A two-time Best Actress Oscar winner—To Each His Own 1946 and The Heiress 1949—de Havilland is probably best known to movie audiences today as Melanie Hamilton in Gone With the Wind (1939). De Havilland’s performance in that film is a marvel. In the hands of a lesser actress, Melanie could have been too sickeningly sweet, but in de Havilland’s hands, she’s a strong, compassionate, and intelligent woman. As a friend of mine noted, she understood Scarlett, Ashley, and Rhett better than they understood themselves. Her compassionate, non-judgmental approach endeared herself to all three, even the self-centered Scarlett.
De Havilland was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her performance as Melanie, but she was bested by Hattie McDaniel who played the irrepressible Mammie. McDaniel also made film history as the first African American to win an Academy Award.
Joan Fontaine (1917 – 2013), de Havilland’s younger sister was the first in the family to win an Oscar. Both sister’s were nominated the same year (1941). Fontaine was nominated for Best Actress for her performance in Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion. De Havilland was nominated for Best Actress for her performance in Hold Back the Dawn. De Havilland was so convinced that the winner that year would be Barbara Stanwyck—Stanwyck was nominated for her performance in Ball of Fire, but she also had strong roles in Meet John Doe and The Lady Eve that same year—that she voted for Stanwyck instead of herself. As history would record it, Fontaine was the winner and this was the beginning of the sisters’ famous feud. Fontaine and de Havilland remain the only sisters to have both won Best Actress Oscars.
|Celeste Holm and Olivia de Havilland in The Snake Pit|
De Havilland has a strong body of work, most of which holds up under 21st Century scrutiny. Her acting is free from affectation and over-the-top-emoting. Her style remains amazingly contemporary.
Next year (2019) will be the 80th anniversary of the release of Gone With the Wind. Let’s hope de Havilland will be with us to celebrate this film milestone.
Some film highlights from Olivia de Havilland’s career:
Captain Blood (1935)—her first pairing with Errol Flynn
The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)
Gone With the Wind (1939)
Dodge City (1939)
The Strawberry Blonde (1941)
Hold Back the Dawn (1941)
The Male Animal (1942)
Princess O’Rourke (1943)
To Each His Own (1946)*
The Dark Mirror (1946)
The Snake Pit (1948)
The Heiress (1949)*
My Cousin Rachel (1952)
The Proud Rebel (1958)
Light in the Piazza (1962)
Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964)
*Best Actress winner