Kicked out of the house by her strict stepfather for appearing in high school plays (and here I bet you thought that kind of thing only happened to teenage boys), young Olivia de Havilland nevertheless saw teaching English as her calling, and was in fact offered a scholarship to do just that. Which didn't mean she couldn't still act for fun at the community theater in her more-or-less hometown of Saratoga, California (the daughter of British expatriates, she had spent her first few years in Japan.) The play was Shakespeare's A Midsummer's Night Dream, and Olivia set the whole plot in motion as a mischievous pixie named Puck. Now it just so happened that the highly acclaimed Austrian stage director Max Reinhardt was in California scouring the state for actors to appear in the same play at the Hollywood Bowl. One of Reinhardt's assistants caught Olivia on stage and asked that she be second understudy for not Puck, slated to played by a young Mickey Rooney (it's obviously a role subject to interpretation) but the leading female part of Hermia. Leading female part or not, there was little chance as second understudy that Olivia would find herself actually performing in front of that Hollywood audience. But little chance is not the same as no chance (or else you wouldn't even need a second understudy, would you?), and for whatever reasons the two actresses ahead of her bailed out of the production two weeks before the premiere. Olivia must have proved a very able substitute, for when Warner Brothers asked Reinhardt to directed the movie version, he then asked her if she would appear in it. She at first hesitated--she after all had just got a scholarship--but eventually relented and signed a five-year contract with Warner's.
I wrote a critique of Mitchell's novel, in which I said the author (the Irish-American 1920s flapper daughter of a Southern suffragette) offered some real insight into human behavior that to me almost made her work profound, but that profundity was undercut by a simplistic view of African-Americans that a reasonable person may interpret as "racist". Well, that more or less describes the movie, too, and as with Confederate flags and confederate statues, there's recently been renewed calls to remove the film from public view. That may very well happen, but before it does I should remind you that whatever its racial politics, both the novel and movie mostly concerns itself with the interpersonal relations of four Caucasians during a rather trying time in history, and may be summed up this way: Rhett loves Scarlett, Scarlett loves Ashley, Ashley loves...well, who does Ashley love? As portrayed by Leslie Howard, the Southern Gentleman has his head so far up his ass (per Mitchell's novel) that it hard to tell if he prefers Scarlett or the woman he ends up marrying, Melanie, and that what makes de Havilland's performance important to the film's (um...nonracially) artistic success.
The very first sentence of the novel states that Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful, so of course when it came time to make the movie David O. Selznick goes out and hires a beautiful actress to play her. Well, that's really no biggie. The novel further states that what Scarlett lacks in looks she easily makes up for in flirtatious charm, so guys just end up thinking she's beautiful. But what of nerdish Melanie, who never attracts the menfolk, and whom Scarlett hardly considers (at least not initially) serious competition? Selznick then goes out and hires another beautiful actress. Well, that's Hollywood, folks. If the Scarlett of the novel fakes beauty, then Olivia de Havilland's challenge is to fake plainness. To that end, she wears very little makeup, dresses somewhat dowdily, has a kind but nonsexual smile, and never, unless she's giving birth or otherwise wracked with illness, lets her hair down. Does it work? When I was in high school I took an elective course called The Novel, and the very first one we read was Gone with the Wind, and got to watch the movie as well. A subsequent classroom discussion turned toward Melanie's/de Havilland's looks, and the consensus among both the guys and the girls was that "she's all right." Had they seen any of the movies de Havilland made prior to GWTW, or the many glamorous Warner's publicity photos of her, my classmates might have rated her a couple notches above "all right". But even such a top-down approach goes to Mitchell's central point that on an equal playing field (or with equal attention paid to from the wardrobe and makeup departments), there's no particular reason to believe Scarlett is prettier than Melanie.
Why does any of this matter? Because film is a visual art form, and, among other things, the actress has to look the part, even if the part is a bit ambiguous. The Scarlett/Melanie rivalry (one-sided as it is) and eventual friendship (I love the way they bond over a dead Yankee deserter) is one of the most important elements in Gone with the Wind, at least as important as the movie poster-erotic Scarlett/Rhett relationship (not that that's not interesting, too.) But where the book can go inside a person's head, the movie can't. Her character's high self-regard has Vivien Leigh smirking quite a bit throughout the film, unnecessary in the book where we can just read her thoughts. As for Melanie, she's seen mostly through Scarlett's eyes in the novel, whereas in the movie we get to see her through our eyes. We don't necessarily have to dismiss Melanie as a wimp when she first shows up, but we also can't be surprised when Scarlett does so. That not only calls for more acting on Vivien Leigh's part, but also on de Havilland's. In fact, it becomes kind of tricky for the latter. The first impression she makes has to be convincingly cloying for both Scarlett and the audience, while knowing that the second, third, and forth impression will demand reinterpretation, but at the same time she has to stay in character, or at least not wander too outside of it. Drab Melanie would seem to be totally clueless as to what a girl has to due to secure a fellow. Except she secures the fellow anyway, and it's up to actress de Havilland to exhibit some wider appeal beyond the drab cluelessness. Because Scarlett flouts Old South conventions to such an extent that she eventually becomes a successful Reconstruction businesswoman, she's often seen as a protofeminist. It's the proto that can be excruciating. Lacking a certain self-awareness that manifests itself as a highly selective form of procrastination ("I'll think about it tomorrow"), all of Scarlett's emancipatory behavior threatens to become merely a means to a retrograde end, that she'll someday again be that Southern belle surrounded by admiring beaux, chief among them Ashley. Melanie may not seem like much of a feminist, but she cares far less than Scarlett about being the object of male desire, and it galls the latter that she gets the guy anyway. After her first husband (whom she married just to spite Ashley) dies of war-related measles, Scarlett moves to Atlanta and, at her invitation, in with sister-in-law Melanie. It's reasonable to believe that Scarlett has an ulterior motive, so that she can steal Ashley back, but to do that, she first has to figure out, what does he see in Melanie? Well, the marriage is to some extent arranged (it's downplayed in the movie, but Ashley and illness-prone Melanie are first cousins, and come from a long line of wedded first cousins, the multi-ethnic Mitchell's jab at Southern homogeneity.) It would be great if that's all it was, but it's not. When Scarlett joins Melanie as a volunteer nurse at the local army hospital where amputations are not an uncommon occurrence, she sees her Pollyannaish sister-in-law has her own reservoir of strength. And Melanie may be a goody-two shoes, but as Scarlett discovers, she can decide for herself what constitutes good than have society decide it for her, such as when she accepts a charitable donation from the town hooker. The two women end up depending on each other quite a bit throughout this saga.. Scarlett gets Melanie through some dire straits--there's few straits more dire than going into labor as a city burns around you, and Melanie repays Scarlett by bailing her out from one social faux pas after another (including one involving her own husband Ashely!) Melanie can be too good to be true at times, the fate of a secondary character who primarily exists to provide a springboard for the main character's personal growth, though Mitchell does make a late-in-the-novel stab at making her more relatable. I don't have the novel in front of me, but I believe the only time the book goes outside of Scarlett's head, it is when it goes inside of Melanie's. After Scarlett has her miscarriage, Rhett breaks down crying in front of Melanie, who for once is dumbfounded, though in the end she comforts him. The film skips the dumbfounded part and goes straight to the comforting (perhaps because Clark Gable didn't relish crying on camera, wasn't particularly convincing at it, and everyone concerned just needed to get through that scene as quickly as possible.) But Olivia de Havilland gets another chance at humanizing Melanie, and here she scores. Scarlett's and Rhett's daughter Bonnie Blue is killed in an accident involving an underachieving Shetland pony, Mammy relates to Melanie the turmoil in the Butler household of the past few days. Here Melanie really does seem overwhelmed by a tearful Mammy's story of an out-of-control Rhett, and for a moment denies there anything she can do to help. For such a sainted character as Melanie that moment is significant, though Mammy convinces her that she can help, and in fact she does help (though God-knows-how since it's played off-screen.) Finally, de Havilland gets her own deathbed scene, through there it's Vivien Leigh's character who is humanized. These two actresses knew how to play off each other.
For her work on Gone with the Wind, Olivia de Havilland was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, but lost to a woman who had played Mammy in the same film, Hattie McDaniel. There's no record of any resentment on de Havilland's part, no should there be. After spending an entire movie cleaning up after a bunch of dysfunctional white folk, McDaniel deserved some kind of compensation.
After Gone with the Wind, de Havilland was back at Warner Brothers, where the studio brass didn't particularly care that she just had a major role in what was already one of the most famous motion pictures of all time. She was again cast in a movie with Errol Flynn, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, but she didn't get to play Queen Elizabeth, Essex/Flynn's true love interest. That went to Bette Davis. Instead she played the fictional Lady Penelope Gray, and got third billing behinds Flynn and Davis. Several more so-so film roles followed, then some so-so roles that failed to follow because De Havilland refused to do them, resulting in a studio suspension. After the suspension was lifted, there was another movie with Flynn, a Civil War-themed Western titled Santa Fe Trail (which, if anything, presents an even more backwards take on slavery than GWTW.) An attack of appendicitis gave de Havilland an excuse to turn down a few more pictures, which gave an unsympathetic Jack L. Warner an excuse to put her back on suspension. After that she did get a meaty role in Hold Back the Dawn, as a small town teacher who finds herself in a romance with a scheming, but in the end redemptive, Charles Boyer. it led to another Academy Award nomination, but no win. There was one final movie with Errol Flynn. In Santa Fe Trail, Flynn had played future Confederate general J.E.B. Stuart, who competes with George Armstrong Custer, played by Ronald Reagan in his salad days, for the affections of de Havilland (guess who comes out on top there.) Well, in They Died with Their Boots On, Flynn himself gets to play Custer. Whether that's a step up or a step down I'm not sure, but it's nice to see him and de Havilland together one last time.
Olivia did win another Oscar for 1949's The Heiress. Based on a play that was in turn based on Henry James 1880 novel Washington Square, it's the story of an unattractive rich girl whose widowed father has never shown her any affection and so becomes the willing recipient of the affection shown to her by a handsome young man played by Montgomery Clift, though he may just be a cad out for her money. To play the unattractive rich girl, de Havilland wears no makeup (or only enough so her face can be seen on camera underneath all the lights), her hair up like a melted skull-fitting manhole cover, and has downcast eyes and a frown that threaten to crash into the Earth's surface. She's actually prettier wearing a straitjacket in The Snake Pit. As for Clift, in order to play a handsome young man he merely had to make sure he had a designated driver. Clift does turn out to be a cad, as her father warned, and de Havilland, who looks improve as she grows increasingly bitter, she manages to get back at the both of them. In this film, Olivia is Scarlett and Melanie rolled into one, with a touch of that bitch nurse played by Helen Craig. And here you never wanted to read James because you thought he was too stuffy.
Olivia's film appearances became more sporadic throughout the 1950s as she resumed her stage career to a degree, and, upon meeting a Frenchman, moved to Paris. One of her more interesting later movies is 1962's Light in the Piazza. She was about 45 when she made it, and still fairly attractive, though I imagine most straight males in the audience were paying more attention to Yvette Mimieux, who played de Havilland's beautiful brain-damaged daughter. Olivia and Yvette are both on vacation in Italy, when the latter captures the eye of a handsome, suntanned young Italian played by George Hamilton. Though actor Hamilton grew up in Arkansas, he does a credible job portraying a Florentine whose grasp of English is so poor he never realizes the girl of his dreams has the mind of a child and instead dismisses such acts as eating rice thrown at a wedding as an American eccentricity. It all seems to work out in the end, possibly because he never learns the truth, thanks to de Havilland's character, who sees this as her daughter's best chance at happiness. One wonders if there's also another chance awaiting the mother, whose marriage is strained (thanks to Yvette's problems), as she finds herself in a flirting relationship with Rossano Brazzi, who plays Hamilton's dad.
Well, that's about all you need to know about Olivia de Havilland. Lessee, did I forget anything? Oh, yeah, that's right.
Olivia had a sister. But to explain that relationship would take another eighteen paragraphs, and I've used up enough of your time already.