Olivia de Havilland in the garden of her Paris home in April 1997. Photo: AP/Michel Lipchitz © AP

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Olivia de Havilland, celebrating a historic birthday on July 1, is the first internationally known film actress to reach 100. Males, against statistical custom, have seemed longer lasting in the screen entertainment business. George Burns and Bob Hope both became centenarians. (Perhaps humour helps.) But among female stars only Luise Rainer, a double Oscar winner in the 1930s but barely remembered today, comes even close to the durable renown of de Havilland.

I have met her twice. Twenty years before the 1997 Paris encounter related below, I ran into her at Universal Studios in Hollywood where she was filming The Swarm (1978). It was her last but one film before retirement: a big, daft disaster movie about bees which engendered of course (even from her) on-set jokes about Bee-movies.

If you can be dignified in an all-star epic about insect apocalypse — which she was — you can be dignified anywhere and everywhere. And that was de Havilland’s ace as a star. Dignity everywhere: even as an action moll in movie after movie to Errol Flynn; even screaming to save her life in Hush . . . Hush, Sweet Charlotte or Lady in a Cage.

Dignity too in interview. At the end of our Paris chat I asked her one of those infamous questions a reporter saves till last, to avoid being slung out before the conversation has begun. What was this long-running feud with her famous actress sister, Joan Fontaine? The two had reportedly not spoken for half a century. No one, even now, quite knows why.

De Havilland didn’t flinch. She just misted up a little. The eyes glinted with moisture as they might in a movie. She said something — very politely and graciously — about not wanting to talk of that. Then, to console me, she took me upstairs to see and admire her Oscars (for To Each His Own in 1946 and The Heiress in 1949). Two of them, standing proud and sentinel. Perhaps they had the last, conclusive word on a famous screen rivalry between sisters. Joan Fontaine won only one.

The courting of Hollywood history

First published in the FT on October 4 1997

Hollywood history is not all concealed in the nooks and canyons of Los Angeles. Sometimes you can be 10,000km away in a European city and a large piece of America’s movie past rises up before you, luminous with legend, and offers to talk.

I had courted Olivia de Havilland before. But she did not talk to me, nor anyone else, eight years ago, on the 50th anniversary of her most famous film — the world’s most famous film — Gone With the Wind. Now I stood before the freshly vouchsafed Paris address, a little townhouse in an oasis of embassies, and the visit began like something from a Henry James novel.

“My aunt is in the garden,” said the attractive niece, opening the locked street door before ushering me through darkened rooms out into the walled garden with its chestnut tree a-throb with pigeons.

“How nice to meet you!” says the lady sitting at the wrought-iron tea table. She, too, was once a Henry James character: she won one of her two Best Actress Oscars for The Heiress, Hollywood’s version of Washington Square. Now, half a century later, she is white-haired but gleaming with pearls and health.

“Won’t you sit down. Will you have some coffee?”

De Havilland, who moved to Paris in 1955 when she married the editor of Paris Match, may be the only female star still alive who had her first movie hit in the early 1930s; although gallantry insists I point out (and so does Miss de Havilland) that she was only 18 at the time.

I wanted to talk about how she had made history twice in her career: once by co-starring in Gone With the Wind, later by dealing the largest single axe-blow by any single Hollywood citizen at the studio system. (Read on.)

But de Havilland’s start was scarcely less remarkable. Brought to California by British parents, her teenage caperings as Hermia in Max Reinhardt’s 1934 A Midsummer Night’s Dream, on stage and screen, won her a seven-year contract with Warner Bros. Within two years she was a star, swapping kisses and badinage with Errol Flynn in Captain Blood and The Adventures of Robin Hood.

De Havilland at the height of her fame in 1950. Photo: AP

“It was an extraordinary transformation. You lose your anonymity, which is a terribly precious thing, and you go through a great deal of identity confusion.”

There was more on the way. In 1938, she had the telephone call of her life. “The director George Cukor rang me up and said: ‘Would you like to play in Gone With the Wind?’ I said: ‘Indeed, I would!’ “

She had to report to producer David O. Selznick’s mansion, which, like every other building in the Selznick empire, was designed like a southern plantation mansion. Then, for her audition scene, she had to play Melanie to Cukor’s Scarlett O’Hara.

“He was clinging to the curtains and emoting and gesturing, right there in David’s living room, as I said my lines with David standing about 2ft away: ‘Scarlett! Scarlett! . . .’ And my brain said: ‘This is total lunacy. How is David Selznick ever going to choose me to play Melanie after witnessing this bizarre, ludicrous scene?’”

Selznick scarcely hesitated, but Jack L. Warner did. The studio boss refused to loan his actress out to a rival company. Finally, a resourceful de Havilland took Mrs Warner to tea and genteelly twisted an arm.

Shooting the six-month movie became a way of life, or sometimes near-death. One director, Cukor, was fired; another, Victor Fleming, retired with a nervous breakdown. “I remember walking along the set one day and Victor telling me he had almost killed himself the previous Saturday.”

Leslie Howard suffered depression: “I think he sensed the war was coming and was terribly troubled by that.” Clark Gable insisted on going home each day at six. “He’d tell the first assistant: ‘Six is coming. Six is coming.’ ‘Oh Mr Gable, won’t you do one more set-up?’ ‘Six is coming!’ “ And Vivien Leigh literally shrank through fatigue.

“She worked so hard and terribly missed Larry [Olivier] who’d gone to act on Broadway. I finished my role a month before she did and returned for the cast party. And I remember passing Vivien on the set and not recognising her. She’d lost so much weight. Her whole ‘atmosphere’ seemed diminished by exhaustion.”

The project must have seemed bizarre to outsiders, not least since three of the four main characters in this Deep South saga were being played by English stars.

“It was a British movie,” laughs de Havilland, “but we had two accent coaches, one of whom was from Georgia and was a friend of author Margaret Mitchell. She stood on the set all day and stopped us if we made a single mistake.

“Hollywood didn’t think it would be good and made a big scandal of the fact that it cost $4m, which was a fortune then. Nobody wished us success because nobody thought we would have it.”

Gone With the Wind went on to become the biggest seat-filler ever and an Oscar-tipped (and later nominated) Olivia de Havilland returned to Warners expecting a heroine’s welcome. Instead, she was used to rescue mediocre programme-fillers, or to add glitter to supporting roles: “I had always starred opposite Errol Flynn. Now I was cast as lady-in-waiting when he partnered Bette Davis in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex.”

After two years of gritting her teeth, followed by role-refusals which resulted in suspensions that would be added to her “seven-year” contract, de Havilland took Warners to court. “No one had tested the contract system and won before. And, of course, the whole authority of the studios was built on it.”

She and her lawyer invoked everything from the California statutes to the Napoleonic Code, and they used Hollywood wiles to fight a Hollywood trial.

“My lawyer thought Warners would try to depict me as a spoiled young actress. So, for the first hearing, I wore a black suit with a pinstripe, a black hat and a veil.”

She won that first hearing; then won Warners’ appeal standing demurely at the back; and finally won the state supreme court ruling.

It was an important precedent. “All the actors who had been away at war were technically on suspension: they would have had to carry on their careers at the same salary. Well, now they could test that in law, and when Jimmy Stewart used my case to sue for a calendar-term definition of ‘seven-year contract’ he broke free and became a millionaire.”

The era of independence had begun. And instead of being outlawed by the studios — “Many people had said I’d never work again” — de Havilland was given the plum roles of her career. She won an Academy Award for The Heiress, three years after her first Oscar for To Each His Own, and earned a mantelpiece of medals, histrionic and humanitarian, for her performance as the inmate of a mental institution in The Snake Pit, the film of which she is proudest.

“During the war, I visited the psychiatric wards of military hospitals, talking to men suffering environmental shock. They were catatonic, not through combat experience but simply through a change of life. I met a farm boy who, by being away from home and being subjected to the strict, heartless discipline of military life, had cracked under the strain.

“Among the public, there was a medieval attitude to mental illness and the subject had never been treated truthfully in a film.”

At the end of my visit she whisks me up to the sanctum sanctorum. In this room, stand the two Oscars; here, too, are the nomination scrolls and film festival baubles, and even the commemorative photographs of cousin Sir Geoffrey de Havilland, founder of the aircraft company.

He is not the only member of the British establishment with which the actress has had a surprising connection. In the 1980s, I learnt, she was in an American-made TV film called The Royal Romance of Charles and Diana, a modest drama now lent immodest poignancy by events that took place near the actress’s home.

“Isn’t that extraordinary? I played the Queen Mother. The film didn’t go to Britain, I don’t think. But I must tell you, that death” — tears suddenly well in her eyes — “has affected me . . . I don’t think I’ll ever get over it. And you know, Diana and I had the same birthday, July 1.”

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