Happy 100th Birthday, Olivia de Havilland, a.k.a. Melanie Hamilton in Gone With the Wind

Olivia de Havilland and Leslie Howard in Gone With the Wind.
Olivia de Havilland and Leslie Howard in Gone With the Wind.
Courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

If Olivia de Havilland’s name doesn’t register in your brain straightaway, no worries, because you absolutely know who she is.

“Not everyone knows Olivia de Havilland by name,” says Marian Luntz, film and video curator at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, “but a lot of people know Melanie Hamilton from Gone With the Wind.” 

The famed actress, who starred alongside many of the heavy hitters (Clark Gable, Errol Flynn, Bette Davis) during Hollywood’s golden age, becomes a centenarian on July 1. According to Luntz, who visited the retired actress in May, de Havilland is doing well in her longtime home of Paris, France, where she has lived much of her life. 

Olivia de Havilland in The Dark Mirror
Olivia de Havilland in The Dark Mirror
Courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

In celebration of de Havilland’s illustrious film career and her 100th birthday, Turner Classic Movies will screen 39 of her films in July, while the British Film Institute will present a mini-festival of her movies. Likewise, the MFAH is presenting the Olivia de Havilland Centennial Tribute, a multi-month presentation dedicated to the trailblazing movie star. 

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Gisèle Chulack, de Havilland’s daughter, is an honorary trustee of the museum and helped connect the MFAH with de Havilland, who handpicked the 12 films that will screen in July and August. Many of the films, with help from the Houston Film Critics Society, will be presented in their original 35-millimeter format. 

Luntz says that the films show the breadth of de Havilland’s talents as an actress. There are no-brainer selections like Gone With the Wind (in which she played Scarlett O’Hara’s sister-in-law) and The Adventures of Robin Hood, one of the many films she made with Errol Flynn, but also dramatic roles, such as Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte, which de Havilland made with her good friend Bette Davis.

There are also films that explore her connections to certain directors, such as Max Reinhardt’s and William Dieterle’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream; Academy Award-winning performances including To Each His Own; and the relatively obscure Light in the Piazza, a color picture that was shot in Italy.

Olivia de Havilland and Montgomery Clift in The Heiress
Olivia de Havilland and Montgomery Clift in The Heiress
Courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

The actress – whose younger sister, Joan Fontaine, herself an accomplished movie star, passed away in 2013 – also had an active off-screen existence, via her romantic relationships with Howard Hughes, Jimmy Stewart, James Huston and French magazine publisher Pierre Galante, her second husband, who brought her to Paris in the 1950s. Her misadventures as an expat living in Paris were documented in her 1962 memoir Every Frenchman Has One, a long-out-of-print book that Penguin Random House reprinted and just re-released this past Tuesday. MFAH will have copies of the book, which includes a new interview with de Havilland, for sale. 

In May, Luntz traveled to Paris and visited de Havilland in her home for two hours. Luntz says that de Havilland, then aged 99, was still a charmer and an incredible storyteller.

“She was a really amazing conversationalist,” says Luntz. “She talked about all sorts of things, such as [director] Robert Aldrich, [Turner Classic Movies personality and film historian] Robert Osborne and how a lot of people have only seen her films on TV. It was a very extraordinary experience that I will never forget.”

The Olivia de Havilland Centennial Tribute takes place on select Fridays and Saturday from July 1 through August 13 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1001 Bissonnet. Film screenings cost $7 to $9. Call 713-639-7300 or see mfah.org. 


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