Actress Olivia de Havilland, best known as Melanie in Gone with the Wind, has passed away at age 104. She died of natural causes in her sleep at her home in Paris, France, on July 25, 2020.
Olivia de Havilland was a Japanese born British-American actress and centenarian. The major works of her cinematic career spanned from 1935 to 1988. She appeared in 49 feature films, and was one of the leading actresses of her time. She was also one of the last surviving stars from the Golden Age of Hollywood Cinema, until her death.
In a letter to a colleague dated November 18, 1938, film producer David O. Selznick wrote, “I would give anything if we had Olivia de Havilland under contract to us so that we could cast her as Melanie.” The film he was preparing to shoot was Gone with the Wind, and Warner Bros. studio head Jack L. Warner was unwilling to lend her out for the project. De Havilland had read the novel, and unlike most other actresses, who wanted the Scarlett O’Hara role, she wanted to play Melanie Hamilton—a character whose quiet dignity and inner strength she understood and felt she could bring to life on the screen.
De Havilland turned to Warner’s wife Anne for help. Warner later recalled: “Olivia, who had a brain like a computer concealed behind those fawn-like eyes, simply went to my wife and they joined forces to change my mind.” Warner relented, and de Havilland was signed to the project a few weeks before the start of principal photography on January 26, 1939.
“Melanie was someone different. She had very, deeply feminine qualities … that I felt were very endangered at that time, and they are from generation to generation, and that somehow they should be kept alive, and … that’s why I wanted to interpret her role. … The main thing is that she was always thinking of the other person, and the interesting thing to me is that she was a happy person … loving, compassionate.” — Olivia de Havilland
Set in the American South during the Civil War and Reconstruction eras, the film is about the strong-willed daughter of a Georgia plantation owner in love with the husband of her sister-in-law, Melanie, whose kindness stands in sharp contrast to those around her. According to film historian Tony Thomas, de Havilland’s skillful and subtle performance effectively presents this character of selfless love and quiet strength in a way that keeps her vital and interesting throughout the film.
Gone with the Wind had its world premiere in Atlanta, Georgia, on December 15, 1939, and was well received. Frank S. Nugent of The New York Times wrote that de Havilland’s Melanie “is a gracious, dignified, tender gem of characterization”, and John C. Flinn, Sr., in Variety called her “a standout” The film won 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and de Havilland received her first nomination for Best Supporting Actress.