In 1939’s “Gone With the Wind,” Olivia de Havilland, playing Melanie Wilkes, dashes down a dirt road into the arms of Leslie Howard, who played her returning soldier husband Ashley Wilkes in the Civil War classic.
It’s one of those movie moments that can bring tears to your eyes and make your hair stand on end.
De Havilland, who died in Paris July 26 at 104, was forever identified with Melanie, the self-sacrificing, gentle soul who forgave even the worst impulses of the selfish Scarlett O’Hara.
But the actress went on to make 60 more films and earn five Oscar nominations. She was the subject of four books, including a memoir cheekily titled ’’ “Every Frenchman Has One,” in which she emphasized “the importance of tact, restraint, subtlety, and the avoidance of banality.”
Born in Japan in 1916, de Havilland had her first role in 1935’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” with Jimmy Cagney. A contract with Warner Bros., and an eventual eight pairings with Errol Flynn, followed.
But like fellow Warner Bros. stars Cagney and Bette Davis, de Havilland chafed at being a studio contract player, a period in which she often complained about inferior film roles. (She had lobbied furiously to be loaned to producer David O’Selznick and MGM for “Gone With the Wind.”)
De Havilland more than once took suspensions without pay and sued Warners when it claimed those suspensions should be added to her seven-year contract. In what would be known as “the de Havilland decision,” an appellate court ruling in 1944 resulted in limitations to the studio system’s longtime contract rules, a decision still cited in the entertainment industry, according to the Los Angeles Times.
De Havilland eventually followed her court battle with two best actress Oscars, for “To Each His Own” in 1946 and “The Heiress” in 1949. Once romantically linked with actors Spencer Tracy and John Garfield, among others, she married twice and lost a son, Benjamin Goodrich, to cancer in 1991, according to the Associated Press. She relocated to Paris with her second husband, Pierre Galante, and remained there the rest of her life.
For most of her career, de Havilland had an ongoing feud with younger sister Joan Fontaine. The siblings’ competition was even cited in a 2011 episode of “Jeopardy,” where the panel was stumped by a question asking what two sisters both competed for the best actress Oscar in 1941. The answer was de Havilland, nominated for “Hold Back the Dawn,” and Fontaine, who won the coveted statuette that year for Alfred Hitchcock’s “Suspicion.”
The fabled feud may have been exaggerated at times, but the sisters remained mum on the subject for decades. Fontaine died in 2013 at the age of 96.
De Havilland’s career tapered off after 1952’s “My Cousin Rachel,” although she appeared on Broadway in “Romeo and Juliet” and garnered an Emmy nomination in 1986 for “Anastasia: The Mystery of Anna.”
But it was as Melanie Wilkes that she cemented her legacy, earning her first Oscar nomination in the category of best supporting actress. She lost to Hattie McDaniel, the first African-American to win an Oscar. And though she declined to be interviewed for the 50th anniversary of “Gone With the Wind” in 1989, de Havilland told the New York Times 15 years later that she never minded discussing the film and that she had viewed it 26 times. For decades she remained the only living member of the film’s sterling cast.
“It (‘Gone With the Wind’) will go on forever,” she said, according to Reader’s Digest, “It has this universal life, this continuing life.”
A life, like her own, that continued for more than a century.