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Olivia de Havilland, Oscar-winning actress, dies at 104

Olivia de Havilland holds two Oscars as she

Olivia de Havilland holds two Oscars as she returns home following the Academy Awards on March 24, 1950. Credit: AP

Olivia de Havilland, who achieved fame as Errol Flynn’s most popular co-star and was the last surviving key cast member from “Gone with the Wind,” died Saturday at her longtime residence in Paris.

The actress, who turned 104 this month, died of natural causes according to her publicist, Lisa Goldberg.

In a career spanning more than five decades, de Havilland became identified as a woman of elegance and grace, particularly in her pairings with Flynn, in which she typically played the damsel in distress to his swashbuckling hero. After breaking free from Warner Bros. in the 1940s, she established herself as one of the premiere dramatic actresses of Golden Era Hollywood.

If there’s one role, however, that’s her hallmark, it’s Melanie Hamilton, the sweeter-than-molasses rival to Scarlett O’Hara for the affections of Ashley Wilkes in the 1939 blockbuster “Gone with the Wind.”

In an interview in 1998, de Havilland told me that while every actress in Hollywood had designs on playing Scarlett, she only had eyes for Melanie.

“I knew I was going to have to earn my own living and be self-reliant and independent and self-supporting,” she said. “And when I made ‘Gone with the Wind,’ that’s exactly what I was. So was Scarlett. Since I was myself leading that life, the role didn’t interest me at all.”

From the time she was a youngster, de Havilland was destined to be an actress. De Havilland, who was born on July 1, 1916 in Tokyo, but raised in Northern California, had her first taste of performing when she landed the lead in a local production of “Alice in Wonderland.” It was a role also coveted by her younger sister, actress Joan Fontaine, with whom she had a contentious relationship.

De Havilland’s big break came in 1934 when she appeared as Puck in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” with The Saratoga (California) Community Players. She was spotted by a talent scout for producer Max Reinhardt, who was planning a film version of the play for Warner Bros. She was cast as Hermia and given a seven-year studio contract.

Her fourth film, “Captain Blood” (1935) with Flynn, was a box-office bonanza and established them as a dream team in seven more movies. While the Flynn films were popular, her roles in them were undemanding.

When producer David O. Selznick requested her for Melanie, studio chief Jack Warner refused, fearing she would become difficult to work with. He relented after de Havilland enlisted his wife, Ann Warner, as an ally. De Havilland’s sensitive performance earned her the first of five Oscar nominations, including two wins.

When her Warner Bros. contract ended, de Havilland took the studio to court after Warner attempted to extend it for six months to make up for time she had been on suspension. The case went on for two years and de Havilland was unable to work anywhere else. The court decided in her favor in Dec. 1944 and the ruling is cited as the de Havilland Decision in law books.

As a free agent, de Havilland entered the most creative period of her career, which resulted in two best actress Oscars — as an unwed mother in “To Each His Own” (1946) and as a plain Jane being pursued by a fortune hunter in “The Heiress” (1949). She also earned Oscar nominations for “Hold Back the Dawn” (1941) and “The Snake Pit” (1948).

In the early 1950s, de Havilland turned down the role of Blanche DuBois in the film version of “A Streetcar Named Desire” and turned her back on Hollywood. In 1953, after divorcing her first husband, writer Marcus Goodrich, she moved to Paris to raise their son, Benjamin, who died in 1991.

“Paris was the total opposite of Hollywood,” she told Robert Osborne. “It was building itself back up after the war. Everyone had a purpose and a goal.”

In 1955, she married Paris Match editor Pierre Galante, with whom she had a daughter, journalist Giselle Galante. Though de Havilland and Galante divorced in 1979, they remained friends and she cared for him in her apartment when he became gravely ill in Feb. 1998. He died that September.

De Havilland continued to act in films like "Hush .... Hush Sweet Charlotte" (1964), on stage (Broadway's "A Gift of Time" with Henry Fonda in 1962) and on television ("Roots: The Next Generation" in 1979), but her appearances became more sporadic. Her last performance was in the TV movie “The Woman He Loved” in 1988.

She showed up at the 2003 Academy Awards ceremony in honor of its 75th anniversary. Earlier this year she was photographed riding her bicycle.

De Havilland is survived by her daughter. Funeral arrangements are private. Memorial contributions may be made to the American Cathedral in Paris.

Here are some highlights from Olivia de Havilland's film career.

MOVIES

"Captain Blood" (1935)

"The Adventures of Robin Hood" (1938)

"Gone With the Wind" (1939) Oscar nomination

"Hold Back the Dawn" (1941) Oscar nomination

"To Each His Own" (1946) Oscar win

"The Snake Pit" (1948) Oscar nomination

"The Heiress" (1949) Oscar win

"My Cousin Rachel" (1952)

"Light in the Piazza" (1962)

"Hush ... Hush, Sweet Charlotte"

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