While De Havilland won two Academy Awards for Best Actress – for her roles in To Each His Own in 1946 and The Heiress in 1949 – she remains best known for her performance as the stoic Melanie Hamilton Wilkes in the 1939 classic Gone in take the wind.
Born in Tokyo and raised in California, actor Joan Fontaine’s older sister, De Havilland made her screen debut in Max Reinhardt’s lavish 1935 adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. She went on to film eight collaborations with Errol Flynn, including tours in Captain Blood, They Died With Their Boots on and The Adventures of Robin Hood.
De Havilland’s specialty was wise and moving beauty. “Playing bad girls is boring,” she once said. “I’ve always had better luck with good girl roles because they ask more of an actress.” But the actor’s soft exterior hid a core of steel. In the 1940s, she successfully sued Warner Bros. in a landmark decision that helped break the grip of the American studio system. “I was told that I would never work again, if I won or if I lost,” she recalls later. ” [But] when I won they were impressed and didn’t hold a grudge.
De Havilland did indeed continue to work, notably blurring an acclaimed portrayal of mental illness in the 1948 drama The Snake Pit. But screen credits waned after moving to Paris in the mid-1950s. She appeared in Lady in a Cage, Robert Aldrich’s Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte and the 1970s TV miniseries Roots: The Next Generation. Away from the cameras, she preferred to teach Sunday school in her local church.
She received the National Medal of the Arts in 2008 and came out of retirement briefly to narrate the 2009 Alzheimer’s documentary I Remember Better When I Paint. Later in life, she insisted, the theater had largely lost its appeal. “Life is too filled with events of great importance,” she told an interviewer. “It’s more absorbing and fulfilling than a fantastic life. I don’t need a fantastic life like I used to. It’s the life of the imagination and I had a great need for it. Movies were the perfect way to meet this need. “