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Hollywood icon and 'Gone With The Wind' star Olivia de Havilland dies at 104

The legendary actress ushered in a new age of creative independence in Hollywood and backed it up with incredible performances on screen.

Hollywood icon and 'Gone With The Wind' star Olivia de Havilland dies at 104
Cover Image Source: (L) British born actress, Olivia de Havilland. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images) (R) Olivia de Havilland at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences on June 15, 2006, in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by David Livingston

Hollywood's golden age icon Olivia de Havilland died peacefully in her sleep at her home in Paris, France, on Saturday. The legendary 104-year-old actress was the last surviving member of the 1939 classic, Gone with the Wind, and leaves behind a legacy of grit and grace both on and off-screen. Although her foray into Hollywood was marked with a series of "damsel in distress" roles, de Havilland longed to portray strong, beguiling characters—much like herself—and set about paving her own path in the industry. She ushered in a new age of creative independence in Tinseltown and backed it up with incredible performances on screen.



According to NPR, de Havilland–who was born in Japan to British parents and moved to California as a child—got her lucky break at the age of 17 after the legendary director Max Reinhardt noticed her in a local production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Although he initially cast her as an understudy in his production of the play, her fortunes changed when Gloria Stuart—who was to play Hermia—backed out of the role five days before opening night at the Hollywood Bowl. During a 2006 interview for the Academy of Achievement, de Havilland recalled what happened next: "[Stuart's agent] said to Reinhardt, 'We're very sorry, but Ms. Stuart will not be able to go on opening night.' Reinhardt turned to me and he said, 'You will play the part.'"



De Havilland's film career began right out of high school when Warner Bros. made the production into a movie and signed her with a seven-year contract. As a contract player, she worked 12-hour days, playing Errol Flynn's love interest in films, including The Adventures of Robin Hood and Captain Blood. However, she soon grew tired of playing the imperiled lass who is bound up and carried away, only to be saved by the hero. "The life of the love interest is really pretty boring," de Havilland said. "I longed to play a character who initiated things, who experienced important things."



Confident in her talent and wary of being typecast as the damsel in distress, de Havilland waged a legal battle against Warner Bros. Although the decades-old studio system had been challenged in court before, none of those efforts had succeeded up until then. De Havilland made history when she won in a landmark ruling that ended Hollywood's studio system, giving writers and actors creative independence. Speaking of the ruling that is still known today as the "de Havilland law," Patricia White—a professor of film studies at Swarthmore College—said, "She got a landmark court decision that released her from her obligations to Warner Bros. So she was the hero of her own career at that moment and she went on to get roles that did allow her to do important things."







De Havilland went on to play the lead in a string of powerful performance-based dramas, including the 1946's To Each His Own in which she portrayed a mother seeking to reclaim a son she gave up for adoption. While she'd bagged an Oscar nomination for her role as Melanie in Gone With the Wind, it was through this performance that she won her first Academy Award. "You hear in her kind of clipped voice — you hear that she's roiling with emotion underneath that passive demeanor," said White. "This is the kind of moment that the women's pictures of the '40s just lived for: when that mousy heroine would stand up and speak her mind and say what she'd been observing. And she does it beautifully."



Her second Academy Award win came three years later for her performance in The Heiress, where she portrayed her character's metamorphosis from a fumbling, innocent girl controlled by her wealthy father and betrayed by her greedy lover to a cold, disillusioned spinster who ends up with the last, mocking laugh. By the '50s, de Havilland appeared in films less and less and left Hollywood for Paris in 1953 at the age of 37. However, she continued to work in supporting roles throughout the 1970s and made a switch to television in the 1980s, reports Entertainment Weekly.



She generally shunned the public after her move to Paris and maintained radio silence even as the deterioration of her already fractious relationship with sister and fellow actress Joan Fontaine made the news. Despite her widely reports troubles with her sister—who died on December 15, 2013, at age 96—de Havilland will always be known first and foremost for her contributions to the film industry.


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