NEW YORK – She was one of Hollywood’s most glamorous stars and determined off-screen fighters. No one was better suited than Olivia de Havilland to play the sainted Melanie Wilkes in “Gone With the Wind” or more tenacious about the right to appear in the films of her choosing.
Fans and actors alike owe much to de Havilland, the Oscar-winning performer who became, almost literally, a law unto herself.
De Havilland, who died Sunday at 104, was one of the last survivors of Hollywood’s so-called Golden Age. She was beloved to millions as Wilkes in “Gone With the Wind, but also won Oscars for “To Each His Own” and “The Heiress” and challenged and unchained Hollywood’s contract system.
De Havilland died peacefully of natural causes at her home in Paris, publicist Lisa Goldberg said.
During a career that spanned more than 70 years, de Havilland was praised in roles ranging from an unwed mother to a psychiatric inmate in “The Snake Pit,” a personal favorite. The doe-eyed actress projected both a gentle, glowing warmth and a sense of resilience and mischief that made her uncommonly appealing, leading critic James Agee to confess he was “vulnerable to Olivia de Havilland in every part of my being except the ulnar nerve.”
The sister of fellow Oscar winner Joan Fontaine, with whom she had one of Hollywood’s most famous sibling rivalries, de Havilland was the last surviving lead from “Gone With the Wind.” The 1939 epic, based on Margaret Mitchell’s best-selling Civil War novel and winner of 10 Academy Awards, is often ranked as the all-time box office champion (adjusting for inflation), but is now widely condemned for its glorified portrait of slavery and antebellum life.
The pinnacle of producer David O. Selznick’s career, “Gone With the Wind” had a dramatic and troubled back story. Three directors worked on the film, stars Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable were far more connected on screen than off and the fourth featured performer, Leslie Howard, was openly indifferent to the role of Ashley Wilkes, Melanie’s husband. But de Havilland, drawn to Melanie’s empathy and generosity, remembered the movie as “one of the happiest experiences I’ve ever had in my life. It was doing something I wanted to do, playing a character I loved and liked.”
She was otherwise known as Errol Flynn’s co-star in a series of dramas, Westerns and period pieces, most memorably as Maid Marian in “The Adventures of Robin Hood.” But de Havilland also was a prototype for an actress too beautiful for her own good, typecast in romantic roles while desiring greater challenges. Her frustration finally led her to sue Warner Bros. in 1943 when the studio tried to keep her under contract after it had expired, claiming she owed six more months because she had been suspended for refusing roles.