Stardom isn’t talent. It isn’t beauty, or fame. It is conviction — and from her teens until her death on Saturday aged 104, Olivia de Havilland was convinced she was the greatest star Hollywood ever produced.
And who could argue with her? De Havilland’s finest performance came in the most glamorous movie ever made, Gone With The Wind.
Her name was romantically linked with the biggest box office heroes, including Errol Flynn and James Stewart.
Her self-belief was so colossal that she was the only actress who dared risk her career by challenging the stranglehold that studios had on their stars — and in doing so brought about the beginning of the end of the ‘Hollywood system’.
Nothing could daunt or derail her. On Oscars night in 1940, she was nominated as Best Supporting Actress, playing the loving but doomed Melanie Hamilton Wilkes in Gone With The Wind.
In 1942, Olivia De Havilland was nominated for Hold Back The Dawn — only to see her younger sister, Joan Fontaine, win for the Alfred Hitchcock movie Suspicion
She didn’t win. The prize went to Hattie McDaniel, as the maidservant, Mammy, the first African-American ever to win an Academy Award.
De Havilland, who was 23, was devastated. ‘When I returned home on Oscars night, I was convinced there was no God,’ she said, 75 years later. But her self-confidence soon reasserted itself.
She hadn’t won because Olivia de Havilland was no mere supporting actress. She was the true star of Gone With The Wind, and, of course, the judges had seen that. ‘Those blessed voters were not misled for one minute,’ she declared. ‘There is a God, after all!’
She went on to win two Oscars for Best Actress, in To Each His Own in 1946 and three years later in The Heiress.
But the humiliation was harder to take in 1942 when she was nominated for Hold Back The Dawn — only to see her younger sister, Joan Fontaine, win for the Alfred Hitchcock movie Suspicion.
Her first thought, she said, as the winner’s name was read out, was: ‘Oh my God. I’ve lost prestige with my own sister. And it was true — she was haughty to me after that.’ In fact, the rivalry between the siblings went back to early childhood. Olivia was born in Tokyo on July 1, 1916, the daughter of a British patent lawyer and an actress.
Her parents brought her aged three to California for medical treatment: she was a sickly and asthmatic child.
Within a year, Augustus de Havilland had returned to his Japanese mistress, abandoning his wife and children: Olivia’s sister, Joan, was just a year younger than her.
Their mother remarried again, to a man named George Fontaine, but Olivia never liked him. She stayed aloof, but Joan did all she could to make her stepfather love her, even adopting his surname.
It was the beginning of a lifelong rift, one that frequently erupted into open warfare. Joan once told a reporter: ‘I remember not one act of kindness from Olivia all through my childhood. She so hated the idea of having a sibling she wouldn’t go near my crib.’
When their mother remarried, Olivia stayed aloof, but Joan (pictured) did all she could to make her stepfather love her, even adopting his surname
One frequently repeated story was that, aged nine, Olivia and her classmates were told to compose an imaginary ‘last will and testament’ for a homework exercise. Olivia wrote: ‘I bequeath all my beauty to my younger sister, Joan, since she has none.’
The enmity came to a head on a summer’s day in 1933, when Olivia, 17, pushed her sister over beside a swimming pool and jumped on her, fracturing her collarbone. By then, Olivia was an amateur actress, playing Lewis Carroll’s Alice and Puck, from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with the Saratoga Community Theater.
That led to her first film role, again in the Shakespearean comedy, this time as the disobedient and lovestruck Hermia.
Warner Brothers hired her, and cast her in a movie called The Irish In Us, opposite Jimmy Cagney. She was terrified: ‘It was like jumping off a diving board in the Olympic contest without knowing how to swim or dive, and I just had to find my way.’
She asked Cagney how she could learn to act, and he told her: ‘Whatever you say, mean it.’ That advice, she often insisted, was the basis of her career.
The movie that made her a star was Captain Blood, a pirate adventure starring the rakish Errol Flynn. From the moment she saw him, she was smitten. ‘I was called for a test, to see how the two of us in costume would look together,’ she recalled.
‘I walked on the set, and they said, “Would you please stand next to Mr Flynn?” and I saw him. Oh my! Oh my! Struck dumb. I knew it was what the French call a coup de foudre.’
Audiences saw the sizzling chemistry between them, and the movie was a huge hit.
It led to eight more films together, including two smashes The Charge Of The Light Brigade and The Adventures Of Robin Hood. For months, gossip columnists hinted that the reserved, self-disciplined de Havilland and the dope-smoking, whisky-sodden Flynn would marry.
Olivia looks on after she was awarded with the Legion d’honneur at the Elysee Palace in France in September 2010
‘Nothing came of it,’ De Havilland said. ‘I’m not going to regret it. It could have ruined my life.’
What many observers predicted would both ruin her life and end her career was her decision to sue Warner Brothers in 1944, and break her contract.
She accused studio heads of withholding good parts and casting her in second-rate films — a common ruse to prevent stars from becoming too headstrong.
De Havilland was sick of playing ‘Melanie’ roles — the love interest who gazes adoringly at the hero and sacrifices herself when the plot demands it.
She wanted to play stronger, more independent characters — not least because she saw that Joan, under contract to RKO Pictures, was getting those parts, in films such as Rebecca and Suspicion.
Warners expected De Havilland to be ‘an ingenue’, a sweetheart. For years, De Havilland put a brave face on it. ‘Actually, I think playing bad girls is a bore,’ she told a reporter.
‘I have always had more luck with good-girl roles, because they require more from an actress.’
But finally she lashed out, despite warnings that whether she won or lost she would never work again. De Havilland won, and went on to win her Oscars in the more complex roles she craved, but her love affair with Hollywood was waning.
The only way to survive in Tinseltown, she said, was to imagine she was living in an alien city. ‘If you try to equate it with anything else, you’ll perish.’
Olivia holds two Oscars as she returns home following the Academy Awards Presentations
At the Cannes Film Festival in 1953, she met Pierre Galante, a journalist from Paris Match magazine.
He became her second husband and they bought a house near the Bois de Boulogne in the capital, where they raised a daughter, Gisele, and De Havilland’s son, Benjamin, from her marriage to screenwriter Marcus Goodrich.
The couple divorced in 1979, but De Havilland lived in Paris for the rest of her life. Her relationship with sister Joan froze, thawed and froze again.
When their mother died in 1975, Olivia tried to exclude her sibling from the memorial service. It was only when Joan threatened to go to the Press and cause a scandal that an invitation was extended.
At the service, the two women ignored each other, except for the moment when Olivia passed the casket to Joan so she could scatter a handful of ashes.
That was more civil than they managed to be at the Oscars four years later, when they had to be seated on opposite sides of the stage — or ten years after that when, to their mutual horror, they discovered that they were both booked into the same Beverly Hills hotel.
Joan — who died, aged 96, in 2013 — immediately checked out. Perhaps even she felt that her sister was the greater star.
At any rate, no one would ever convince Olivia de Havilland otherwise.