On Melanie

There’s news every other week of another movie legend leaving us; the further we get from those industry-shaping years of the first part of last century, the fewer of them there are still with us. When that news does break, I find myself – like everyone else – surprised and saddened. My next thought is usually that I wish I knew more about that person’s work, and wish I’d taken the time to appreciate them while they were still with us.

Case in point: actress Olivia de Havilland turns 100 years old today. The last surviving actor from the principal cast of Gone With The Wind and Hollywood’s golden age, she’s lived her life off the radar for decades now, having left Hollywood for Paris in 1955. But in her day she was, if not a big-screen bombshell like some of her contemporaries, an Oscar-winning actress with sixty credits to her name (according to IMDb), one half of an on-screen power couple, and a fixture in the press.


Well, this is me putting my blog post where my mouth is. At 100, it’s a reality that Ms. de Havilland’s time with us is limited, and I don’t want to wake up to the news that she’s departed this world without having appreciated her and her body of work. And when, hopefully a very long time from now, word does come that she’s left us, I know I’ll be grateful to have already said my piece about the impact her films have had on me.

I first watched Gone With The Wind in middle school, after the woman my dad was dating at the time explained that her tomcat Ashley was named after a character in the movie. “Your boy cat has a girl’s name?” I asked incredulously. “You’ve never seen it?” she responded in turn.

In the days (way) before Netflix, I must’ve picked it up on VHS somewhere, maybe even the library. A two-tape set, I watched it that first time as if it was the first movie I’d ever seen in my life. I could not take my eyes off the screen and the saga that unfolded over three-plus hours of movie magic.

Over the decades since, I’ve revisited Gone With The Wind more times than I can count, and unlike any other film, it continues to surprise me. Not in the content and what’s on screen; I’ve seen it enough that I can recite most lines, name from memory what dress Scarlett is wearing in each scene. Instead, it’s the way that I respond to each that surprises me with each new viewing. Depending on where I am in my life, I see Scarlett as a hussy, a victim, a helpless waif – you name it.

But always – ALWAYS – I am gutted by Melanie. Virtuous and genuine, she is a model of humility and empathy. Though not without her flaws, she embodies what’s possible when we insist on seeing the good in all people, in finding the silver lining in every situation. De Havilland imbues Melanie with sensitivity, grace and just a touch of fire.

melanie hamilton wilkes

Beyond GWTW, I really didn’t know much about this centenarian, her life and her career, for some time. I learned of her sister was Oscar-winning actor Joan Fontaine (who took their step-father’s name to differentiate from her big sister) and their years spent estranged. Vanity Fair revisited the feud – and de Havilland’s story – in their recent sisters issue, an article that you must read. An excerpt:

Olivia greeted me and, as spry as a Himalayan Sherpa from more than five decades of climbing the five stories of her town house, led me up the Saint James’s answer to Gone with the Wind’s Tara staircase to her grand suite…A crisp assistant arrived with Veuve Clicquot and macarons from Ladurée. Olivia was dressed all in beige, a silk blouse and proper skirt with matching ballet slippers.

I mean, can’t you just picture it?

De Havilland made her film debut in 1935’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which also starred James Cagney, Dick Powell and a teenage Mickey Rooney. She is winning as the mixed-up, love-struck Hermia, and studios quickly took notice. Jack Warner snapped her up for Warner Bros. and set her on a path to stardom.

More than just a pretty face on screen, de Havilland – with family ties to the burgeoning aviation industry – earned her pilot’s license at one point. She also literally changed the law of the land when she challenged the wonky loophole studios used to keep stars – typically signed to seven year contracts – under their thumbs in perpetuity.  The inimitable Karina Longworth dedicated an episode of You Must Remember This to de Havilland and this whole affair in her “Star Wars” series; listen to that gem here.

I also learned over the years of de Havilland’s long-running on-screen (and perhaps off, though she’ll never tell) partnership with the dashing Errol Flynn, with whom she starred in eight films between 1935 an 1941. Their Robin Hood and Maid Marion in 1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood is as iconic as it is wholesome.

When she left it all behind for a real life in Paris – a new husband and baby daughter to focus on – her career understandably cooled. In 1965 she’d be named the first woman to head up the Cannes Film Festival jury. Her IMDb lists a handful of credits in the ’70s, a list that shifts to TV movies in the ’80s. In 1998, she posed for the first picture in this post, snapped by none other than Annie Liebovitz; and in 2009, she narrated a documentary about Alzheimer’s. There’s also a reference to her appearing in a 2012 60 Minutes segment, but far as I can tell, that video is behind CBS’s paywall.

Olivia de Havilland is, for those of us so ensconced in the world of film, a living legend. I’m being completely honest when I say it occurs to me every now and then, at unpredictable moments, that somewhere an ocean away, she is enjoying a macaron or perhaps working on her memoir. What a story it’d be.