Olivia de Havilland, the doe-eyed actress beloved to millions as the sainted Melanie Wilkes of “Gone With the Wind,” but also a two-time Oscar winner and an off-screen fighter who challenged and unchained Hollywood’s contract system, died Sunday at her home in Paris. She was 104.
Havilland, the sister of fellow Oscar winner Joan Fontaine, died peacefully of natural causes, said New York-based publicist Lisa Goldberg.
De Havilland was among the last of the top screen performers from the studio era, and the last surviving lead from “Gone With the Wind,” an irony, she once noted, since the fragile, self-sacrificing Melanie Wilkes was the only major character to die in the film. The 1939 epic, based on Margaret Mitchell’s best-selling Civil War novel and winner of 10 Academy Awards, is often ranked as Hollywood’s box office champion (adjusting for inflation), although it is now widely criticized for its glorified portrait of slavery and antebellum life.
The pinnacle of producer David O. Selznick’s career, the movie had a troubled off-screen 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 indifferent to the role of Ashley Wilkes, Melanie’s husband. But de Havilland 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.”
During a career that spanned six decades, de Havilland also took on roles ranging from an unwed mother to a psychiatric inmate in “The Snake Pit,” a personal favorite. The dark-haired De Havilland projected both a gentle, glowing warmth and a sense of resilience and mischief that made her uncommonly appealing.
She was 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 sweet and 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. Her friend Bette Davis was among those who had failed to get out of her contract under similar conditions in the 1930s, but de Havilland prevailed, with the California Court of Appeals ruling that no studio could extend an agreement without the performer’s consent.
The decision is still unofficially called the “De Havilland law.”
De Havilland went on to earn her own Academy Award in 1946 for her performance in “To Each His Own,” a melodrama about out-of-wedlock birth. A second Oscar came three years later for “The Heiress,” in which she portrayed a plain young homebody opposite Montgomery Clift and Sir Ralph Richardson in an adaptation of Henry James’ “Washington Square.”
In 2008, de Havilland received a National Medal of Arts and was awarded France’s Legion of Honor two years later.
She was also famous, not always for the better, as the sister of Fontaine, with whom she had a troubled relationship that the deeply private de Havilland refused to discuss until after Fontaine’s death in 2013. In a 2016 interview, de Havilland referred to her late sister as a “dragon lady” and said her memories of Fontaine were “multi-faceted, varying from endearing to alienating.”
De Havilland once observed that Melanie Wilkes’ happiness was sustained by a loving, secure family, a blessing that often eluded the actress.
She was born in Tokyo on July 1, 1916, the daughter of a British patent attorney. Her parents separated when she was 3, and her mother brought her and her younger sister Joan to Saratoga, California. De Havilland’s own two marriages, to Marcus Goodrich and Pierre Galante, ended in divorce.
De Havilland had lived in Paris since the early 1950s, said Goldberg, the publicist.
De Havilland’s acting ambitions dated back to stage performing at Mills College in Oakland, California. While preparing for a school production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” she went to Hollywood to see Max Reinhardt’s rehearsals of the same comedy. She was asked to read for Hermia’s understudy, stayed with the production through her summer vacation and was given the role in the fall.
Warner Bros. wanted stage actors for their lavish 1934 production and chose de Havilland to co-star with Mickey Rooney, who played Puck.
“I wanted to be a stage actress,” she recalled. “Life sort of made the decision for me.”
She signed a five-year contract with the studio and went on to make “Captain Blood,” “Dodge City” and other films with Flynn, a hopeless womanizer even by Hollywood standards.
“Oh, Errol had such magnetism! There was nobody who did what he did better than he did,” said de Havilland, whose bond with the dashing actor remained, she would insist, platonic.
She is survived by her daughter, Gisele Galante Chulack, her son-in-law and her niece.
Goldberg said funeral arrangements are private.
Italie reported from New York. AP journalist John Leicester in Paris and former AP writer Dolores Barclay in New York contributed.