Olivia de Havilland has died at her home in France. She was 104.
Her centenarian status made de Havilland one of the last surviving members of Hollywood’s golden age, and the last surviving main cast member of the cinematic milestone Gone With The Wind. She holds the record for the longest length of time any actor has survived after the initial release of a film they starred in, from 1935 (83 years). She also has the Guinness Book world record for the most people thanked in an Oscar speech: 27.
De Havilland had not been seen on the screen in many years. She started out in the 1930s, making her first big splash in her first of eight pairings with swashbuckler Errol Flynn with Captain Blood in 1935. The pair’s cinematic chemistry between the gregarious Flynn and the delicate de Havilland reached its zenith in 1938’s classic rendition of Robin Hood, with de Havilland as Maid Marian.
The role she was to become most famous for happened a few years later: She was only 24 when she starred in the pic Gone With The Wind as the saintlike Melanie Wilkes, Scarlett O’Hara’s rival for the affections of her beloved Ashley Wilkes. The Civil War saga was a full-on sensation, winning the Best Picture Oscar for 1939, although de Havilland lost Best Supporting Actress to her co-star Hattie McDaniel, the first Academy Award won by a Black entertainer. (De Havilland traveled to New York in 1998 to celebrate the movie’s 60th anniversary.)
After Gone With The Wind, she searched for more challenging roles. Nominated for Best Actress for 1941’s Hold Back The Dawn, she lost to her sister, Joan Fontaine, who won for Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion. The two were the first sisters nominated for an Oscar in the same year, and hosted a decades-long rivalry. De Havilland bounced back to win for 1946’s To Each His Own and 1949’s The Heiress, playing a plain Jane who falls for charming player Montgomery Clift (she also got another Best Actress nomination for 1948’s The Snake Pit). Other awards and honors earned over her lifetime include the Medal Of Arts from President George W. Bush, and Dame Commander Of The Order Of The British Empire from Queen Elizabeth II (a few weeks before her 101st birthday, becoming the oldest woman to receive the honor). She was married twice, and both marriages ended in divorce, although she remained close friends with her second husband, French journalist Pierre Galante.
As part of the studio system in the mid-20th century, de Havilland protested when, after fulfilling the seven years of her Warner Bros. contract in 1943, she learned that six months had been added to her contract to account for the times that she had been suspended. The studio was viewing the time period as seven years served instead of seven calendar years. She sued the studio, and won, and the resulting De Havilland Law helped break the studios’ tight hold on actors, giving the performers more creative freedom. Even her estranged sister Joan Fontaine commented, “Hollywood owes Olivia a great deal.” 30 Seconds To Mars band members Jared and Shannon Leto used the law to their advantage in a 2009 dispute with their record company.
In her later years, de Havilland played in campier roles, as the success of Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? in 1962 fueled movie audience’s desires to see their favorite aging screen queens in considerable peril. In 1964’s Lady In A Cage, she’s a rich woman trapped in an elevator and tortured by hooligans; that same year, she replaced Baby Jane star Joan Crawford in the goth thriller Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte, playing alongside her friend, Bette Davis.
That particular casting switch was part of the plot of Ryan Murphy’s FX 2017 mini-series Feud, which focused on the rivalry between Davis (Susan Sarandon) and Crawford (Jessica Lange); Catherine Zeta-Jones played de Havilland. From her luxurious retirement home in France, the then-101-year-old thespian protested her portrayal in the series, particularly a scene where Zeta Jones’ de Havilland calls her sister Fontaine a bitch. A California appeals court eventually tossed the lawsuit.
Clearly, de Havilland’s strength of purpose and character were intact until the very end; she welcomed each of her many passing years, calling turning 100 “an accomplishment.” Her death leaves us without one of the last remaining links to the golden age of Hollywood, and one of the industry’s most formidable forces.