A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935)
”My career began in the middle of the Golden Age, 1935, when sound had already been firmly established and color was first introduced,” de Havilland says via email, her preferred method of discussing her career. ”It was an illustrious beginning: playing the tempestuous Hermia in Max Reinhardt’s black-and-white motion picture presentation of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” The actress knew the role well, having played Hermia in Reinhardt’s stage production at the Hollywood Bowl in 1934—just months after graduating from high school. She’d originally been the second understudy to Gloria Stuart, who, many years later, appeared in James Cameron’s Titanic.
The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)
Of the eight movies de Havilland made with the dashing Aussie playboy Errol Flynn, this giddy frolic is perhaps the best showcase for their indelible chemistry (which led to much speculation about an off-screen romance). ”Oh, Mr. Flynn, Mr. Flynn, Mr. Flynn!” writes de Havilland, who played a spirited Maid Marian to Flynn’s titular robber of the rich. ”A cantankerous fate kept us together in films and apart in real life. Much as I have sometimes mourned this, if it had been otherwise I would never have played Melanie [Hamilton in Gone With the Wind], Jody Norris [To Each His Own], Emmy Brown [Hold Back the Dawn], Virginia Cunningham [The Snake Pit], or Catherine Sloper [The Heiress]. And who can say that our union would have lasted?”
Gone With the Wind (1939)
While every other A-list actress at that time dreamed of playing Scarlett O’Hara, de Havilland was immediately drawn to the less showy Melanie Hamilton because of her ”comprehension of others and her compassion toward them.” Her tender, gentle portrayal of Melanie landed de Havilland her first Oscar nomination, for Best Supporting Actress—the same category that recognized her costar, Hattie McDaniel, who played Mammy. 75 years later, de Havilland remembers almost everything about Oscar night 1940, including a pre-ceremony cocktail party at the home of GWTW producer David O. Selznick. It was there, she says, that ”something surprising happened… As we were enjoying our libations, the phone rang. David picked up the receiver and, listening to the person on the other end of the line, repeated the names of the various GWTW nominees who had won. The list was long, and just before repeating ‘Vivien,’ David said, ‘Hattie.’ In that moment I knew, of course, that I had lost.”
A GWTW sweep, but de Havilland goes home empty-handed
GWTW took home eight Oscars, including one for Hattie McDaniel, the first African-American to win. De Havilland was crushed not to be among the victors. ”When I returned home on Oscar night, aged 23 and the loser of the Award for the Best Performance by a Supporting Actress, I was convinced there was no God,” she says. But when she considered the historical significance of McDaniel’s triumph, her loss didn’t seem so dramatic. And she cheered herself up by interpreting the Academy’s decision as vindication that she belonged in the lead category all along. ”Then one morning, about two weeks later, I woke up and thought, ”Oh! How wonderful! I wasn’t a Supporting Actress, and Hattie was, and she won! Those blessed voters were not misled for one minute, and in their wisdom they voted overwhelmingly for Hattie, justly rewarding her extraordinary performance as Mammy. I’d rather live in a world where someone who is a Supporting Actress wins against someone who, instead, is a star playing in a starring role! A world where a wonderful actress who is black is favored over four other nominees who are not. There is a God, after all!”
Hold Back the Dawn (1941)
Beginning at age 18, de Havilland was a contract player at Warner Bros.—where, to her great frustration, she was largely cast in stock love-interest roles, even after GWTW proved she could do so much more. So she sought out projects outside the studio, including this drama directed by Mitchell Leisen, in which she played Emmy Brown, a sweet American jilted by a Green Card-seeking European (French actor Charles Boyer). ”Paramount skillfully maneuvered Jack Warner into loaning me to it for Hold Back the Dawn and the role of Emmy, a small-town schoolteacher who undergoes a tragic disappointment, to which she reacts with poignant strength and dignity,” she recalls. The Academy was among those who took notice of de Havilland here, rewarding her with her first Best Actress nomination.
The Strawberry Blonde (1941)
Back on the Warner lot, de Havilland had learned that the scripts first went to Perc Westmore, head of the makeup department. So one day, she snuck into his office after he’d gone home and stumbled upon the screenplay for The Strawberry Blonde, a lighthearted romp in which she showed off impeccable comedy skills as James Cagney’s feisty wife, Amy Lind. ”I…grabbed it, rushed home, read it from first page to last, and on the next day waited for the right moment to sneak back into Perc’s room and replace the script,” she writes. ”I loved the role of Amy, who endured hard emotional experiences and certainly developed through them. Finding out who had been assigned as the producer of The Strawberry Blonde, I called on him and told him that I would like to play Amy. He replied, ‘But Amy is a small-town girl, and you are not a small-town girl.’ I instantly responded, ‘But I am a small-town girl! I was brought up in Saratoga, California, a village!’ (Never mind its great estates, and the sophisticated people from all over the world who had either settled there, retired there or had vacation places there.) I got the part.”
To Each His Own (1946)
In 1943, Warner Bros. tried to add time to de Havilland’s seven-year contract. The actress fought back, successfully suing her employers in a landmark case that made it illegal for studios to extend an actor’s contract beyond seven years. (The law is still known as The de Havilland Decision—an honor she calls ”absolutely marvelous!”) Free at last from her creative prison at Warner Bros., de Havilland kicked off a golden age of her own with To Each His Own, which she calls ”one of my favorites.” For her turn as Jody Norris, an unwed mother forced to give up her son, de Havilland won her first Best Actress Oscar.
The Snake Pit (1948)
During WWII, de Havilland traveled abroad to support American troops. Her encounters with patients in psych wards sparked a desire to educate the public about mental illness—so she was thrilled to find The Snake Pit, a drama about a woman who suffers a breakdown and is sent to a psychiatric hospital. Her performance, at turns both subtle and explosive, earned de Havilland another Best Actress nomination. ”I’m especially proud of having played Virginia Cunningham in The Snake Pit at a time when the world was not only totally uneducated about mental illness but was also burdened with a medieval fear of it,” she says. ”The film played to huge audiences all over the country; and in one New York City cinema, ran an entire year. It changed, as we hoped it would do, the public’s attitude toward both mental illness, itself, and those suffering from it.”
The Heiress (1949)
”After I completed The Snakepit,” de Havilland writes, ”the rumor went around that the film was destined to be a ‘blockbuster.’ I now needed to find a successor of equal stature.” She found it in The Heiress, an adaptation of Henry James’ Washington Square (and a Broadway play by the same name), directed by William Wyler. De Havilland is phenomenal as Catherine Sloper, a wealthy young woman who falls for a fortune hunter (Montgomery Clift) and transforms from a naïve romantic at the mercy of her contemptuous father (Ralph Richardson) into a hardened adult in charge of her own fate. She rightly won a second Best Actress Oscar for her work. ”This film, in a quite different way, is even closer to my heart than its predecessor,” she says, referring to The Snake Pit.
Life in Paris (1953-present)
When de Havilland moved to France in 1953 to marry her second husband, a French journalist named Pierre Galante, she was pleased to bid Hollywood adieu. ”I left Hollywood at a tragic time, when television was beginning to replace cinema as the most widely viewed form of popular entertainment,” says de Havilland, above with John Forsythe, her costar in 1956’s The Ambassador’s Daughter. ”The Golden Era…was dying and I knew that whatever replaced it would not be its equal. Hollywood was a depressing, negative place in a state of deterioration.” So she devoted herself to her children, Benjamin and Giséle, and took the occasional job by ”commuting to Hollywood,” as her son used to say. She eventually changed her mind about the small screen, appearing in several television series and specials. In 1987, she earned an Emmy nomination for her turn as a Russian empress in the NBC miniseries Anastasia: The Mystery of Anna. Now retired, she considers herself a ”Parisian-American” and describes her life as ”all-absorbing…oriented toward the present.”
GWTW: 75 Years Later
A quarter-century after she made GWTW, de Havilland still feels a deep affection for the film. Over the years, she has observed all of the movie’s milestone birthdays, including a 40th anniversary celebration in Los Angeles in 1979, which she attended with her daughter, Gisèle Galante (pictured, with de Havilland). She also helped organize a screening at UNESCO headquarters in Paris in honor of the 60th anniversary in 1999. Knowing how much GWTW means to her, the American friends who helped put together that event came through again just this past December. ”On the evening of December 15th, 2014, I received an extraordinarily beautiful bouquet of 75 dark red velvety roses,” she says. ”It came in honor of Gone With The Wind‘s 75th Anniversary, and in memory of that earlier anniversary. Its donors were those nine precious friends, the organizers of the 60th Anniversary of the film. Wasn’t that wonderful?”