Olivia Mary de Havilland was born on July 1, 1916, in Tokyo, Japan, to English parents. Her father, Walter Augustus de Havilland, was an English professor at the Imperial University in Tokyo, who later became a patent attorney. Her mother, Lillian Augusta, was a former stage actress. She had one younger sister Joan, who went on to become a prominent actress in future.
Her parents’ marriage was an unhappy one as her father was not loyal to her mother. The couple separated when the girls were young and Olivia moved to the United States with her mother and younger sister.
Olivia received ballet lessons and piano training as a young girl. She went to the Los Gatos High School where she performed well in studies and also excelled in oratory and field hockey along with participating in school plays.
She made her debut in amateur theatre in ‘Alice in Wonderland’ in 1933. Even though she had a deep interest in dramatics, she aspired to be a schoolteacher. Following her graduation from high school in 1934, she was offered a scholarship to Mills College in Oakland to pursue a career as an English teacher.
At around the same time, she also got the chance to play Hermia in a stage production of William Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ which led to a movie contract. Forced to choose between a teaching career and an acting one, she signed a five-year contract with Warner Bros. in 1934.
Olivia de Havilland made her debut in the film adaptation of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ in 1935. While the film was not successful, she got noticed for her beauty and acting skills.
Pretty with delicate features and innocent eyes, she was offered many roles which required her to play the ingénue—a sweet, innocent, and wholesome young woman.
In the mid-1930s, she was first paired with Errol Flynn in the action-adventure tale ‘Captain Blood’ (1935). The pairing was a successful one and the duo went on to become one of the most popular on-screen romantic couples in Hollywood. They acted together in a total of eight films.
In 1939, she played Melanie Hamilton, a gentle and kind woman whose personality is a stark contrast to that of Scarlett O’Hara, an aggressive character portrayed by Vivien Leigh. She earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of Melanie.
The talented actress soon got bored of being typecast as a sweet young girl and wanted to break out of the mold. In the 1941 comedy drama, ‘The Strawberry Blonde,’ she played an outspoken advocate for women’s rights, a role that was much appreciated by the film critics.
She played versatile film roles during the 1940s and 1950s, some of the notable ones being in ‘To Each His Own’ (1946), ‘The Well-Groomed Bride’ (1946), ‘The Snake Pit’ (1948), ‘The Heiress’ (1949), ‘My Cousin Rachel’ (1952), ‘Not as a Stranger’ (1955), ‘The Ambassador’s Daughter’ (1956), and ‘The Proud Rebel’ (1958).
During the later years of her career, she ventured into television and remained active well up to the late 1980s. Her popular television appearances include television film ‘Murder Is Easy’ (1982), the drama ‘The Royal Romance of Charles and Diana’ (1982), and the 1986 ABC miniseries ‘North and South, Book II.’ Her final screen performance was in the romantic television drama ‘The Woman He Loved’ in 1988.
AWARDS AND ACHIEVEMENTS
Olivia de Havilland won her first Academy Award for her portrayal of a young unwed mother in the romantic comedy film ‘To Each His Own.’ Her poignant performance was much appreciated and the film was both a critical and commercial success.
Her role as Catherine Sloper—a rich heiress who struggles with an indifferent father and falls in love with a fortune hunter—in the drama film ‘The Heiress’ gained her much acclaim. She won several awards for her performance including an Academy Award, a Golden Globe Award, and a New York Film Critics Circle Award.
Olivia de Havilland won the Academy Award for the Best Actress in a Leading Role twice: for ‘To Each His Own’ in 1946 and for ‘The Heiress’ in 1949.
Her role as Catherine Sloper in ‘The Heiress’ also earned her the Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture Actress and the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actress in 1949.
In 1986, she won the Golden Globe Award for Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role for performance in ‘Anastasia: The Mystery of Anna.’ The same role also earned her the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Miniseries.
In 2008, she was presented with the National Medal of Arts, the highest honor given for achievement in the arts conferred to an individual artist on behalf of the American people.