The world has lost another treasure of the art world. Olivia de Havilland passed away on July 25, only a few weeks after her 104th birthday. Living to 104 years of age is a feat in and of itself, but Olivia de Havilland was not a person who merely existed – she lived a full, colorful life that has left permanent imprints in the film world and beyond.
Olivia was one of the last surviving actors from the Golden Age of Hollywood, and she started her career just as movies were starting to be made in color. She was part of an era that produced so many wonderful beloved classic films and actors. Can you imagine who she must have seen regularly on the lots of Hollywood studios? Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart, Cary Grant, Marlene Dietrich…just an amazing list of people who really shaped the foundations of film and acting in the early years.
When I watch Olivia de Havilland on screen, it is clear to me why she is included in this camp of silver screen legends. I am always struck by her range as an actress. Her facial expressions so perfectly speak for her in moments without dialogue. In moments with dialogue, the delivery of her lines keeps you hanging on every word. Though she was not recognized as a typical Hollywood siren, she possessed a different kind of classic beauty that set her apart from her peers yet made her every bit as captivating to watch.
I immediately associate Olivia de Havilland with “Gone with the Wind,” which was released in 1939. She played the role of Melanie Hamilton, the soft-spoken, sweet-natured sister-in-law of the vivacious and hot-tempered Scarlet O’Hara. I love this film and have fond memories of watching it with my family when I was growing up. Now, of course, I recognize the major problematic aspects of the film when looking at it through 21st century eyes, but I will always love watching Olivia’s brilliant contrasting performance next to Vivien Leigh.
Although she is best known for her acting career that spanned several decades and is perhaps often thought of as mild-mannered as Melanie Hamilton, Olivia de Havilland was feisty and had a passion for justice. I was surprised to learn how much outside of acting Olivia had accomplished during her lifetime. For example, have you ever heard of the “de Havilland Law?” In the 1930’s, she sued Warner Bros. for attempting to extend her contract without notice, and she won. The de Havilland Law was a big step in protecting the labor rights of actors. For a woman to stand up to a powerful Hollywood studio in the 1930’s and win against them in court was a big deal!
Later, Olivia became a powerful figure in the Hollywood Independent Citizens’ Committee for the Arts, Sciences, and Professions. This group brought together liberals and Communists as WWII was ending. But as we neared the Cold War, Olivia placed herself at the helm of fighting against pro-Soviet ideals in favor of democracy. In one of the boldest moves of her lifetime, Olivia circumvented her committee and powerful screenwriter Dalton Trumbo by speaking at a rally in Seattle. She discarded the speech given to her by Trumbo, secretly enlisted the help of James Roosevelt to write her own speech, which is what she read to a captivated audience at the rally. She was not afraid of a little trouble in the name of sticking to her guns, and this may be one of the things I liked best about her.
People like Olivia de Havilland are a rare kind, and we should continue to celebrate them long after they are gone. I will always cherish Olivia for her charm, talent, humor, and gutsiness in the face of a challenge – the world could benefit from having more people like Olivia de Havilland.
What are some of your favorite films of hers or stories of her life?
© Tyra Manning 2020