but she ultimately won her case, and the "De Havilland Law," as it would become known, effectively destroyed the studios' ability to virtually enslave their contractees by unfairly extending their contract time.

After completing The Heiress, de Havilland spent several years on Broadway, cutting down her subsequent film appearances to approximately one per year. In 1955, she moved to France with her second husband, Paris Match editor Pierre Galante; she later recalled her Paris years with the semiautobiographical Every Frenchman Has One. De Havilland showed up in a brace of profitable fading-star horror films in the '60s: Lady in a Cage (1964) and Hush ... Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1965), in which she replaced Joan Crawford. During the next decade, she appeared in a number of TV productions and in such all-star film efforts as Airport '77 (1977) and The Swarm (1978). After a number of TV appearances (if not always starring roles) in the '80s, de Havilland once more found herself in the limelight in 1989, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Gone With the Wind. As one of the only surviving stars from this film, she was much sought after for interviews and reminiscences, but graciously refused almost every request.

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  • Born in Tokyo to British subjects; moved to California at 3 years old.
  • As a teen, she frequented a soda shop called Kirk and Bill's, where the proprietors would extend credit. Upon returning to the establishment after 18 years, she was presented with an outstanding bill of $1.81, which she promptly paid.
  • Won a scholarship to Mills College in Oakland, but never attended due to her budding acting career.
  • Discovered by famed theatrical producer Max Reinhardt while appearing in a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream.
  • While under contract to Warner Bros., she starred in nine movies with Errol Flynn.
  • Became an American citizen in 1941.
  • Tired of being suspended by Warner Bros. for refusing roles in bad movies, she sued the studio in the 1940s and won a landmark ruling regarding actors' contracts; it's still known in law books as "the de Havilland decision."
  • Was involved in a bitter, well-publicized feud with her sister, Joan Fontaine, that reportedly began when they were children and escalated after they were both nominated for an Oscar in 1941 (Fontaine won).
  • Published her memoir, Every Frenchman Has One, in 1962.
  • Made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 2017, making her the oldest woman to be made a dame.