Olivia de Havilland, star of the Golden Age of Hollywood, dies aged 104

Off-screen the two-time Oscar winner took on the powerful studio system

Phil Thomas
New York
Sunday 26 July 2020 18:18
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Olivia de Havilland, one of the biggest film stars of the 1930s and 1940s, has died at her home in Paris aged 104.

Born in Tokyo to British parents in 1916, de Havilland and her sister Joan Fontaine became two of the biggest stars of the Golden Age of Hollywood – as well as being the only sisters to win Best Actress Oscars.

De Havilland was best known for her role in Gone with the Wind, as well as for eight mostly swashbuckling historical movies she made with Errol Flynn, including The Adventures of Robin Hood, They Died With Their Boots On, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex and Captain Blood.

While the Civil War drama Gone with the Wind, released in 1939, became one of the most successful films of all time, it has been criticised for its positive portrayal of slave-owning Confederates. Donald Trump appeared to claim at a rally earlier this year that it was one of his favourite movies.

She won two Academy Awards, for To Each His Own in 1946 and for The Heiress three years later. One of her own favourites among her roles was 1948's The Snake Pit, in which she plays a woman suffering from schizophrenia. De Havilland was awarded a National Medal of Arts in 2008 and the Legion d'Honneur in her adopted home of France in 2010.

Olivia de Havilland was one of the biggest stars of the Golden Age of Hollywood

Her New York-based publicist Lisa Goldberg said she had died of natural causes.

Off-screen she took the restrictive and sometimes exploitative studio system to task – in 1943 she sued Warner Bros when it tried to keep her under contract after it had expired.

Warner claimed she owed six more months because she had been suspended for refusing roles. Her friend Bette Davis was among those who had failed to get out of her contract under similar conditions in the 1930s, but de Havilland prevailed, with the California Court of Appeals ruling that no studio could extend an agreement without the performer's consent.

She was also famous for her turbulent relationship and rivalry with her younger sister.

De Havilland is awarded the National Medal of Arts by President George W Bush in 2008

There were stories about them refusing to congratulate each other on their Oscar wins – Fontaine won for Alfred Hitchcock's Suspicion in 1941 – and periods of years when they reputedly refused to speak to each other. Fontaine died in 2013. In a 1978 interview she was quoted as saying of her sister: "I married first, won the Oscar before Olivia did, and if I die first, she'll undoubtedly be livid because I beat her to it."

De Havilland married twice, to the writer Marcus Goodrich and the journalist Pierre Galante. Both marriages ended in divorce. She had two children.

The Associated Press contributed to this report

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