Happy 100th Birthday, Olivia de Havilland! 10 Facts About the Screen Legend

As we celebrate Olivia de Havilland's 100th birthday, here's a look a her legendary life and career.
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Melanie Hamilton Wilkes didn’t survive Gone With the Wind. But the actress who played her, Olivia de Havilland, is the last remaining star from the Oscar-winning Best Picture of 1939, and today celebrates her 100th birthday. “I’m certainly relishing the idea of living a century,” she told Entertainment Weekly last year. “Can you imagine that? What an achievement.”

To celebrate, here are 10 things to know about the centenarian actress, including her future plans.

1. A Turbulent Upbringing

De Havilland, whose father was an English professor and patent attorney in Japan, was born in Tokyo on July 1, 1916. Fifteen months later, her sister, Joan, arrived. Both girls suffered from ill health, so their mother, Lillian, a former actress, insisted the family return to their native England in 1919—then settled with her daughters in Northern California on the trip back. (Father William, a master of the game of Go, went back to Japan. Olivia never visited England until 1938.) Lillian married department store owner George M. Fontaine, and took his surname, as did Joan. De Havilland recently told Vanity Fair that the two sisters fought constantly from early girlhood, after Olivia, age six, accidentally chipped Joan’s collarbone when Joan mischievously tried to drag her into a pool. (In her tell-all 1978 memoir No Bed of Roses, Fontaine said this happened when they were teens.)

2. Big Break

De Havilland, who wanted to be an English teacher, played Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the Saratoga Community Players. As luck would have it, the famed Austrian stage director Max Reinhardt was planning his own production for the Hollywood Bowl in Southern California, and at age 18 de Havilland was hired to understudy the role of Hermia. When the actress playing Hermia left the production, de Havilland played it to raves. Reinhardt, assigned to direct an all-star version for Warner Bros., convinced his discovery to sign a seven-year contract with the studio.

Olivia de Havilland in A Midsummer Night's Dream

Ross Alexander, Dick Powell, Jean Muir and Olivia de Havilland in the film A Midsummer Night's Dream.(Photo: Classic Movie Favorites, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

3. In with Flynn

But the 1935 film adaptation flopped. That same year, however, she and another fledgling Warners star, Errol Flynn, clicked in the swashbuckler Captain Blood, and they made seven more films together, notably the classic Technicolor romp The Adventures of Robin Hood, the biggest hit of 1938. Off screen, their relationship was professional, though for Vanity Fair she recently recalled carrying a torch for him, and being jealous at the attention Flynn paid to a contingent of young women at a charity ball in 1957, the last time they met.


De Havilland received her first Oscar nomination playing Melanie in Gone With the Wind. She earned it. Its first director, George Cukor, pinched her toes hard when she needed to simulate childbirth. De Havilland then helped Clark Gable, who had misgivings about crying onscreen, through a difficult scene that almost caused the star to quit the film. (As a practical joke, she also strapped herself to a concealed lighting fixture when Gable had to carry her in one strenuous scene.) It’s Vivien Leigh who says “As God is my witness . . .I’ll never be hungry again”—but it’s de Havilland who provided the retching noises on the soundtrack right before the famous line, as Scarlett chokes down a radish. 

Olivia de Havilland in Gone With the Wind

Olivia de Havilland as Melanie in Gone With the Wind (1939). (Photo: London Evening Standard, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

5. The Famous Feud

De Havilland received her second Oscar nomination, this time for Best Actress, for 1941’s Hold Back the Dawn—which put her in competition with Fontaine, who, herself an actress, was a nominee for Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion. Fontaine won the Academy Award, and “the war of the star sisters” went public. Fontaine, who always suspected that their mother liked de Havilland more, brushed her sister aside when de Havilland tried to congratulate her on her win, humiliating her. When de Havilland won her first Oscar, for 1946’s To Each His Own, it was her turn to snub Fontaine as she approached the dais. Contact between the siblings, the only two to have won acting Oscars for lead roles, was intermittent until 1975, when they were said to have had a final falling out over their ailing mother’s health care. Fontaine once said that, having married first, and having won the Oscar first, de Havilland would be “livid” if she died first, but her sister, who says they privately reconciled, professed sadness at her passing in 2013.

Gary Cooper and Joan Fontaine 1942 Oscars Photo Los Angeles Times Archives, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Joan Fontaine and Gary Cooper hold their Academy Awards at the 1942 Oscar after party. Joan competed against her sister Olivia de Havilland in the Best Actress category that year. (Photo: Los Angeles Times Archives, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

6. At War with the Studio System

De Havilland’s two Oscar nominations came on loan to other studios. She returned to Warner Bros. seeking better parts and was put on suspension for rejecting several duds. When her contract ended in 1943 she discovered that six months had been added atop the seven years, as a penalty for her past suspensions. Backed by the Screen Actors Guild, de Havilland sued, and the Supreme Court of California ruled in her favor, restricting the contracts to seven calendar years of service, minus the add-ons. 

7. Oscars

Her win disrupted the studio system and cost her two years of work, as the studios engaged in a virtual blacklist. She won her first Oscar for To Each His Own, as a mother who gives up her out-of-wedlock child, and received another nomination for a harrowing depiction of mental illness, The Snake Pit (1948). Her best part came with The Heiress (1949), with William Wyler directing her in an adaptation of an acclaimed Broadway play based on Henry JamesWashington Square. Frail, then forceful, in the title role, she won her second Oscar.

8. She’ll Always Have Paris

From the 1950s on, she made fewer films, as she relocated to Paris with her second husband and concentrated on family life. Each Christmas and Easter she reads from the Scriptures at the American Cathedral on the Avenue George V, and Vanity Fair reported that she once auctioned off her huge teddy bear collection (given to her by her actress friend Ida Lupino) to restore the church’s grand façade. She was appointed a chevalier of France’s Legion of Honour in 2010. 

Olivia de Havilland, Pierre Galante and their daughter Gisèle Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Olivia de Havilland and Pierre Galante with their new-born daughter Gisèle in Paris on July 18, 1956. (Photo: Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

9. Her Connection to The Joker

Fellow Oscar winner Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club) and his brother Shannon, of the band Thirty Seconds to Mars, successfully extended the use of the “De Havilland Law” to recording contracts in 2009. She was pleased to hear of its use. (Leto plays the comic book villain in this summer’s Suicide Squad.)

Olivia de Havilland and George W. Bush 2008

President George W. Bush presented Olivia de Havilland with the 2008 National Medal of Arts at the White House. (Photo: James Kegey/National Endowment for the Arts, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

10. What’s Up Next

Vanity Fair says de Havilland, who attributes her longevity to lessons learned as a Camp Fire Girl, told her doctor she plans to live to 110.