As Gone With The Wind's Melanie, the saintly counterpoint to Vivien Leigh's brash Scarlett O'Hara, Olivia de Havilland earned her first Oscar nomination at age 23(she lost to costar Hattie McDaniel for Best Supporting Actress). But off screen, the stunning Warner Bros. contract player was a witty spitfire, shaking up the studios' notorious indentured‑servant system and tangling famously with her outspoken sister, Joan Fontaine (or so the gossips said‑De Havilland declines to discuss family grievances). At age 82, here's what the last living GWTW star would discuss.
July 10, 1998
Picture Editor: Doris Brautigan
Parisian Belle: Olivia de Havilland, Gone With The Wind’s Melanie, hasn’t tired of the movie.
De Hav Plenty: The actress defied the studio system and still became a star.
EW: Your movies with Errol Flynn ‑Captain Blood, The Adventures of Robin Hood- made your name at Warner Bros., where you were locked into a long‑term contract. How did you get yourself "loaned out" to independent producer David O. Selznick for Gone With the Wind?
Olivia de Havilland: One day George Cukor ‑the first director on the picture- called and said he was going to suggest something highly illegal, which was that I come over and quietly read for the part of Melanie. I couldn't make an actual screen test. It could get out, and [Warner chief] Jack Warner could sue them‑and me.
EW: So where did you audition?
OD: At David's house. In secret. I read at three in the afternoon, and George played Scarlett! Part of me was saying, Well, this is the most comic situation ever to have happened in the film business. George was very impassioned, and he clutched the curtains. He gave his soul to it, but I could hardly keep from laughing. How could David Selznick make a sensible decision with such a reading? But, astonishingly, he liked what he saw, and decided he would take the necessary steps to persuade Jack Warner to let me go.
EW: What do you make of stories that Clark Gable got Cukor fired from Gone With the Wind and replaced with Victor Fleming in part because Cukor was gay?
OD: Vivien Leigh and I did our best to persuade David to retain George, but he had made up his mind. I think that Gable, who had so much to lose if he didn't fulfill the public's image of Rhett Butler, felt he needed protection. He'd never worked with George before and, unfortunately, George's reputation was as a woman's director. I think that Clark was afraid the women would dominate the film.
EW: You were nominated as Best Actress for 1941's Hold Back the Dawn, but your sister, Joan Fontaine, won for Alfred Hitchcock's Suspicion. Did you mind that loss?
OD: Look, I think she was absolutely wonderful in the film, and she had done Rebecca beautifully and had been nominated and had not won; which was a big disappointment for her. I think Academy voters felt that someone who had done a wonderful piece of work and hadn't been rewarded, and then does another wonderful piece of work, must receive the award. And I thought that was perfectly fair.
EW: You went on to win Best Actress Oscars for 1946's To Each His Own and 1949's The Heiress. Did you campaign to win those awards?
OD: We were less than 20 years into the Academy then. It hadn't become this sort of pitched battle, with ads and all sorts of pressures put on the voters.
EW: Disaster movies are hot again. But you had the misfortune to make The Swarm in the late '70s, for Irwin Allen, just as the initial trend petered out.
OD: I had turned Irwin down before, on The Towering Inferno, and regretted it. Jennifer Jones did it instead, and it worked very nicely for her. So I thought, Maybe I should say yes to The Swarm, even though the material was not good. Henry Fonda was going to say yes. Michael Caine had said yes. Who was I to say no? [Laughs]