The Life & Times Of ‘Gone With The Wind’ Star Olivia de Havilland And Her Challenging Childhood

After gracing the showbiz world for nearly a century, Olivia de Havilland’s name is synonymous with being a significant figure and pioneer in classical Hollywood. Olivia is remembered for attaining many feats in the Golden Age of Hollywood, including being one of the last stars alive of that era and even beyond. She was also known alongside her younger sister Joan Fontaine for their historical sibling rivalry.

Besides the undisputable fame Olivia experienced, going back to her British-American background, she came from a family in which her childhood was strained. The late actress had a mother who never quite came around to being vocal about being proud of her children, while her stepfather was hyper-disciplinary. Olivia was born in Tokyo on July 1, 1916, to British parents Lilian and Walter de Havilland. Her younger sister was born the following year.

While her father was a patent lawyer and professor, her mother was a former actress and choral teacher. As children, Olivia and Joan suffered bronchial issues, and their mother thought it best to relocate. The family moved to California while Walter remained in Tokyo. At some point, his marriage to Lilian became rocky, and after their divorce, he married their housekeeper in Tokyo.

Lilian also got married again to a retail businessman, George Fontaine, who was tough as a father. Joan revealed to People in a 1978 interview that he made sure they had a “military childhood.” Olivia’s passion for theater started when she was about 5 years old. In an interview with Vanity Fair, she recalled stumbling upon her mother’s box of costumes and how she tried on some of the makeup.

Although her mom caught her and warned her never to speak of it, Olivia’s love for acting grew stronger. Her stepfather was so strict that he forbade Olivia from pursuing an acting career while under his roof.

As a youngster, Olivia’s interest in acting started at Los Gatos High School. She made her stage debut in 1933, playing the lead in the school play “Alice in Wonderland.” She caught the eye of director Max Reinhardt, who got her the role of Hermia in the production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Olivia gradually progressed in her acting career until she made her screen debut in 1935. This was when Warner Brothers adapted the play for screen production.

Her stepfather did not approve of her career and gave her an ultimatum to either quit showbiz or move out of the house. Olivia chose the latter, and her breakthrough came when she was cast alongside Errol Flynn in “Captain Blood.” This was the beginning of how Flynn and Olivia explored their onscreen chemistry in seven other films. She signed a seven-year contract with Warner Brothers at a time when studios had a stronghold on their in-house stars.

The legal agreement became bothersome for Olivia towards the end of the 1930s when she was tapped to play Melanie in 1939’s “Gone With The Wind.” The movie was adapted by David O. Selznick from Margaret Mitchell’s book of the same title. It eventually took the help of studio head Jack L. Warner’s wife to help Olivia star in the film.

In retrospect, “Gone With The Wind” had the most impact on her career, and it became the movie she was most known for. The actress earned her first Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress but lost to her co-star Hattie McDaniel, the first Black actor to win an Academy Award.

While Olivia’s career began to soar, her sister Joan also gradually made a name for herself in the movie industry. They were both known for their acting prowess and notorious sibling rivalry that often got contentious. The sisters’ issues went as far back as their childhood, and while Olivia did not indulge in much of the stories, Joan was willing to open up on it.

She told People in 1978 that she and Olivia fought as teenagers, leaving her collar bone dislocated. Joan also revealed that her older sister did not like how she achieved everything first. She shared:

“I got married first, got an Academy Award first, had a child first. If I die, she’ll be furious because again I’ll have got there first!”

The height of their feud came in 1975. Olivia, who was in charge alongside the executor of the estate, made arrangements to have their mom buried without her sister’s knowledge.

Joan shared that she had been touring in the play “Cactus Flower” at the time. She got wind of what happened, and although her sister did not invite her to the funeral, she attended. The sisters did not speak to each other. Joan passed on at 96 in 2013, seven years before Olivia’s demise in 2020 at the age of 104.

Amid their career trajectory, Joan won her first and only Oscar for Best Actress in 1942. Four years later, Olivia bagged hers in the same category. She would go on to win a second one the following year for “The Heiress.” In 1955, Olivia moved to Paris with her second husband, Pierre Galante, and lived out her days there.

Besides her many awards and recognitions, Olivia was known for the de Havilland law after her legal tussle with Warner Brothers. She won the case, which was pivotal in reducing studios’ control over their actors.

Isn’t it awe-inspiring that Olivia de Havilland’s legendary career greatly impacted Hollywood? Do you recall your favorite moment of watching her in some of her vintage pictures? Let us know, and be sure to pass this on to other fans of her.

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