One of the sweetest ingenues on screen during the 1930s, this delicately beautiful leading lady graduated to more demanding roles during the 1940s, coming into her own late in the decade with a handful of top-caliber performances, two of which earned her Academy Awards. The older sister of actress Joan Fontaine, the convent-educated de Havilland cut her acting teeth in college shows, and was seen in one of them by famous impresario Max Reinhardt, then casting his highly touted film production of A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935) for Warner Bros. He cast the 19-year-old as Hermia, and she was signed to a contract by the studio. At first just another contract player at Warners, her charming presence opposite another relative newcomer, Errol Flynn, in Captain Blood (1935) set the course of her career at the studio. She and Flynn were teamed 10 times, and in fact she seemed ideally suited to lavish costume pictures like The Charge of the Light Brigade, Anthony Adverse (both 1936), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938, as Maid Marian, one of her most winning characterizations), Dodge City and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (both 1939).
Warners loaned de Havilland to David O. Selznick, who cleverly cast her against type as the long-suffering Melanie in Gone With the Wind (1939), for which she earned a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award nomination, and screen immortality. Returning to her home studio, de Havilland appeared in Santa Fe Trail (1940), The Strawberry Blonde (a cunning comic part), They Died With Their Boots On (both 1941), The Male Animal (1942), and Princess O'Rourke (1943). During this period, her only outstanding dramatic opportunity came, as before, on loanoutthis time to Paramount, where she played a spinsterish schoolteacher wooed by Charles Boyer in Hold Back the Dawn (1941). Nominated for her first Best Actress Oscar, she ironically lost to sister Fontaine.
By 1943, chafing against her treatment at Warners, she insisted on getting better roles and was suspended for six months. That extended the duration of her sevenyear term, according to Warners, but de Havilland sued the studio and eventually won her freedom as well as the suit. (It is still known in law books as "the de Havilland case.")
Immediately, she sought out roles commensurate with the dramatic talent she'd previously displayed-and got them. She played twins, one of them evil, in The Dark Mirror (1946), and later that year delivered her first Oscar-winning performance, as an unwed mother who gives up her baby in To Each His Own. The Snake Pit (1948) gave her one of her juiciest opportunities as a mental patient (earning her an Oscar nomination), and The Heiress (1949) starred her as another spinster, this time wooed by fortune-hunter Montgomery Clift in an impeccable adaptation of the Henry James novel; her performance earned her another Academy Award.
Following that triumph, she left the screen to tackle Broadway, achieving some success there and only sporadically returning to movie work. Her later films, in more mature roles, include My Cousin Rachel (1952), That Lady (1955), Not as a Stranger (1955), The Ambassador's Daughter (1956), The Proud Rebel (1958), Libel (1959), Lady in a Cage (1964, her best latter-day lead), EB>. Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1965, opposite a scenery-chewing Bette Davis), The Adventurers (1970), Pope Joan (1972), Airport '77 (1977), The Swarm (1978), and The Fifth Musketeer (1979). De Havilland has also appeared in a handful of telefilms, including Murder Is Easy (1982), The Royal Romance of Charles and Diana (1982, as the Queen Mother), and The Woman He Loved (1988). She married French editor Pierre Galante and moved to Paris; in 1962 she wrote a book, "Every Frenchman Has One," about her experiences there.
Copyright ©1994 Leonard Maltin, used by arrangement with Signet, a division of Penguin Putnam, Inc.