Olivia de Havilland, last Old Hollywood star, was much more than Melanie Wilkes

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Olivia de Havilland, the last surviving star of Hollywood’s Golden Age of the 1930s and ‘40s, passed away over the weekend at the age of 104. Most of the headlines went something like this one in the New York Times:

“Olivia de Havilland, a Star of Gone With the Wind, Dies at 104”

If your knowledge of de Havilland’s work begins and ends with that four-hour Civil War epic, it’s your loss. As I found out for myself when I saw her in 1949’s “The Heiress,” her second Oscar-winning role, opposite Montgomery Clift.

De Havilland made dozens of films in her distinguished career and rocked the Hollywood studio system in the process. With her passing, Old Hollywood finally passes into the history books.

It’s ironic that in what are probably her best-known films, GWTW and The Heiress, she plays a plain, dowdy character. The woman was drop-dead gorgeous, and a fashion icon no less. Check out some of her glam publicity shots above and below. Check out the shot of her with legs draped over the chair: Who else could make smoking a cig and drinking a beer look this classy?

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I had always thought that she was way, way too pretty to play the character of Melanie Wilkes in GWTW. Even styled as she obviously was to be “dressed down.”  The novel describes her character as hopelessly plain, mousy and unfashionable. But she was juxtaposed against Vivien Leigh’s mesmerizing Scarlett O’Hara, and no one can compete with that.

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Still, de Havilland more than held her own and immortalized her reserved, “steel magnolia” character in the process. You could even argue that she was the real heroine of GWTW. And to think she was just 23 when she performed the role. She earned her first Oscar nomination, for Best Supporting Actress, but lost to the groundbreaking Hattie McDaniel from the same film.

Awhile back I caught “The Heiress” on Turner Classic, a film she made about a decade after GWTW, in which she also plays a Civil War-era Plain Jane. In this film, she is much more “uglied up” by the stylists.  Still, her radiance shines through as she grapples with a tour-de-force of hope, love, romance, and eventually heartache and bitterness. Watching her carry out her revenge on Clift’s scheming character was one of the most gratifying film climaxes I’ve seen.

I realized that instead of watching Gone With the Wind for about the 25th time, I probably should have been watching de Havilland’s catalogue of roles instead. Like undoubtedly many others born decades after Margaret Mitchell’s classic came to the silver screen, I had always defined her as Melanie and tucked her away in that little box.

If you ever get the chance to see The Heiress on TCM or somewhere else, you won’t regret it. I really hope one of those classic-movie channels does a retrospective tribute to de Havilland in the coming weeks. I want to see her in the role of the spellbinding beauty that she was.

Olivia, you were a class act. Rest in peace.

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