“When I returned home on Oscar night, aged 23 and the loser of the award…. I was convinced there was no God.”—Olivia de Havilland, on losing for her role in Gone With the Wind, quoted in Missy Schwartz, “The Last Star,” Entertainment Weekly, Jan. 3-Feb. 6, 2015
Well, I’d say she more than made up for it: She eventually took home two of the coveted statuettes, for challenging roles in To Each His Own (1946) and The Heiress (1949), not to mention still more nominations for Hold Back the Dawn (1941) and The Snake Pit (1948).
All hail Olivia de Havilland, who turns 100 years old today in Toyko to British expatriates (including, notably, an actress). The public celebrates, as cult figures, stars who burn out way before they should. But a deserved honor belongs to those who endure.
And who, after all, has endured more than de Havilland? I don’t mean just surviving to her grand age (making her not only, after Luise Rainer and George Burns, the only Oscar winners to live to 100, but the only one of the 50-odd cast members with speaking parts in Gone With the Wind who survives). I also mean enduring:
*the attempt by her studio, Warner Brothers, to destroy her career, when they suspended her for turning down roles and lengthened her contract, only to have her sue and win her freedom;
*the bitterness of younger sister Joan Fontaine, who wrote about their estrangement in her memoir;
*the blandishments of her charming but rakish co-star of eight films at Warner Brothers, Errol Flynn;
*the loss of her son at 41, as well as an ex-husband she nursed in his dying months.
The marvelous film blogger Self-Styled Siren’s post on de Havilland—part of a larger tribute she wrote for Sight and Sound—discusses the star’s two-year lawsuit against Warner Brothers, a legal move that none of her colleagues dared to openly support at the time. When she triumphed, unlike good friend and fellow star Bette Davis in her own unsuccessful battle with the studio, the article notes, “Jack Warner … found out that his all-purpose flower-like ingénue was tougher than Jezebel.”