Happy 99th Birthday, Olivia de Havilland!

Posted on July 2, 2015 at 10:20 am

Two-time Oscar winner Olivia de Havilland turns 99 years old today. She was one of the biggest stars of the Golden Age of Hollywood, appearing memorably opposite Errol Flynn eight times, most memorably in “The Adventures of Robin Hood.”

She could appear beautiful and glamorous, but some of her best roles were when insisted on looking plain: “Gone With the Wind,” “The Heiress,” and “The Snake Pit.” She is best remembered for her dramatic roles, but she was also a gifted comic performer, as shown in “The Strawberry Blonde” with James Cagney.

Entertainment Weekly had a wonderful tribute to her last year.

At 98, Olivia de Havilland is the last great star of Hollywood’s golden age, a woman who began her career during the rise of Technicolor in 1935, formed one of the most indelible screen couples of all time with Errol Flynn, and went on to work with James Cagney, Rita Hayworth, Montgomery Clift, Bette Davis, Richard Burton, Clark Gable, and Vivien Leigh. With her deep brown doe eyes and apple-cheeked smile, the two-time Best Actress winner excelled at playing heroines whose demure bearing belied a feisty core. The most famous of these great ladies was Melanie Hamilton, the tenderhearted foil to Leigh’s scheming Scarlett O’Hara in 1939’s Gone With the Wind. Based on Margaret Mitchell’s best-seller, the beloved epic has sold more tickets in its lifetime than any other film. And 75 years ago it cleaned up at the Academy Awards, winning eight of its 13 nominations.

Having outlived all of her costars (as well as the movie’s mad-genius producer, David O. Selznick, and the three directors he hired to steer the massive ship), de Havilland has been GWTW’s principal spokesperson for almost five decades, the sole bearer of the Tara torch. It’s a privilege she calls “rather wonderful,” as her affection for the film is genuine and deep. She’s seen GWTW “about 30 times,” she says, and still enjoys watching it for the emotional jolt it brings as she reconnects with those costars—Gable, Leigh, Hattie McDaniel, and Leslie Howard—who have long since passed on.

“Luckily, it does not make me melancholy,” she says via email a few days after our meeting. (Though an expert raconteuse, she’s conscientious about facts—”I want to be a font of truth”—and will discuss the finer points of her career only in writing.) “Instead, when I see them vibrantly alive on screen, I experience a kind of reunion with them, a joyful one.”

Ms. de Havilland lives in Paris, now, so we will wish her a bon anniversaire, with many thanks.

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