Actress Olivia de Havilland: a snapshot biography

Black and white portrait of Olivia de Havilland, featuring her with softly curled hair, a gentle expression, and a bare shoulder look draped in a feathery texture, indicative of classic Hollywood glamour.
Olivia de Havilland, 1938

It was the heart of Hollywood’s Golden Age: glittering boulevards and star-studded premiers. But the glamourous facade hid a less glamourous truth. The stars were under an iron grip of the studios. One such star was Olivia de Havilland, a radiant talent known for her roles in epics like “Gone with the Wind.”

Olivia began acting in the 1930s. Her fame grew, and with it came a seven-year contract from a powerful studio. However, the contract, as many of the time did, had a catch. If she refused a role or was suspended, the studio could extend the term, effectively binding Olivia indefinitely. And during the contract period, Olivia did indeed refuse roles for which the studio suspended her.

As her seven-year tenure ended, the studio didn’t want to let the starlet go. They insisted she still owed them another six months for the time of her suspension. Olivia took a stand. In a bold move, Olivia sued the studio in 1943. It was a David versus Goliath battle, with many fearing that Olivia’s career would be the ultimate casualty.

The courtroom became a theater of its own, with actors, directors, and producers in town watching closely. Then came the verdict: Olivia won. The ruling, which came to be known as the “De Havilland Law,” declared that studios couldn’t extend an actor’s contract beyond seven years. It was a monumental victory for Olivia and all the actors and actresses in Hollywood.

Olivia showed courage from her early years. One of the first notable examples came while she was in high school. Back then, she lived in California, being raised by a mother and stepfather, as her parents divorced years prior. She was interested in the arts, taking ballet and piano lessons, and actively participating in school plays and local theatre. When her stepfather learned she had earned a lead role in a school fundraising play, he gave her an ultimatum. Either move out or quit the performance. Olivia, who didn’t want to back out on her commitment, moved out and went to live with a family friend.

Olivia’s break into the film industry came unexpectedly. While performing in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the Hollywood Bowl in 1934, she caught the attention of director Max Reinhardt. Impressed by her portrayal of Hermia, he cast her in his film adaptation of the play the following year. This film role opened the door to a contract, marking the beginning of her illustrious Hollywood career.

But, it was her role as Melanie Hamilton in “Gone with the Wind” that would forever etch her name in cinematic history. Although Scarlett O’Hara, played by Vivien Leigh, was the film’s central character, Olivia’s portrayal of the gentle and kind-hearted Melanie garnered widespread acclaim. For her performance, Olivia received her first Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress.

After the lawsuit with the studio passed, Olivia continued acting and achieved some of her best acting successes. She won her first Academy Award for Best Actress for her role in “To Each His Own” (1946) and followed it up with another win for “The Heiress” (1949).

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Olivia continued working in films, although less frequently. She transitioned to television roles in the 1970s and 1980s, earning praise for her performances in various TV movies and mini-series.

Olivia passed away on July 26, 2020.

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