Just three weeks ago we all marveled at Oliva de Havilland on her 104th birthday, July 1. Before she died Sunday in Paris, she was probably the oldest celebrity on earth. Not only did she outlive all of her fellow Thirties movie stars, she outlived all of the Forties stars too. There are only a handful of Fifties movie stars still with us — Sidney Poitier and Eva Marie Saint come to mind. Given the qualities of her most famous character, de Havilland’s endurance was somehow fitting.
In Gone with the Wind, which remains by a wide margin the biggest box-office hit in American history when inflation is accounted for, de Havilland was every bit as memorable as her costar Vivien Leigh. Leigh’s Scarlett O’Hara and de Havilland’s Melanie Wilkes created two equally compelling female icons. As Leigh won the Best Actress Oscar, de Havilland should have won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar, but the award went instead to their costar Hattie McDaniel for a histrionic, vaudeville-grade, cringe-inducing performance as Mammy. Leigh’s blazing performance is perfectly balanced by de Havilland’s placidity.
Serene, graceful, modest, and generous, yet indomitable, Melanie Wilkes is the Southern belle with a core of iron. For generations, long before the media took it up as a sacred cause to encourage women to be vulgar, arrogant, and rude because it’s “empowering” for women to take on some unattractive traits of men, Melanie was a feminine ideal. She appears fragile and pampered at the outset (like Scarlett) but proves to have a core of patience, thoughtfulness, and strength that shames the impetuousness of both Scarlett and the absurdly overconfident Confederacy itself. Scarlett and the foolhardy men who start the war spend the movie creating messes, and Melanie selflessly works to clean them up, from ballrooms to field hospitals.
Scarlett opens the movie trying to steal Melanie’s fiancé Ashley and then, when he marries Melanie instead, marries Melanie’s brother Charles as a revenge tactic. Melanie not only declines to be upset by this, she welcomes Scarlett as a sister. When Charles dies in the war, she helps preserve Scarlett’s social reputation as Scarlett keeps making disastrously shortsighted choices. While treating the war-wounded, Melanie is graceful, luminous, and reassuring among the dying men, but in reality she is so overcome that she has to vomit in private. Instead of using her high social status as a weapon, Melanie proves a model of tolerance when she defends the local fallen woman, Belle, and says she’d be proud to be seen talking to her in public. She treats a local convict with equal kindness. Scarlett thinks of herself as clever, but Melanie proves surprisingly quick on her feet when she playacts for the Yankees a scene about her husband being drunk when in reality he’s been shot.
On her deathbed following a terrible miscarriage, she is still thinking of others and sets Scarlett on the right path by telling her Captain Butler loves her. Melanie’s consistent generosity and refusal to define people by their worst moments is a model for us all. To put it in 2020 terms, Gone with the Wind is a story of a raging beeyotch who trolls her friend nonstop, but Melanie won’t be trolled.
As it was onscreen, so it was in life: De Havilland was a luminous, delicate beauty in such films as Captain Blood, The Adventures of Robin Hood, They Died with their Boots On, and the four other pictures she made with her Warner Bros. stablemate Errol Flynn. But she did something that took audacious courage. It was a breathtaking leap into the unknown when she sued Warners in 1943. This decision might well have cost her her career; the studio system was a tightly guarded oligopoly, and Jack Warner’s fury at her might well have effectively blacklisted her. Instead, she won a landmark victory and went on to make films in which her character was the lead, notably her two Oscar-winning roles in To Each His Own (1946) and The Heiress (1949).
De Havilland’s victory was the first crushing blow to a studio system that limited actors both financially and creatively, forcing them to take whatever parts the studio chiefs assigned to them, at salary. Thanks in part to de Havilland, Hollywood is now a place where actors freely jump from studio to studio and share in the profits of their work to such a degree that Johnny Depp can earn $650 million from the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. More important than that is the creative freedom of being able to escape typecasting. Olivia de Havilland was petite — 5′ 3″ but she proved a dauntless force, onscreen and off.