Published on July 26, 2020
Olivia de Havilland, the last star of cinema’s Golden Age and a lifelong Hollywood rebel who helped break the old studio system’s stranglehold on actors, died peacefully early Sunday. She was 104.
De Havilland appeared in films including The Adventures of Robin Hood and Gone With the Wind, and won Oscars for To Each His Own in 1946 and The Heiress in 1949. She and her sister Joan Fontaine, with whom she had a sometimes tense relationship, are the only siblings to have won Academy Awards in a lead acting category.
De Havilland’s acting career started in October 1932, just seven years before her role in the Gone With the Wind, the highest-grossing film of all time when adjusted for inflation. She was cast in the junior play at Los Gatos High School, and her new stepfather, a man she and her sister called the Iron Duke, gave her an ultimatum: Give up the play or leave this house forever.
“I went off to school with my decision made,” de Havilland said in a 2001 speech for the Academy of Achievement. “I spent that night and several more with friends of my mother’s, went on with the play, and never again slept in the house.”
After graduation, she appeared as Hermia in Max Reinhardt’s Hollywood Bowl production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Those in the opening-night audience included Charlie Chaplin and Better Davis.
De Havilland soon befriended Davis — and successfully fought the studio system after Davis tried and failed.
Three months after the Hollywood Bowl production, de Havilland was under contract with Warner Bros., working on the film version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, she recalled in the 2001 speech. She begged Warner Bros to loan her out to MGM to play Melanie, Scarlett O’Hara’s friend and rival, in Gone With the Wind. De Havilland said Jack Warner relented only after de Havilland appealed to his wife, Ann.
But she often had to struggle to break out of “nice girl” roles. She is quoted as saying in Judith M. Kass’ 1976 book, Olivia de Havilland:
I wanted to do complex roles, like Melanie for example, and Jack Warner saw me as an ingénue. I was really restless to portray more developed human beings. Jack never understood this, and … he would give me roles that really had no character or quality in them. I knew I wouldn’t even be effective.
Laws at the time allowed studios to put actors’ contracts on suspension when they rejected roles — as de Havilland once did when a script wasn’t yet complete at the start of shooting. The laws allowed studios to add the time actors spent on suspension to the end of their contracts, which could extend those contracts by years. Bette Davis unsuccessfully sued Warner Bros. in an effort to change the practice.
De Havilland went to court in 1943 to fight back — and won. Her victory led to what’s still known as the De Havilland Law, a section of the California Labor Code that says an exclusive personal services contract — like an actor’s deal with a studio — is limited to seven calendar years.
The law helped her and other actors break the studios’ grip on talent.
In the years after the legal victory, she enjoyed some of her greatest successes, including the two Paramount films for which she won Oscars.
De Havilland spent the second half of her life in Paris, occasionally sending notes to performers who benefited from the De Havilland Law. She sent one to Jared Leto in 2009 as his band, 30 Seconds to Mars, used the law to get out of a contract dispute. The Los Angeles Times reported that she wrote it “in formal, feminine script” and that it “arrived on thick, azure-colored paper.”
In 2017, she sued FX and Ryan Murphy over her portrayal in the limited series Feud, in which she was played by Catherine Zeta-Jones. The suit was later dismissed — but capped a lifetime of standing up for herself.
For years, she and Kirk Douglas were the last survivors of Hollywood’s Golden Age. His death in February, at 103, left her as the last.
And now that era is gone with the wind.