The Dec. 20, 1948, cover of TIME (Cover Credit: BORIS CHALIAPIN)
The Dec. 20, 1948, cover of TIME

Olivia de Havilland appeared on the cover of TIME in 1948 for her starring role in the movie The Snake Pit, a film based on Mary Jane Ward’s book of the same name about mental illness. The article noted that even though “she made her first movie 14 years ago, and has since done some skilled acting (Gone With the Wind, Hold Back the Dawn, To Each His Own—which won her the Academy Award in 1947), few people in or out of Hollywood know very much about Olivia de Havilland.” What was known: she feuded with her sister, the actor Joan Fontaine; she had been romantically linked to people like Jimmy Stewart and Howard Hughes; and she took “a hardheaded, serious-minded approach to her career.”

But Hollywood observers were able to piece together enough about her life to know that though her face had gotten her a start in the movies—as TIME told it, she was first noticed when she understudied in a 1934 production of Midsummer Night’s Dream by a producer who dropped by a rehearsal and thought she had an “esthetic face,” which is on full view in the glamor shots seen here—it was her mind that turned that start into a career. Locked into a restrictive deal with Warner Bros., even after being “loaned out” for a role in Gone With the Wind, the biggest movie of its day, she ended up successfully suing the studio over its attempt to make her work beyond the terms of her contract.

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After that, the jobs she took were on her own terms—in films including The Snake Pit and The Heiress. Her most recent acting credit came in 1988, in The Woman He Loved, and in the years since she has received the National Medal of Arts in the U.S. and the Legion of Honor from France, her adopted homeland. Her centennial birthday will be celebrated on television and with film screenings.

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