In our The Toast series today, we pay homage to one of Hollywood’s longest living actors in 2020, Olivia de Havilland, who left behind a history and a legacy of roles to be treasured for generations to come.
Picture it: July 26, 2020. A flurry of TV news alerts. Followed by a flurry of Twitter and Instagram tributes. The legendary, talented, beautiful actress Olivia de Havilland has passed away peacefully, in her sleep, at home in Paris. She was the whopping, gasp-worthy age of 104. To those long-standing fans, it was a tearful, though joyous goodbye.
Farewell to Melanie of Gone With the Wind (1939), perhaps the kindest, sweetest character ever captured on film, in perhaps the greatest Hollywood movie of all time. Olivia’s portrayal of Melanie was luminous, vibrant.
A true Southern belle, hoop skirt, bonnet and all, Melanie sashayed onto the screen with the warmth of a summer’s day breeze. And when she spoke? Soothing. Refreshing. Her words were as serene as lemonade on that same summer day. Olivia was utterly captivating as Melanie, and she delivered her to the audience with ease. Question – how could Melanie hold her own and withstand those sulky spoiled jolts from that spoiled Scarlett O’Hara played by the magnificent Vivien Leigh? Unthinkable acting challenge. But the great Olivia pulled it off.
Farewell to Jody of To Each His Own (1946), which was Olivia’s first Oscar-winning role. And farewell to innocent, grasping Catherine of The Heiress (1949), which earned her the second Oscar. Olivia’s spellbinding transformation from emotionally starved, naïve girl to hardened, stone-faced, scorned young woman is one of the best Oscar-winning performances ever. Most definitely a cautionary tale for that long-gone nineteenth century man – how “not” to treat a lady.
Oldest Living Oscar Winner
And these are just a few roles from Olivia’s ‘greatest hits’ collection. The fact is, for a wonderful many years, Olivia was a wonderful many things – so much positivity surrounded her. At the time of her passing, she was the oldest living Oscar winner (age 104). Further, she was the last surviving principal actor from Gone With the Wind. All of her Gone With the Wind cast-mates had passed on, and some of them many years earlier.
But Olivia had continued to live and flourish, bestowing her fans (nearly right up until her passing) with tasty tidbits about her Gone With the Wind experience. Behind-the-scenes scoop? Olivia had us covered. Additionally, she proudly conveyed that in her old age she felt happy seeing her long-gone buddies on-screen in Gone With the Wind.
Instead of feeling lonely or sad, she felt uplifted. Words of wisdom for us non-centenarians. Cherish the past, but don’t get lost in it or be sad about it. Olivia seemed to have a way of looking at life (and death) that was downright inspirational. Her fame gave her a platform to enlighten all of us, and she did. So thank you, Ms. de Havilland.
But her glittering list of Old Hollywood notables doesn’t end there. Flash-back again to her heyday of the 1930s and 1940s, and we’ll see she was one half of the most beloved Old Hollywood duo of all time. Cue that dashing, swashbuckling sex symbol Errol Flynn. Starring with him in a huge handful of films, including Captain Blood (1935) and The Adventures of Robin Hood, (1938), Olivia showed future generations of actresses just how important on-screen romantic ‘chemistry’ and ‘spark’ is. For a film’s success, it’s invaluable.
Olivia And Errol Flynn
Nestled in Errol’s strong arms in The Adventures of Robin Hood, the audience can almost hear Olivia and Errol’s hearts beating — together. In tune. In sync. Then comes the kiss. The Olivia and Errol pairing was truly magical. Sometimes in traditional black and white, and other times in fancy bright Technicolor, these two danced their way through Old Hollywood like the romantic royal couple they were. Clink that champagne glass!
Off-screen, Olivia was equally elegant and respected. She was a strong fighter of injustice in the Old Hollywood studio system, even having a law named after her (the still-impactful ‘De Havilland Law’ of 1943). She was also a loyal friend to fellow superstars like Bette Davis. And as for dating? Her Hollywood black book (or old school “dance card”) was hopping, brimming, and filled to the max.
Think Old Hollywood heartthrob Howard Hughes and good-guy James Stewart. Long before the days of Brangelina (Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie) or even Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, there was Livvie and Jimmy (Olivia de Havilland and James Stewart). How thrilling.
Olivia’s film career progressively declined after the 1940s, while she raised a family, and moved abroad to her new forever home in Paris. But she most definitely continued her reign as Hollywood royalty. Not Old Hollywood, but New Hollywood. Career highlights include Light in the Piazza (1962) — an emotionally touching, geographically gorgeous, and progressive flick often listed as one of the best Mother’s Day films ever.
A Mother’s Day Film Favorite
Set in sunny Florence, Italy, and exploring a complex mother/daughter relationship beset by fears and limitations, this film takes the difficult topic of mental disability and illuminates it with possibility, instead of sadness. Wonderfully cast with Olivia de Havilland and a sprightly Yvette Mimieux, this film is executed with a light, frothy touch — truly a ray of sunshine for movie lovers hankering for that ‘perfect’ Mother’s Day film.
Olivia is expertly skillful in this multifaceted maternal role. So good in developing on-screen chemistry with romantic partners, Olivia shows her ability to ‘synch up’ with an on-screen daughter. She and Yvette are remarkably believable as mother and daughter. Olivia seems to instinctively know which nuances to play, and she conveys much in a look. Light in the Piazza is a G-rated delight — deceptively simple, surprisingly poignant. Olivia and Yvette paint the prettiest of brushstrokes.
But next on Olivia’s agenda? Where’s that dark, ominous cloud? Ms. de Havilland would follow up her breezy Italian-set dramedy with two cult-classic thrillers, Lady in a Cage (1964) and Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964). She joined the fun ranks of other Old Hollywood icons like Bette Davis and Joan Crawford who, like her, were successfully retooling their careers.
After their dominance of the previous decades, these powerful ladies were still proving their vitality, versatility, and sparkling box office appeal even as they were women over forty (which one might say was viewed more negatively than “over forty” is today). Star power to infinity. Olivia had it.
The Shock And Horror
And in Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte, whoever thought Olivia’s character would be the treacherous, scheming villain? What a twist! Olivia was a two-time Oscar winner, and so she carried off this role like the acting ‘rock star’ that she was. Many of us didn’t see her evil coming, and when it was upon us – horror movie heaven. Another day at the office for Olivia, but another night with the bedroom lights on for the rest of us.
She would also star in the campy 1970s disaster flicks Airport ‘77 (1977) and The Swarm (1978). Outrageous, over the top fun, whether it was intended or not — the 1970s ‘disaster’ movie genre was a true love of the day. It was chock full of huge ensemble casts that brought Old Hollywood and New Hollywood stars together in the most dire of circumstances – to battle existential menaces like killer bees.
Long gone were the elaborately coiffed indoor studio sets of Warner Bros. and MGM in Hollywood. No, this was ‘in the desert’ or ‘in the mountain’ live action scenes, down dirty in the trenches, creating real-life disasters. Lots of pyrotechnics. Aerial shots. It was beyond entertaining to see the exalted Olivia de Havilland (now in her early sixties) joining in this modern, more realistic Hollywood fun.
Indeed, we lost a great light in Olivia de Havilland’s passing last summer. She brought so many people joy. She was shimmering gold in a poetic sense. But in a real sense, she was a direct link to a magnificent bygone era that will never come again. She was a living piece of history. The last of the Old Hollywood starlets still alive in 2020, she was worthy of our respect.
An Inspiring Life
How fortunate we were that she was our unofficial ambassador to Old Hollywood for so long. Intelligent, kind, and gracious until the end, she was honored by heads of state in various countries. She was giving e-mail interviews and posing for photos. At 100, she even re-released her humorous 1962 memoir called Every Frenchman Has One to coincide with her monumental 100th birthday. (What does every Frenchman have? Read to find out. And be prepared to talk liver!)
Yes, on July 1st, 1916, in Tokyo, Japan, a little girl was born. She would grow up to be a famous, beloved Hollywood movie star. Then a whopping, gasp-worthy 104 years later, she would pass away gently in Paris. Sometimes we finish so far from where we started. And lucky for us, Olivia de Havilland shows us all the truly amazing, spectacular things we can do in between.
Rest in peace and power to the singular Olivia de Havilland — unquestionably Hollywood’s oldest, most cherished mom.
Catch all the stories from The Toast series here.
I was once an exec for The Economist magazine. Nowadays, I'm a published poet, travel writer, and "vintage" pop culture blogger from the New York City area. I love movies, and especially those dusty old classics. I "heart" the rich history of film.