On Sunday, actress Olivia de Havilland, one of the last surviving stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age, died of natural causes at her home in Paris. She was 104 years old.
The two-time Oscar winner enjoyed a decades-long career punctuated by her industry-upending fight for actors’ rights in the workplace. But to the movie-loving public, she was perhaps best known for her portrayal of Melanie Hamilton in Gone With the Wind, a 1939 film that has undergone intense scrutiny in recent months amid ongoing protests against systemic racism.
When production on Gone With the Wind began in the late 1930s, Hollywood’s top stars found themselves vying for the film’s lead role of Scarlett O’Hara. But de Havilland was always set on portraying Melanie: As the actress told the New York Times in 2004, she viewed playing “good girls” as “more challenging.”
“[T]he general concept is that if you’re good, you aren’t interesting,” de Havilland said. “And that concept annoys me, frankly.”
Cast as the demure foil to Vivien Leigh’s spirited heroine, de Havilland lent “intelligence and grace to her portrait of a woman [with a] shy, forgiving, almost too kindly nature,” writes Robert Berkvist for the New York Times.
Kate Clarke Lemay, a historian at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, tells Smithsonian magazine that Gone With the Wind is emblematic of an era in which “a lot of the myth-making was being established about the Confederate South and its role in American history.” Now streaming on HBO Max, the movie begins with a new introduction by film scholar Jacqueline Stewart, who notes that its depiction of a Georgia plantation as “a world of grace and beauty” fails to acknowledge “the brutalities of the system of chattel slavery upon which this world is based.”
To play the part of Melanie, de Havilland had to ask the Warner Bros. production company, with which she had a seven-year contract, to loan her to producer David O. Selznick’s rival studio. Per CNN’s Lee Smith and Chuck Johnston, the actress pleaded with Ann Warner, wife of Warner Bros. head Jack Warner, to intervene on her behalf. Eventually, the studio boss relented.
This wasn’t the last time de Havilland came up against Hollywood’s studio system, which found five massive, male-led production companies dominating the film industry at stars’ expense. In fact, points out Todd S. Purdum for the Atlantic, the actress soon proved instrumental in dismantling the exploitative framework entirely.
While under contract with Warner Bros., de Havilland was often cast as a damsel in distress (usually alongside swashbuckling actor Errol Flynn). Seeking more challenging roles, she started turning down parts she didn’t want, resulting in suspensions of her contract. Though de Havilland planned to move on when the agreement expired, Warner Bros. tacked on the six months she’d spent under suspension to her already years-long contract.
In response, the actress filed a lawsuit under an obscure anti-peonage measure that forbade California employers from enforcing a personal-services contract for more than seven years.
“There really wasn’t any doubt about the right decision for me to take,” de Havilland later recalled, as quoted by the Atlantic. “One of the nice things I thought was, ‘If I do win, other actors, feeling frustration such as I feel, will not have to endure that.’ They’ll take the suspension, without pay, of course, but knowing they will not have to serve that time again.”
De Havilland went without work for the duration of the lawsuit, but ultimately, the situation worked out in her favor. In 1945, the California Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling that the law meant seven calendar years, not seven years of working time, paving the way for other stars to follow what became known as “the de Havilland rule.”
Lemay points out that the actress “put her own career on the line” in order to help others—an act “that takes so much courage.”
Writing on Twitter, Ryan Lintelman, a curator of entertainment at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, adds, “Her wonderful performances will always be her popular legacy. But just as important was her fight for worker’s rights for actors, which killed the studio contract labor system!”
The year after the court ruling, de Havilland returned to work in full force, appearing in an impressive roster of four films. The Dark Mirror found her portraying a pair of twins, one good and one evil, while To Each His Own cast her as a mother who must give up her son after his father is killed during World War I. The latter earned the actress her first Oscar. (De Havilland had been nominated twice before, but in 1940, Gone With the Wind co-star Hattie McDaniel claimed the coveted award for her performance as an enslaved woman named Mammy. In 1942, the star’s estranged sister, Joan Fontaine, nabbed the statue for Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion, worsening the pair’s already tense relationship.)
De Havilland also earned an Oscar nomination for her 1948 portrayal of a young bride institutionalized for apparent schizophrenia. A dual portrait of the actress—who appears both as herself and Virginia Cunningham, the fictional character from The Snake Pit—was published on the cover of Time magazine’s December 20, 1948, issue and is now “on view” in the National Portrait Gallery’s virtual In Memoriam exhibition.
The Heiress, a 1949 film in which de Havilland plays a woman who “ends up with the last, mocking laugh” despite being controlled by her father and betrayed by her lover, according to Keith Staskiewicz of Entertainment Weekly, won the actress her final Oscar.
In 1952, de Havilland moved to Paris, where she remained for the rest of her life. She continued to play occasional roles in film and television until 1988. Among other accomplishments, she received the National Medal of Arts and was the first woman to head the Cannes Film Festival’s jury. In 2010, France granted her the Legion of Honor—the country’s highest distinction—and in 2017, England’s Elizabeth II made de Havilland, whose parents were British, a dame for “services to drama.”
“Her career spans just so much of what distinguishes moviemaking, from its beginnings up to this very moment,” says Lemay. “ ... You can use it and hold it up to look at Hollywood history.”