De Havilland, Olivia: At 104, Oldest Best Actress Oscar Winner Alive

Born July 1, 1916 (in Tokyo), Olivia De Havilland celebrated her 102nd birthday in Paris.  As such, she is the oldest Best Actress winner alive.

The daughter of a British patent attorney and a former actress, she was brought to California at the age of three by her mother, after her parents divorce, along with her younger sister, Joan Fontaine.

While a freshman in college (in 1933) de Havilland appeared in a local production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and was chosen by Max Reinhardt to play Hermia in both his stage (Hollywood Bowl, 1934) and screen (Warner, 1935) versions of the play.

She was then signed by Warner to a seven-year contract and went on to play delicate, sweetly appealing heroines in films dominated by the personality of some of the studio’s top male stars.

De Havilland became the most frequent screen lady of Errol Flynn, playing his romantic partner in many adventure spectacles.

In a marked departure from her customary passive roles, she was cast as Melanie in Gone With the Wind (1939), on loan-out to Selznick, and showed considerable dramatic ability in this demanding part.

Back at Warner, she rebelled for better roles there and was put on a six-month suspension. When Warner wouldn’t release her from her contract at the end of the seven-year term, claiming her obligation should be extended for the duration of the suspension, she sued the studio and won a landmark decision that set the outside limit of a studioplayer contract at seven years, including periods of suspension.

De Havilland, absent from the screen for the three-year duration of the court battle, celebrated her comeback in 1946 with an Oscar-winning performance in To Each His Own.

She won a second Best Actress Oscar in 1949 for The Heiress, co-starring with Montgomery Clift and directed by William Wyler.

She is one of the few performers to be chosen Best Actress two years in succession (1948 and 1949) by the New York Film Critics Circle for her performances in The Snake Pitt and in The Heiress.

Other Oscar nominations included a Supporting Actress nod for Gone With the Wind (1939), and lead nominations for Hold Back the Dawn (1941), opposite Charles Boyer, and The Snake Pit (1948), one of Hollywood’s first pictures about mental illness.  She also won the Venice Festival prize for the latter.

Just when she was becoming established as one of Hollywood’s leading dramatic actresses, she left the screen temporarily for Broadway, returning only sporadically to films, but she had never regained her previous dominant stature.

Having divorced novelist Marcus Goodrich, her husband since 1946, shethen married Pierre Galante, the editor of Paris Match, in 1955, and moved to France.

She recollected her life in Paris in the book Every Frenchman Has One (a liver, not a mistress).

She has since appeared in a handful of films, mostly shot in Europe but some in Hollywood, and has made occasional appearances on Broadway and American TV.

Oscar Nominations and Awards

1939: Gone With the Wind (Supporting Actress)
1941: Hold Back the Dawn (Actress)
1946: To Each His Own (Actress)
1948: The Snake Pit (Actress)
1949: The Heiress (Actress)

Oscar Context

In 1939, De Havilland lost the Supporting Actress Oscar to Hattie McDaniel, also nominated for “Gone With the Wind.”

In 1941, the Best Actress winner was De Havilland’s sister Joan Fontaine for “Suspicion” in a much-publicized feud

In 1948, the Best Actress winner was Jan Wyman for “Johnny Belinda.”