Born of British parents in Tokyo on July 1, 1916, de Havilland got her start in classic showbiz fashion. At 17, she was cast as the understudy’s understudy for the role of Hermia in noted producer Max Reinhardt’s stage production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” When both the actress and her understudy were unable to go on, de Havilland stepped into the part. Also in that production: a 13-year-old Mickey Rooney, who played Puck.
Reinhardt was impressed enough with de Havilland to use her again when he made his all-star movie version in 1935. Thus, she became a contract player at Warner’s and was immediately put to work as the sweetly appealing heroine in such glossy studio products as “Anthony Adverse,” “The Great Garrick,” “The Strawberry Blonde,” “Hold Back the Dawn” and “Raffles.”
She became a star when she was cast opposite Errol Flynn in a series of wildly successful swashbucklers. Among them: “Captain Blood,” “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” “They Died With Their Boots On,” “The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex” and “The Charge of the Light Brigade.”
The actress later admitted she had fallen for her womanizing co-star, but couldn’t bring herself to tell him. Flynn was likewise smitten, but expressed his interest in a series of schoolboyish pranks (snakes in her underwear, boiling water in her water cooler).
On-screen, they were breathtakingly beautiful together. And though her parts often amounted to little more than an adorable — and adoring — prop for his derring-do, their chemistry was palpable. She brought a backbone to her often insipid ingenues and, in doing so, brought out the best in his roguish posing.
Off screen, she was involved with some of the most eligible and dashing men in Hollywood of her day. Jimmy Stewart courted her. So did Howard Hughes. But the probable love of her life was lanky John Huston, who directed her in the 1942 film, “In This Our Life.”
Over half a century later, she spoke to a Parade magazine reporter about Huston: “There was a man, someone I felt very deeply about after my long-term crush on Errol Flynn. He was a man I wanted to marry, and knowing him was a powerful experience, one I thought I would never get over.”
An equally powerful experience was her longtime rivalry with her younger sister and fellow actress, Joan Fontaine. Their feud was legendary, particularly after both were nominated for Oscars in 1942. Fontaine won for “Suspicion.”
Ironically, it was Fontaine who had sent the role of Melanie de Havilland’s way. When “Gone With the Wind’s” original director, George Cukor, asked Fontaine to read for the part, she huffed that she was only interested in Scarlett and that if it was a Melanie he wanted, he ought to try her older sister.
He did and was enchanted, as was producer David O. Selznick. But her boss, Jack Warner, proved obstinate, refusing to lend her to another studio. He let her go only after much negotiation, culminating in a swap for Jimmy Stewart’s services.
After she was cast, de Havilland wrote a tongue-in-cheek note to Margaret Mitchell (later reprinted in The Atlanta Constitution) which read, in part: “I feel it a great honor to have been selected to enact one of the roles in your book, the title of which escapes me at the moment.”
Mitchell wrote in reply, “I’m sending my sincere good wishes to you. I know better than anyone else how difficult a part Melanie’s will be.”
It was an astute comment. De Havilland’s challenge was to convey the character’s gentleness and genuine goodness without making her, in Scarlett’s words, a “namby-pamby.” How very well she managed becomes more striking each time you see the film.
“Playing Melanie,” de Havilland later said, “was a dream role, the kind an actress gets to play once in a lifetime. She was so real, so human — a perfect foil for the grasping, greedy Scarlett. She had iron in her soul even as Scarlett did, but it was covered with velvet, a softer texture.”
De Havilland displayed a little of her own humanity when she missed her ride to a Junior League ball while in Atlanta for the film’s debut in December 1939. After prevailing upon an officer to give her a lift in a patrol car, de Havilland raced into the room as emcee and then-mayor William B. Hartsfield intoned, “And now, ladies and gentlemen, I want to introduce to you that flower of Southern womanhood, Miss Melanie Hamilton.”
“Here I am!” she called, as she made her way through the crowd to the platform. Members of the audience lifted her into the arms of Vivien Leigh’s date, Laurence Olivier, and he gallantly carried her to her chair.
Despite her fine performance in the film, de Havilland lost the best supporting actress award to co-star Hattie McDaniel, who played Mammy. She was nominated two years later in the best actress category for “Hold Back the Dawn,” the year she lost to Fontaine.
By the end of the ’40s, though, de Havilland had outstripped her sister. She won for her self-sacrificing mother in 1946′s “To Each His Own,” and again as Henry James’ embittered spinster in 1949′s “The Heiress.”
Other major roles in her post-Warner years included the hysterical mental patient in “The Snake Pit,” twin sisters in “The Dark Mirror,” Robert Mitchum’s too-supportive wife in “Not as a Stranger” and the mystery woman who bewitches Richard Burton in “My Cousin Rachel.”
In the ’60s, she played a kind of Melanie-turned-rancid in “Hush, Hush … Sweet Charlotte” and was menaced by James Caan in “Lady in a Cage.” The late ’60s and ’70s were even less fruitful. Though she made several appearances on stage and television, her only film roles were in second-rate projects like “Airport ’77,” “The Adventurers” and “The Swarm.” Her final acting role was in 1988 in the TV film “The Woman He Loved.”
For the most part, she was content to live in Paris with her second husband, Paris Match editor Pierre Galante. The couple had one child, a daughter named Giselle, before their marriage ended in 1979. She had a son, Ben, from a previous marriage to author Marcus Goodrich.
Hollywood’s affection for her was evident in 2003, when she showed up at the Oscars as a presenter and received an extended standing ovation. In 2008, President George W. Bush bestowed her with the prestigious National Medal of Arts honor.
De Havilland remained feisty to the end. She filed a lawsuit against the producers of the 2017 FX drama “Feud: Bette and Joan,” offended by Catherine Zeta-Jones’ portrayal of her as a vulgar hypocrite and gossip. She said producers of the series, which focused on Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, failed to get her approval over her depiction and the TV series damaged her “professional reputation for integrity, honesty, generosity, self-sacrifice and dignity.” The case was rejected by California’s high court in 2018. In 2019, the United States Supreme Court rejected her petition to review the dismissal of her lawsuit.
In 1967, De Havilland came to Atlanta one last time, for the premiere of the 70-mm print of “Gone With the Wind.” By then, she was the only principal left, and she later said of the occasion, “It troubled me very much because all these great actors had died before their time … yet I felt that they were still somehow with me. I felt their presence, and I suppose, because of the film, they will all live on.”
It’s exactly the sort of gracious benediction one would expect from Melanie Wilkes. Or Olivia de Havilland. Now she, too, lives on, in the Old South of our imagination and in the technicolor memories of Hollywood’s youth.
Tom Bennett and AJC staff writer Rodney Ho contributed to this report.