Golden girl: The divine Olivia de Havilland

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Olivia de Havilland is the last of the 1930s Hollywood legends. At 93, she tells John Lichfield about how she took on the studio system and won – and why she still adores Errol Flynn

With some actresses, it is the eyes. With Olivia de Havilland it is the smile, an elfin grin full of mischief and warmth and compassion, which illuminates scene after scene of one of the best-loved movies of all time, Gone with the Wind.

The marvellous, enigmatic De Havilland grin is still much sought-after on the internet. On YouTube, there are dozens of clips from her movies, mostly in chaste, highly-charged love-scenes with Errol Flynn in the celebrated series of swashbucklers and westerns that they made together in the 1930s and the early 1940s.

Seventy years after Gone with the Wind, 62 years after she won her first Oscar, 100 years after the birth of Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland's smile is gloriously, impishly intact. "Come and sit on this side of me," she says. "So that I can hear you better. And I do encourage you to help yourself. Please have at least a sip of champagne."

Olivia de Havilland was 93 this month. She is the only survivor of the leading cast members of Gone with the Wind. She is the oldest living star from the golden period of Hollywood in the 1930s and 1940s. She has lived in Paris for 56 years and has occupied her narrow, pretty, four-storey house near the Bois de Boulogne (houses of any kind are rare in Paris) for more than half a century.

Miss de Havilland agreed to give an interview to The Independent to mark the 70th anniversary of Gone with the Wind and the 100th anniversary of the birth of Errol Flynn. The interview was conducted first by an exchange of e-mail questions and answers and then in person. Both in writing and in speech (she still has the accent of her British parents, with only a trace of California), Miss de Havilland is precise, humorous, warm, only occasionally a little coy.

There is, however, one completely taboo subject: her sister, Joan Fontaine, of which more (but not much more) later.

We speak of the perennial fascination, seven decades on, with the nature of her relationship with the Australian-born heart-throb Errol Flynn. Miss de Havilland makes a rather moving admission about her relationship with Flynn: although not the admission that people have been seeking – and sometimes inventing – for more than 70 years. We speak of the troubled making of Gone with the Wind and her marvellous Oscar-nominated performance (at the age of 22) as the saintly Melanie Hamilton – "one of the most extraordinary and fulfilling experiences of my life".

We speak of the pivotal role that she played, through a courageous court action in 1943, in breaking the grip of the great Hollywood studios on stars like Flynn, Jimmy Stewart, Bette Davis and herself, who were adulated and paid a fortune, but treated like medieval serfs.

We also speak of her plans, finally, to write a long-delayed autobiography in which she will describe what the life of the Hollywood legends of the 1930s was really like. ("I had to present myself for make-up at 6.30am. We would often work until late in the evening. I made five films in my first year.")

First, however, let Miss de Havilland put the record straight about Errol Flynn.

"So much nonsense has been written. I am always being misquoted.... We were lovers together so often on the screen (eight times) that people could not accept that nothing had happened between us.

"Even in the autobiography of a rather nice British actor, I am misquoted. You know whom I mean? Tall, blonde, blue eyes. Must be about 60 now."

Michael Caine? "Yes, that's him. We were in that terrible movie about bees (The Swarm, 1978). A truly awful movie. But I wasn't stung by the bees – I was stung by misquotes. There was a British journalist helping Michael Caine with his book and one day they asked me about Errol Flynn. I said that nothing had happened, against everyone's expectations, but I pointed to a hillside and said that I did remember a rather memorable picnic on just such a hill with another man. In the book the words 'with another man' disappear."

In her written e-mail answers, she had said that Errol Flynn had been "quite unfair" in some of his scenes with her and that he was "vexed" with her for reasons that she could not "divine".

Pressed on this point (gently), Miss de Havilland's eyes twinkle knowingly. It is clear that she could easily divine the reasons for Flynn's vexation. How, I ask, was he unfair to her on set?

"Oh well, here is one example. We were making Santa Fe Trail in 1940. There was a scene that we had rehearsed, a two-hander. I am sitting there in my silly little bonnet and he comes in and sits down beside me. Except that when we came to shoot the scene, he kicked his chair around so that his face was in the shot, but you could only see my back. That was very unfair."

But why? Why did he do that? Another twinkle. "Oh well, I think that he was annoyed because Jimmy Stewart was making another film on the same lot and kept coming over to see me.

"I was seeing a lot of Jimmy in 1940. We were together for several months in that year and I suppose Errol was jealous."

In his autobiography, written just before his death in 1959, Flynn declares his undying love for Olivia de Havilland. This, she says, was a "great surprise", but it cannot entirely have been a surprise. In 1937, in the middle of their run of swashbuckling films, Flynn had made it clear that he was deeply smitten by her.

"I didn't reject him. You know, I was also very attracted to him. But I said that nothing could happen while he was still with Lili. (His then wife, the actress Lili Damita). She was away at the time and he said that there was no longer anything much between them.

"I said that he had to resolve things with Lili first. But, you know, he never did. I think he was in deep thrall to her in some way. He did not leave her then and he never approached me in that way again. So nothing did ever happen between us."

End of the story? Not quite. The Flynn-De Havilland on-screen chemistry was the most quietly conflagrational in the history of movies (despite the limited scripts that they were often given). Fifty years after Flynn's death, Miss de Havilland makes a touching admission, which suggests that the chemistry was no mere actorly device or accident.

"What I felt for Errol Flynn was not a trivial matter at all. I felt terribly attracted to him. And do you know, I still feel it. I still feel very close to him to this day."

I also make an admission of sorts to Miss de Havilland. I had never seen Gone with the Wind until just before I went to see her.

She chuckles. "And what did you think?" she asks. I gush, sincerely, about her performance as Melanie Hamilton, the good-hearted, lovable counterpoint and rival to Vivien Leigh's wicked, lovable Scarlett O'Hara. Few actresses have so brilliantly managed to make a saint live as a flesh-and-blood woman.

"Oh, it is so kind of you to say that," Miss de Havilland says. "Perhaps, it was because I believed in her and loved her so, It was a very deep joy to play Melanie Hamilton.

"She was a challenge. That was not true of my previous roles. The characters I played before then were not real people. They were two-dimensional. They were not given any character development. Melanie was a real person, a caring person, a good woman but also an intelligent woman and a tough woman. Most of all she was a happy woman, a woman with a great capacity for happiness...."

In her written replies, she had said: "All of Hollywood was convinced that Gone with the Wind would be a colossal disaster and rather hoped it would be." Why?

"Oh, (a De Havilland grin) I think they were tired of the whole thing. You have to remember that the search for a Scarlett O'Hara had gone on for three years. Then there were all the changes on the set, the three different directors. The press, the whole of Hollywood, was bored with Gone with the Wind long before it was finished and was convinced it would be a terrible flop.

"But not me. I believed in it. I knew that it would be a very successful movie because it had a real story to tell about real people...."

The first director, George Cukor, was reportedly fired (after three weeks) when Clark Gable (playing Rhett Butler) complained that too much screen time was being given to the two main female leads.

"I heard nothing of it directly but I think that Clark was unnerved by the way that the film was going," Miss de Havilland says. "There were scenes that were shot in the first few weeks that disappeared in the final version, including a long speech by me in one scene that I had with Clark. It irritated me at the time but, looking back, I think they were right to cut that speech. It should always have been Clark's scene, not mine."

Olivia de Havilland was born in Tokyo on 1 July 1916. Her father, Walter Augustus de Havilland, was the owner of a firm of international patent lawyers. How did a girl of British origin, born in Japan, end up in the movies in Hollywood?

Through a series of accidents. Her parents' marriage was collapsing and they planned, when she was two, to move to British Columbia but ended up in northern California.

In 1934, when she was 18, the young Olivia was about to become a drama student in Los Angeles when she was allowed to understudy the part of Hermia in a Los Angeles production of A Midsummer Night's Dream .

"In the great theatre tradition relating to understudies, the actress cast as Hermia was unable to appear on opening night and I went on in her place. Again in the best tradition, the reviews were good and I played the role for all of the subsequent performances. Soon thereafter I was asked to play Hermia in the Warner Bros film version of A Midsummer Night's Dream."

Warner Bros offered her a contract and Olivia de Havilland did not become a drama student but an actress. In 1935, aged 19, she made her first appearance with Errol Flynn in the swashbuckling Captain Blood, followed, amongst others, by Maid Marian to his Robin Hood in 1938.

Miss de Havilland was frustrated to be offered only roles as wholesome, costumed girls-next-door (what someone memorably described as "rescue fodder"). She was also irritated to find that, if she refused a role in a film, she was placed "on suspension". Her binding contract with Warner Bros was extended by the amount of time it took another actress to make the film.

In autumn 1943, Miss de Havilland – her lawyer father's daughter – single-handedly challenged the might of the Hollywood studio and star system. She brought a case against Warner Bros under California's "anti-peonage law": a law based on Napoleonic-era legislation in Louisiana which forbade employers to reduce their workers to serfdom. After 18 months, she won and the ruling is still known as the "De Havilland decision".

"Everyone in Hollywood knew that I would lose but I knew that I would win. I had read the law. I knew what the studios were doing was wrong."

While the case was being fought, she could make no movies. She went instead on a tour of American military hospitals in the Pacific. This is one of a number of moments in Miss de Havilland's life when her own personality and that of the loving, practical Melanie Hamilton appear to coalesce. "I could not sing. I could not dance. What could I do?" she says. "I wanted to do something so I just went around and talked to wounded servicemen."

Once the case was won, Miss de Havilland proved her point as an actress as well as a lawyer.

"From then on I could choose my own material and play roles that really interested me. Very soon after my victory, To Each His Own came along (1946) and brought me not only my third nomination for the Academy Award but also my first Oscar.

"Another nomination was to follow for The Snake Pit (1948, a ground-breaking movie, in which she played a woman suffering from mental illness) and another Oscar for The Heiress (1949). But what pleases me most of all about 'the decision' is that it benefited Clark Gable, Jimmy Stewart, Glenn Ford, Henry Fonda and all the other actors who had been on suspension throughout their war service. When they returned to Hollywood they were able to rewrite their studio contracts in much more favourable terms."

Miss de Havilland must also be one of the only great Hollywood stars to have deserted California at the height of her celebrity.

"Hollywood became a very depressing place in the early 1950s," she says. "The golden age had obviously ended and television had ended it. Where studios were making 100 movies a year in the 1930s, they were now making 25 or 10. There was a sense of terminal decline, of great depression.

"I was invited to the Cannes Film Festival in April of 1953. I met a Frenchman (Pierre Galante, later editor of Paris Match) who pursued me to London and then to the United States and persuaded me to return to France with my little boy from my first marriage (to the novelist, Marcus Goodrich)."

She found Paris, recovering from the war, to be a breath of fresh air after a deflated Hollywood. She commuted back to the US to make movies up to the 1980s (notably the cult classic Hush ... Hush Sweet Charlotte in 1964).

Was she never offered parts in French movies?

"No I wasn't. And I will tell you a very droll story. I thought that I had made great progress with my French when a grande dame said to me one day: 'You speak French very well Olivia, but you have a slight Yugoslav accent.' I suppose there were not parts in French movies for actresses with Yugoslav accents."

Although she divorced Pierre Galante in 1979, they remained friends. When he fell ill with lung cancer in 1998, he moved back into her home and she nursed him to the end. She had also nursed her son, Benjamin, a distinguished mathematician, before he died after a long battle with lymphoma in 1991.

These, again, were Melanie Hamilton moments in Miss De Havilland's own life. Did she think that she resembled her most celebrated screen creation?

Another beautiful De Havilland smile. "I would say that she is the person that I would like to be ... but also the person that I may never be."

Perhaps, in that last phrase, she was thinking of her long feud with her younger sister, the actress Joan Fontaine, 91, who lives in Los Angeles. The sisters, it is said, have not spoken for more than 40 years.

Did she also wish to put the record straight about her relationship with her sister? "That is one subject on which I never speak. Never," she said. And so we didn't.

Miss de Havilland has made a fresh start on her autobiography, which has twice been interrupted by bereavements. She hopes to have finished a first draft by September.

"I feel like a survivor from an age that people no longer understand. I want to try to explain what the 1930s – the golden age of Hollywood – was truly like. People forget that America was such a different place then, not yet the dominant force in the world. I also want to explain how different the sexual mores of those times were.

"And to recall what it was like to be a star in the studio system. How you were a great celebrity but also a slave. How I had to present myself to make-up by 6.30 am and work until late in the evening. How I had to make five movies in my first year. How whatever private life you had left to you didn't belong to you but the studio publicists."

As a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Miss de Havilland is sent DVDs of all the Oscar-nominated movies. She watches many of them and is a great fan of Meryl Streep. ("I would watch anything with Meryl Streep in it.") Because she does not have the time to watch all the movies, she never votes. "It means too much to people. You must watch everything if you are going to vote."

It is not just the motion picture academy which still remembers Olivia de Havilland (who may well be the oldest surviving Oscar winner). She has "12 metal drawers of unanswered fan mail". She plans eventually to answer them all. "One must." She feels especially guilty about her admirer in Scotland who sends her a letter and flowers each year. He is due a long letter, she says, because it is nine years since she replied to him. But she will.

How does she look back on such a long career?

"I feel not happy, not contented, but something else. Just grateful for having lived and having done so many things that I wanted to do and have also had so much meaning for other people."

Leading lady: Olivia de Havilland's greatest roles

The Adventures of Robin Hood

Directed by Michael Curtiz, 1938

Although this was largely a vehicle for Errol Flynn – and the movie that made his name – it was also the film that established De Havilland, as Marian, and Flynn as the most incendiary (but chaste) on-screen couple in Hollywood in the late 1930s. De Havilland came to hate her early two-dimensional roles as "rescue fodder" for Flynn, but she plays the stubborn, tom-boyish, adoring girl in the castle-next-door beautifully.

To Each His Own

Directed by Mitchell Leisen, 1946

A complex weepie, with flash-backs, in which De Havilland, as Josephine "Jody" Norris, amply justifies her long legal battle to win more freedom to choose demanding roles. She plays a small-town girl during the First World War who has an illegitimate son with a roaming pilot and has to watch her child grow up from afar. This movie gave De Havilland her third Oscar nomination and her first victory.

Gone with the Wind

Directed by Victor Fleming (and partly by George Cukor and Sam Wood), 1939

De Havilland was one of a score or more actresses who was considered, but rejected, for the main part of Scarlett O'Hara. Although only 22, she gave an extraordinarily mature performance as Scarlett's loving friend and detested rival, Melanie Hamilton. She and Vivien Leigh (as Scarlett) threatened to dominate the movie so much that Clark Gable (as Rhett Butler) protested and the first director, George Cukor, was fired.

The Snake Pit

Directed by Anatole Litvak, 1948

De Havilland plays Virginia Stuart Cunningham, a wealthy wife who suffers a nervous breakdown and finds herself in a mental hospital but cannot remember why she is there. Her subtle performance was again nominated for an Oscar. The movie – ground-breaking for its time – led to legislation to improve mental health care in the United States. De Havilland picks this film as her personal favourite. "Knowing that the mental wards of military hospitals were filled with traumatised soldiers, I felt that it was imperative that their families understood their affliction."

Hush ... Hush Sweet Charlotte

Directed by Robert Aldrich, 1964

De Havilland plays an offbeat role as Miriam Deering, a poor cousin of a rich family in a bizarre, horror version of the classic country house murder movie. Her performance at the time was singled out as even more compelling than that of her friend Bette Davis in the lead role. The movie was panned by some critics but has since become a cult classic.

The Heiress

Directed by William Wyler, 1949

De Havilland won her second Oscar for what has been described as a "spine-chilling" performance as plain, shy, rich girl Catherine Sloper, who is duped by a handsome, plausible fortune-hunter (played by Montgomery Clift). The story is based on the Henry James novella, 'Washington Square'. De Havilland says: "This film means a great deal to me, which every woman will comprehend."

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