The Corner

Culture

Happy Birthday, Olivia de Havilland

(Public Domain)

The last of the great Golden Age stars turned 104 today. With her creamy skin and high cheekbones, de Havilland made for a captivating leading lady at Warner Bros., which repeatedly teamed her with Errol Flynn in, for instance, Michael Curtiz’s Captain Blood (1935), which was the best pirate movie until Pirates of the Caribbean for 60 years, and Curtiz’s The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), which is still the best Robin Hood movie ever made. She fought hard to get Jack Warner to loan her out to David Selznick to play Melanie Hamilton in Gone with the Wind (1939), and her sensitive, thoughtful portrayal of a Southern belle of surprising strength and limitless kindness brought her an Oscar nomination, though she lost to castmate Hattie McDaniel.

In 1943, after she had a dispute with Warner Bros. over the length of her contract, she took the extraordinary step of suing the studio and won, setting the stage for further friction between actors and studios that would eventually bring down the “studio system” in which studio chiefs signed actors to long-term contracts and controlled their careers by ordering them which roles to play. Becoming free agents, the actors and their agents seized leverage over the studios just as television began to compete with the movies, ushering in the age of biblical spectacles and dazzling musical pageants. De Havilland rebounded from Warner’s attempt to blacklist her and won two Best Actress awards, for To Each His Own (1946) and The Heiress (1949).

De Havilland and her sister, Joan Fontaine, who died at 96 in 2013, are the only siblings to win major Oscars; Fontaine’s Best Actress win was for Suspicion (1941), the only Oscar-winning performance Alfred Hitchock ever directed. Fontaine had starred the previous year in Rebecca (1940), the only Hitchcock film ever to win the Best Picture Oscar. De Havilland was made a Dame Commander of the British Empire in 2017, at the age of 100.

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