Outstanding centenarian Olivia de Havilland and movie icon, is a prime example to all women of how to grow old gracefully, De Havilland died at 104-years old, in 2020. Her sister, fellow-actress, and archrival Joan Fontaine died in 2015. They had a rivalry that began at birth and ended with death.
The two girls were born fifteen months apart, de Havilland being the older, and the animus toward each other, was there from the beginning. At one point de Havilland fractured her sister’s collarbone.
When Joan was nine-years old, she wanted to kill her sister, but fortunately didn’t go through with it. Fontaine believed Olivia was their mother’s favorite.
De Havilland at 18, was the first sister to become a working actress in a role she had to be talked into. Joan then lobbied her older sister to help her become an actress. Olivia agreed if Joan would take their stepfather’s name, Fontaine. Afterwards de Havilland said, “Joan Fontaine. I don’t know who she is.”
Alfred Hitchcock said of de Havilland’s early performances on the screen, “It was wishy-washy and without imagination.” De Havilland’s acting matured into the icon she became. By the 1940s, she was the top female star.
In 1940, de Havilland had a landmark victory against Warner Bros. She was the first actor to challenge the stranglehold the studios had on the movie industry. De Havilland said she had read the law and knew what the studios were doing was wrong. Their word was law until it became ‘De Havilland Law’. The studios were forced to honour the terms of their contracts, instead of controlling every aspect of an actor’s life.
De Havilland paid a heavy cost for taking a strong stand against to the studios and didn’t get any work for two years. When she did work again, it was on her terms and she only took roles that really interested her.
In 1942, Fontaine took a role that should have been de Havilland’s and won an Oscar. Both women were nominated for an Oscar in the same category with Fontaine winning the Oscar for her role in Suspicion.
They were both seated at the same table, and Fontaine felt she was back at age four, as if “Olivia would spring across the table and grab my hair.” Fontaine publicly rebuffed De Havilland, who stepped forward to offer her congratulations. Joan Fontaine later said she was appalled she had won over her sister.
De Havilland did not win an Oscar until 1947. She publicly rebuffed Fontaine when she tried to congratulate her. Fontaine is reported as saying, “You can divorce your sister and your husbands. I don’t see her and I don’t intend to.”
Fontaine believed de Havilland blamed her because she did everything first. “I married first, won an Academy Award first, and gave birth to a child first and if I die first, she’ll undoubtedly be livid because I beat her to it.”
De Havilland called Fontaine the ‘Dragon Lady’. The schism over their mother’s death was the final straw. Fontaine claimed De Havilland didn’t try to contact her while she was on tour, when their mother died.
Joan Fontaine did not attend the memorial service, claiming she was too busy to attend. There was also an estranged relationship with her own daughters, possibly because she discovered they were secretly maintaining a relationship with de Havilland.
Three years after sister’s death, de Havilland said of her sister, “Dragon Lady was a brilliant, multi-talented person, but an astigmatism in her perception of people and events which often caused her to react in an unfair and even injurious way.”
Outstanding Centenarian Olivia de Havilland
De Havilland and Fontaine weren’t the only dueling Hollywood stars. Bette Davis and Joan Crawford were another couple of Hollywood antagonists.
Despite the feud with her sister, outstanding centenarian de Havilland was an incredible woman and a classy actress. De Havilland worked with some of Hollywood’s top actors, including starring in eight films opposite the dashing and charismatic Errol Flynn. They had a sizzling chemistry in front of the cameras, but de Havilland felt she was being stereotyped.
Her role in Gone with the Wind saw de Havilland nominated for Best Supporting Actress. The Oscar went to a fellow actor, Hattie McDaniel, who acted as Mammy. McDaniel was the first woman of colour to receive an Oscar.
Not Obsessed With Stardom
Like Barbra Streisand, de Havilland was not obsessed with stardom. She raised the bar for all actors, yet was not ego driven. In 1955, she retired to become a wife and a mother, returning to the world of entertainment from time to time. Her last role, in 1982, was as the Queen Mother for the television movie depicting the Royal Romance of Prince Charles and Princess Diana.
De Havilland appeared in three more TV movies, her last role in 1988. Her acting career spanned nearly six decades. However, she was not the longest working actor. That record is held by Norman Lloyd who was paid professionally at nine-years old. His life spanned the world of show business and he was being interviewed up to 2015. Lloyd died aged 106 in 2021. These outstanding centenarians are examples of growing old gracefully.
Outstanding Olivia de Havilland Academy Awards Appearance
De Havilland returned to the Academy Awards for the 75th annual ceremony, in 2003, sixty years after receiving her second Oscar. She was aged 87. She received an ovation that lasted a full minute. De Havilland said she was looking forward to her milestone as a centenarian.
In 2017, de Havilland received an honour that was both rare and royal. She was named a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II for her services to drama. At age 100, the outstanding centenarian, Olivia de Havilland was the oldest person to receive that distinction. She said, “This is the most gratifying of birthday presents.”
Outstanding Centenarian Not Typical
Olivia de Havilland was not a typical centenarian. Although a golden Hollywood oldie, she refused to slow down, continuing to make headlines right up to her death.
When de Havilland celebrated her 104th birthday, she held the record of being the oldest living Oscar winner. She hoped to exit this world, “Ensconced on a chaise lounge, perfumed, wearing a velvet robe and pearl earrings, with a flute of champagne beside me, having just discovered the last answer to the last problem in a British cryptic crossword.”
Outstanding centenarian, Olivia de Havilland was British through and through to the very end. She was British by birth and an American citizen, but spent her retirement quietly in Paris.
De Havilland was a licensed pilot, an accomplished interior decorator and a Cordon Bleu-level chef. She married and divorced four times. Olivia de Havilland is remembered for her roles in Gone with the Wind and The Adventures of Robin Hood. Joan Fontaine is remembered for her roles in Hitchcock’s Suspicion and Rebecca.
Olivia’s death marked the end of an era that was a connected to Hollywood’s golden days. These actresses might be gone, but their voices live on and their performances remarkable. Each of us can learn from the experience and example of others. It is sad that two sisters, who were both brilliant in their own right, were unable to overcome their differences. Unforgiveness is a curse, for in forgiveness there is healing.
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