Over five decades as a Hollywood lioness, Olivia de Havilland famously played Maid Marian in The Adventures of Robin Hood and Melanie in Gone With the Wind.

While she would win Oscars as the unwed mother in To Each His Own (1946) and the titular spinster in The Heiress (1949), the most stirring role in the life of the deceptively demure actress, who died Sunday at her home in Paris at the age of 104, may have been offscreen.

Her publicist, Lisa Goldberg, confirmed the death but did not provide a cause.

Miss de Havilland made history in 1944 by successfully suing Warner Brothers for peonage. She contended that she had honored her seven-year contract. The studio insisted that “seven years” included only her time before the cameras, not the many months she was on suspension for refusing “insubstantial” parts.

The actress called it slavery. And on Feb. 3, 1945, the California Supreme Court agreed. At the time the de Havilland decision, still invoked today by artists as diverse as Courtney Love and Busta Rhymes, freed the actress to choose the roles that earned her honors and immortality. More than that, it toppled the studio system and protected future screen and recording artists from being treated as corporate property.

While virtually every actress in Hollywood — including her younger sister, Joan Fontaine — fought to play Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind (1939), it is telling that Miss de Havilland wanted the other role. Melanie, the magnolia who concealed her steel under hoopskirts, suited her to the ground.

She was the last surviving lead from Gone With the Wind, an irony, she once noted, because she played the only major character to die in the film. Based on Margaret Mitchell’s best-selling Civil War novel and the winner of 10 Academy Awards, the movie was a commercial and critical juggernaut but is now widely condemned for its glorified portrait of slavery and antebellum life.

From her early performance as Errol Flynn’s love interest in Captain Blood (1935) to her role as the Queen Mum on television’s The Royal Romance of Charles and Diana (1982), the diminutive brunette with the doe eyes distinguished herself in roles in which she concealed her iron fist in a velvet glove. Here was a woman who in life and on screen made the hard choice, and made it work.

Rare among actresses of her generation, Miss de Havilland — the last star of Hollywood’s golden era — was secure enough in her looks to play unglamorous roles such as the dowdy schoolteacher in Hold Back the Dawn (1941) and the frowsy, frenzied mental patient in The Snake Pit (1948). Equally rare, her virtuous characters radiated honor rather than goody-goodiness.

President George W. Bush greets actress Olivia de Havilland as he presented her with the 2008 National Medal of Arts in the White House.
Gerald Herbert / AP
President George W. Bush greets actress Olivia de Havilland as he presented her with the 2008 National Medal of Arts in the White House.

Yin and yang

Olivia de Havilland was born July 1, 1916, in Tokyo to English parents, kin of the Haviland china and de Havilland aircraft families. In 1919, when her father, a patent lawyer, took the family maid as a lover, his wife decamped for Saratoga, Calif., with toddler Olivia and infant Joan.

From childhood, the sisters were yin and yang. The elder was an apple-cheeked brunette, the younger an angular blonde. Olivia was the scholar, Joan the truant. Olivia possessed a laser-beam focus; Joan was a dreamy drifter. On screen, Olivia would play the woman of hard-won experience while Joan specialized in the perturbed innocent.

Although Miss de Havilland did well at the Notre Dame Convent school, she was a tad exhibitionistic. With an amused blush she recalled to The Inquirer in 1998 that once the nuns made her write on the blackboard 100 times: “I will in the future be modest and will not display my bloomers while playing basketball.”

Miss de Havilland’s academic accomplishments earned her a scholarship to Mills College, when she was 16. The summer before she was to enter she accepted the role of Puck in a Max Reinhardt production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. She worked steadily as an actress for the next half-century.

She won her first movie role — and that infamous seven-year contract — in Warner Brothers’ screen version of Shakespeare’s fantasy. She played Hermia.

At Warner, Miss de Havilland decorously played the wide-eyed beauty in a series of costume dramas starring Errol Flynn, with whom she made 10 memorable films, most famous being Captain Blood (1935) and The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). On screen, she was inevitably the fragrant flower around whom Flynn buzzed, the good girl whose love presumably would reform the mischief maker.

Offscreen, so besotted was Flynn with Miss de Havilland that to get her attention, he hid a rubber snake in her underdrawers. As she drily recalled in 1998, “That was the only way Errol ever got into my pantalets.”

At the studio where Bette Davis was Queen Bee, Miss de Havilland was the perpetual lady-in-waiting. She was even cast as one in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939). She was still playing supporting roles — and still single — when her younger sister snagged the lead in Rebecca (1940) and married actor Brian Aherne, Miss de Havilland’s erstwhile beau.

When she was lent to another studio to play the supporting role in Gone With the Wind, Hollywood belatedly realized that Miss de Havilland had been underutilized at Warner. For the role of Melanie, she received the first of five Oscar nominations, losing the supporting-actress honors to her costar Hattie McDaniel.

Despite her success, Warner did nothing to secure more prestigious parts for her. She was serenity and good humor personified as Jimmy Cagney’s patient wife in The Strawberry Blonde (1941), but Rita Hayworth got the title role and all the attention. Lent to another studio for the fine melodrama Hold Back the Dawn (1941), the Warner Brothers also-ran ran away with the story of the lovestruck schoolteacher who marries a foreigner (Charles Boyer) so he can immigrate to the United States. Miss de Havilland copped an Oscar nomination for the role, but lost to her sister, honored for her role in Suspicion.

The cutthroat competition between the siblings is the stuff of tabloid legend. True to their natures, Miss de Havilland never spoke of it and Fontaine couldn’t be stopped. In a 1978 interview the younger sister boasted, “I married first, and won the Oscar before Olivia did. And if I die first, she’ll undoubtedly be livid because I beat her to it.”

Liberated from the studio

Tortoise to her sister’s hare, Miss de Havilland figured that before she could get her Oscar, she had to get out of her binding contract with Warner Brothers. “It was very unbiblical for Warners to keep extending the period of my slavery,” the actress noted. Once she was liberated from the studio in 1944, Miss de Havilland’s career took off while that of her sister foundered.

Finally able to choose her own roles, she had an incredible string of movies in which she enjoyed unprecedented commercial and critical success. There were the twisted twins (one good, one evil) in The Dark Mirror (1946). And there was the unwed mother/career gal in her Oscar-winning weeper To Each His Own (both in 1946). She followed those with the mentally ill homemaker dispatched to The Snake Pit (1947), a harrowing performance, and capped off the decade with her Oscar-winning role in The Heiress (1949).

Actress Olivia de Havilland and Broderick Crawford with their Oscars at the 1949 Academy Awards dinner in Los Angeles. De Havilland won for best actress for "The Heiress," and Crawford won for best actor for "All the King's Men."
Actress Olivia de Havilland and Broderick Crawford with their Oscars at the 1949 Academy Awards dinner in Los Angeles. De Havilland won for best actress for "The Heiress," and Crawford won for best actor for "All the King's Men."

Given her roles in the Gothic My Cousin Rachel (1952) and the medical melodrama Not as a Stranger (1955), no other actress — not even Katharine Hepburn — enjoyed a decade so varied and lauded.

Incredibly, her personal life during these years was as momentous. After relationships with producer/aviator Howard Hughes, actor James Stewart, and director John Huston (she liked ‘em tall, skinny, and smart), Miss de Havilland married novelist Marcus Goodrich in 1946. Their son, Benjamin, was born in 1949. After the Goodriches divorced in 1952, Miss de Havilland was wooed by Paris Match editor Pierre Galante, whom she met at the Cannes Film Festival. They wed in 1955 and had a daughter, Gisele, in 1956.

The actress’ saucy account of being an American in Paris, Every Frenchman Has One, was published in 1962. (Its title refers to the liver, barometer of French health and humor.) She raised her children, entertained grandly in her townhouse near the Bois de Boulogne, and continued to act, most notably opposite Henry Fonda in A Gift of Time (1962) on Broadway and opposite Bette Davis in Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964).

When she and Galante divorced in 1979, he moved across the street and they saw each other daily. Miss de Havilland nursed him through a long battle with lung cancer that took his life in 1998.

Unlike her sister, long estranged from her two daughters, Miss de Havilland was a devoted parent and aunt. Son Benjamin died of Hodgkin’s disease in 1991; she is survived by her daughter, Gisele Galante Chulack.

Visiting the States to celebrate the umpteenth rerelease of GWTW in 1998, Miss de Havilland wore her 82 years like a new frock and her fame like sensible pumps. She looked less like a movie queen than the Queen Mum (a role she played in the 1982 telefilm The Royal Romance of Charles and Diana), but could she dish!

She gossiped about Errol Flynn’s randiness, about her good friend Bette Davis, “that benevolent volcano,” about her half-century in France. When asked about the legendary rivalry with her sister, she politely pretended she couldn’t hear the question.

“We laugh at the French because they are contrary. But I find that entertaining. No one is going to tell them what to do.”

She could have been describing herself.

This article includes information from the Washington Post, the Associated Press, and the Los Angeles Times.