Exploring the Life of Olivia de Havilland, Star of ‘Gone With the Wind’

In 2020, the film industry mourned the loss of one of its true legends, Olivia de Havilland. The renowned actress, who had won two Academy Awards, passed away at the age of 104. Her contributions to classic films like Gone with the Wind and The Adventures of Robin Hood were celebrated, but her real-life story was even more compelling.

Olivia de Havilland emerged as a prominent figure in Hollywood during the 1930s. She captured the hearts of audiences with her performances in swashbuckling adventure films alongside Errol Flynn, such as Captain Blood and The Adventures of Robin Hood.

However, it was her portrayal of Melanie Wilkes in the timeless classic Gone with the Wind that solidified her place in cinematic history. The film, often regarded as one of the greatest of all time, showcased de Havilland’s talent and earned her a well-deserved Oscar nomination.

Yet, de Havilland’s impact on Hollywood extended beyond her on-screen achievements. In 1943, she took on the formidable Warner Bros. studio, suing them over the restrictive terms of her exclusive contract. Her victory in the lawsuit, famously known as “The de Havilland Law,” marked a significant milestone for actors, as it challenged the control exerted by the studio system.

With newfound freedom, de Havilland broke away from the ingenue stereotype and pursued more diverse and dramatic roles, ultimately earning two Academy Awards for Best Actress in a Leading Role for her exceptional performances in To Each His Own (1946) and The Heiress (1949).

Throughout her career, de Havilland received numerous accolades for her work, including a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960 and the National Medal of Arts in 2008. While her last screen appearance was in 1988, she remained one of the last surviving icons from Hollywood’s golden age.

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Considering the achievements she accomplished, it is worth noting the challenging upbringing de Havilland endured. Born in Tokyo in 1916 to British parents, Lillian and Walter de Havilland, she and her younger sister, Joan Fontaine, faced a tragic and turbulent childhood.

Bronchial problems plagued the sisters, leading their mother to seek a better climate in California in 1919. Unfortunately, Lillian’s marriage to Walter was strained due to his infidelity, and he eventually abandoned the family shortly after their relocation, marrying his Japanese housekeeper.

Growing up, Olivia lived with her mother, sister, and stepfather, George Milan Fontaine. Lillian’s strict upbringing imposed rigorous demands on her daughters, with Olivia having to seek permission to leave the house. When Olivia developed a passion for amateur theater and began starring in school plays, tensions arose at home.

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Her stepfather vehemently opposed her pursuit of an acting career and threatened to kick her out of the house if she accepted the lead role in the high school play, “Pride and Prejudice.” Determined to follow her dreams, Olivia made the courageous decision to leave home and embrace her passion.

Olivia found temporary shelter with friends until she earned a scholarship to Mills College. From there, her journey in the entertainment industry unfolded, leading to the iconic career she would eventually carve out for herself.

On July 26, 2020, Olivia de Havilland passed away at the age of 104 in her home in Paris due to natural causes, as confirmed by her publicist. The news of her demise left a void in Hollywood, reminiscent of the absence of oxygen in a room. The film industry wasted no time in paying tribute to her remarkable career. Actress Jane Seymour fondly remembered working with de Havilland, describing her as “larger than life” and “a brilliant actor.”