Today is Olivia de Havilland’s 100th birthday! Olivia is probably best-known for playing Melanie “Mellie” Hamilton, Ashley Wilkes’ sweet wife-to-be and the eventual sister-in-law of Scarlett O’Hara in the 1939 classic Gone with the Wind. I became a fan of her through that role, Gone with the Wind being one of the first classic films I watched.
But Olivia is much more than just Mellie — she’s an incredibly talented woman who had a fascinating, varied career in Hollywood. Today, to celebrate her birthday, TMP will be sharing a few biographical notes and favorite roles from her filmography!
Olivia was born on July 1, 1916 in Tokyo, Japan to English parents, a lawyer and an actress. At the age of two, she moved to California, and by the age of 19 she had scored a contract with Warner Bros. Her younger sister Joan, born in 1917, would also become a Hollywood actress. Both sisters would become Oscar winners and were famously estranged, supposedly due to a professional rivalry.
Olivia took home Academy Awards for her leading turns in To Each His Own and The Heiress, but was nominated for three further Oscars and appeared in over fifty roles from the mid 1930s to her most recent performance in 1988. While she hasn’t returned to the screen since the ’80s, Olivia now lives in France, where she has resided since the mid-1950s.
As mentioned above, I first discovered Olivia through Gone with the Wind, which was one of my earliest classic film discoveries. In the years since, she’s secured a spot on my list of favorite actresses, and I’ve seen plenty more of her films. To celebrate her birthday, here are five of my favorites!
The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)
It would be very difficult to make a list of favorite Livvie films without mentioning at least one of her wonderful collaborations with leading man Errol Flynn. While it may seem a typical or unoriginal choice, given its popularity among the films of the two stars, The Adventures of Robin Hood features one of my very favorite Olivia de Havilland performances. Maid Marian is a polished, elegant woman who becomes involved with Robin and his merry band of change-makers. Marian and Robin are very different from each other, and seem amused by their differences. Errol and Olivia make such a wonderful pair, and this film serves as a quintessential example of their on-screen chemistry.
The Heiress (1949)
One of Olivia’s Oscar-winning roles, she gives what may be her career-best performance in this dramatic story of a sheltered woman who falls for a handsome stranger. Catherine Sloper is a young society woman in New York, living her with controlling father and her more agreeable aunt. Monty Clift is Morris, a handsome but poor man with whom Catherine begins to fall in love. This is no rosy romance, though. A series of speed-bumps bring complications and unhappiness for the couple. Catherine makes a great transformation through the course of the film and Olivia does a fantastic job with the character, perfectly portraying every little note of her personality, every transformation she makes throughout the film.
It’s Love I’m After (1937)
From adventure to drama to comedy, Livvie could do it all. She proved herself as an actress of incredible range, It’s Love I’m After being one of her strongest pieces of evidence! Olivia gives what I consider to be the funniest performance in the film (though it’s packed with great ones). Her character here is Marcia West, a fan of Leslie Howard’s stage star Basil Underwood. She’s such a fan of him, in fact, that she’s willing to give up her relationship with her fiancé for him. She thinks she’s in love! Her blind infatuation with Basil is hilarious to watch and while Leslie Howard and Bette Davis make a great pair in the film, Olivia steals many a scene.
My Love Came Back (1940)
Livvie takes the lead in this dramedy of a talented musician who is almost forced to drop out of the Brissac Academy of Music, but is saved from that fate by a wealthy man who owns a music equipment manufacturing company. Olivia brings both great comic timing and an emotional punch to her role of Amelia. She has great chemistry with Jane Wyman and Eddie Albert, who support as Amelia’s two best friends, and with Jeffrey Lynn, her love interest.
The Strawberry Blonde (1941)
Sharing the screen with such talents as James Cagney and Rita Hayworth, it would be difficult for anyone to steal a scene, but in The Strawberry Blonde, Olivia somehow manages to steal the whole film! Her role is that of Amy, best friend to the “Strawberry Blonde” herself, Virginia (Rita Hayworth). Best buds Biff (James Cagney) and Hugo (Jack Carson) both fall for Virginia, while Amy finds herself falling for Biff. Amy is a great character for Olivia, a spunky woman interested in more than just a romance with Biff — she’s a suffragette, and quite an outspoken one. Olivia gives a wonderful performance and shares a great on-screen friendship with Rita Hayworth, whose character is in many ways Amy’s opposite.
Olivia has become one of those actresses I will watch in absolutely anything. Even in films less impressive than those listed above, her performances shine. Happy birthday to Ms. de Havilland, a genuinely gifted actress celebrating 100 years!