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Olivia de Havilland: Sweet and Strong, Last of the Era, and a Fighter

by John Aquino on 07/26/20

Olivia de Havilland died July 25, 2020  at the age of 104. She was likely the last of the great Hollywood stars of the golden era, having made her first U.S. film in 1935. She also garnered attention with two lawsuits, one filed in her 30s and one toward the end of her life.

She was one of the most active stars in Hollywood from the mid-1930s to the mid-1940s. She made 26 films from 1935 to 1943, not including cameos in which she played herself, and she usually was the lead actress. One of those films was Gone with the Wind, in which she portrayed the noble, long-suffering Melanie. It was, depending on your method of measurement, probably the most successful film of all time. Although it has very recently been criticized as racially insensitive, her portrayal endures. As she herself said, while actresses relish portraying a villainess, it is difficult to make a genuinely good person dramatically interesting. And she did.

She made a string of movies with Errol Flynn--swashbucklers, including Captain Blood and The Adventures of Robin Hood; westerns, such as Dodge City, Virginia City, and They Died with Their Boots On; and even comedies, such as Four’s a Crowd.

De Havilland came from a British family that could trace its ancestors to a supporter of William the Conqueror. Her more recent relations were theatrical ones—her mother, Lillian Fontaine, had appeared on stage and screen, and her sister, Joan Fontaine, had begun to shine in the early 1940s in such films as Rebecca and Suspicion. Her father practiced law.

          By all accounts, de Havilland was a team player. But she also wanted to stretch her skills as an actress and not just jump from film to film as Errol Flynn’s girl or the “sweet one in the picture.” But the studio to which she was under contract, Warner Bros., felt they had a good thing going and a known quantity with de Havilland playing the types of roles she’d been playing. When the studio refused to give her meatier roles, she declined the parts they gave her and, as a result, did not appear in films for three years. Rather than relent, the studio told her that they were extending her contract by 25 months—the time she had not worked.

This was a familiar studio tactic. It demonstrates that the Hollywood moguls felt that actors were property rather than people. Studios sometimes deliberately offered actors roles that were unworthy or demeaning just so that the actors would refuse them, and the studios could extend their contracts. The actors were then faced with either playing roles that could hurt their careers or being locked in with one studio that could cast them in poor films. Some played the bad roles and lost their popularity. Others stayed with the studios—and sometimes ended up playing inferior roles anyway.

De Havilland, for all of her sweet exterior, would have none of it. Her father had, after all, been an attorney. She did what not a single one of the other Warner Bros. contract players—not even the “tough guy” actors like Jimmy Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, or Humphrey Bogart—dared to do: she sued Warner Bros. in California court in 1943 and won—de Havilland v. Warner Bros. Pictures, 67 Cal. App. 2d 225 (1945). The court held that entertainment contracts could last no longer than seven years. This was codified in California labor law as California Labor Code § 2855. It is popularly known as “The De Havilland Law.”

Having beaten and, indeed, broken the Hollywood contract system, de Havilland returned triumphantly to films. In 1946, she appeared in four movies—only one of which, Devotion, was released by Warner Bros., and it had been on the shelf for the three years that de Havilland was suing the studio. One, appropriately named To Each His Own and released by Paramount Pictures, won her the best actress Oscar. She then—in contrast to her previous “23 films in nine years” pace--slowed down. She made no films in 1947, and only one each in 1948 and 1949. But they were good selections. She won a 1948 Oscar nomination for her performance in The Snake Pit, released by 20th Century Fox, and a second Oscar for her performance in The Heiress, released by Paramount.

But for all of this great success after her court victory, de Havilland’s film career continued its slow pace. She left Hollywood for Broadway in 1950 and after meager success returned to films for the 20th Century Fox costumer My Cousin Rachel in 1952, where her co-star, a young actor named Richard Burton, attracted the attention and won a best supporting actor nomination. Over the next 36 years, from 1952 to 1988, de Havilland appeared in 23 films—less than she’d done in her first nine years with Warner Bros.--and only four of which gave her starring or lead actress roles. Most of them were filmed in Europe. In one of them, a weak comedy titled The Ambassador's Daughter (1956), she played at the age of 40 a role she would have been more suitable for when she was 20--the daughter of a U.S. ambassador in Paris who breaks rules by dating an American soldier. Roles for her were apparently hard to come by.

It looks like filmmakers were bearing grudges after all. Also, the studio heads were changing. Moguls were leaving the studios or had less power and corporate business executives were taking over. Someone with a tendency to go to court—and who had ruined a profitable studio system—was not welcome.

Her friend and co-star (in Raffles) David Niven summed it up. “Olivia struck a great blow for freedom, and everyone in the industry should bless her, but she hardly ever worked in Hollywood again.”

At the age of 102, de Havilland sued filmmakers for their depiction of her in the 2015 tv movie Feud. The film was about the feud between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford during the making of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane. De Havilland claimed that the teleplay's portrayal of her was false.

The lower court had declined to dismiss the case, showing great deference to de Havilland, indicated that she could conceivably succeed on the merits of her complaint that FX Networks had violated her statutory right of publicity, misappropriated her image, and that the miniseries constituted false light invasion of privacy. (She didn't sue for libel, which is a false statement fixed in a tangible medium that is defamatory, is clearly about the plaintiff and that causes damages.) De Havilland based her claims on an interview at the 1978 Academy Awards ceremony that the filmmakers admit didn't factually happened but that they used to frame their story and two comments in which she was shown to  call her sister Joan Fontaine a "bitch." She also stressed that the filmmakers hadn't asked her person or paid for the use of her name or likeness.

A difficulty for de Havilland was that the movie wasn't about her. She was a minor character in the film. Another was that, while she hadn't called her sister a  "bitch," she had called her a "Dragon Lady." A third was she was a public figure and many of the events shown in the miniseries had actually happened.

The appeals court made its position clear early on in its opinion: "Whether a person portrayed in these expressive works is a renowned film star--"a living legend"--or someone no one knows, he or she does not own history. Nor does she have the legal right to control, dictate, approve, disapprove or veto the creator's portrayal of actual people."

It probably wasn't how she wanted to spend her last moments in the public spotlight--as a loser. But she was anything but. She created moments of life on celluloid that are still breathtaking and that will last forever. And she always fought for what she believed in, win or lose. God bless her.

Copyright 2020 by John T. Aquino



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