Olivia de Havilland, the last surviving grande dame of Classic Hollywood, turns 100 tomorrow. The last time I saw her she was a spry 86, bounding up the stairs of her house in Paris’ 16th arrondissement and with no signs of slowing. Reflecting on that, it seems hardly surprising that this formidable woman is celebrating a century on the planet. Long after she left Hollywood in 1956, the mark De Havilland made on the town remains. A star of Gone With The Wind and a double Best Actress Oscar winner, she also was responsible for the De Havilland Law which in 1944 broke the stranglehold that studios had on contract players.
De Havilland, who began making pictures in 1935, went on to a prolific collaboration with Errol Flynn and along with GWTW, for which she received her first Oscar nomination, she later earned statues for To Each His Own and The Heiress with another nom for The Snake Pit. She left Hollywood in the ’50s just as television was beginning to impact the movies, and headed to Paris with her French husband. She only ever looked back for a handful of parts as well as her appearance on the 2003 75th anniversary of the Oscars. That was the year I met her.
As a freelance reporter for the Los Angeles Times, I spent an afternoon with de Havilland. Much of our time together has stayed with me as I forged my own path as an American in France, and as a woman in a tough business. (I reached out for this piece, but we were unable to meet up again. Hence, some of the below is based on my recollection of our previous encounters and a talk she had with the Academy of Achievement in 2006.)
De Havilland was born in 1916 to British parents in Tokyo and moved to California at a young age. A stage turn as Puck in the Saratoga Community Theater production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream led to her being cast in the Warner Bros 1935 film version with de Havilland playing Hermia, under a multi-year contract with WB. That same year, the actress began an onscreen pairing with Flynn in Michael Curtiz’s Captain Blood. The team-up of the two would result in a series of films including They Died With Their Boots On, The Adventures Of Robin Hood and The Charge Of The Light Brigade.
In 1939, de Havilland played Scarlett O’Hara’s sister-in-law Melanie in Gone With The Wind. But it was not easy for her to secure the MGM picture while she was under contract at WB. One line she uttered to me in 2003 has stayed: “Jack Warner was an unreasonable man.”
The film’s original director, George Cukor, she has said asked if she would “consent to doing something highly illegal.” Because she was under contract to Warner, MGM had no right at the time to ask her to read. Demonstrating her strength and cheek, her response was, “Yes. I’d be delighted to do this highly illegal thing,” she told the Academy of Achievement in 2006.
Subsequently, she drove herself to David O Selznick’s house and read with Cukor playing Scarlett. “There we were in this little bay window with the hangings, and I was pleading with ‘Scarlett! Scarlett!’ over something or another, and he was clutching the porches, and there was David standing three feet from us, watching this scene with rapt attention, enthralled,” she told the Academy of Achievement. “Well, part of my mind, of course, was saying this has to be the most comic thing to witness that has ever, ever happened, ever been performed in the history of the world.”
Because of the contract situation, Selznick war forced to test a series of other actresses. At the end, as de Havilland has recounted, he said, “Well, I will start getting in touch with Jack Warner.” Warner, the “unreasonable man,” refused to lend her out. So, she sought the help of his wife — that got him to agree.
Later, she would take Warner Bros to court, which resulted in a landmark decision that reduced the power of the studios and gave artists greater freedom. The studios at the time relied on exclusive personal services contracts being suspended when an artist was not working which meant that actual work would be spread over a much longer calendar period than the contractual seven years. De Havilland filed a lawsuit in 1943 against Warner Bros which had renewed her 1935 contract six times since then and prevented her from working elsewhere. The California Court of Appeal for the Second District ruled in her favor, taking the common sense view that seven years from the commencement of service meant seven calendar years. In 1944, she was free to seek work elsewhere.
De Havilland has said, “One of the nice things I thought was, If I do win, other actors feeling frustration such as I feel will not have to endure that. They will take the suspension, going without pay of course, but knowing they will not have to serve that time again.” The seven-year-rule remains an ingrained part of the business today and De Havilland’s two Oscars were won for other studios.
When I met de Havilland in 2003, she invited me upstairs to visit what she referred to as her “boudoir” which was essentially her office with trophies from a long-away time lining the shelves. There were her two Oscars, along with her 1949 Volpi Cup from the Venice Film Festival for The Snake Pit, of which she was incredibly proud.
When I asked her about her first turn with winning an Oscar, in 1946’s war drama To Each His Own she told me of a mishap at the dinner preceding the ceremony. Wine had spilled on her dress, but she took it in stride. The gown had a flower pattern running down it which nicely hid the stain.
She also told me of the evening, as I wrote in the LA Times story at the time, that at the ceremony she heard her name called and had to wrestle through Louis B. Mayer and at least 11 of his “cohorts” who “started to flood up the aisle.” She fought her way up to the stage, she said. “I did feel rather slighted, and it was quite a muscular endeavor to get through them to get up to that Oscar, but I showed my colors.”
In the Paris home where she has lived since 1958, de Havilland told me she didn’t really move away from Hollywood, rather it was a choice. “I was courted by a Frenchman and I was persuaded to come to France. It did not disappoint me for one minute!” I think we bonded over that feeling of freedom as two women who had made a conscious choice not so much against Hollywood, but in favor of a life that offered a bit more.
By the time de Havilland left Hollywood, she was in rarefied air. Very few actors had two Oscars already. “It was impossible not to take it seriously,” she told me. But she allowed that it was “awful because people expect you to live up to that standard every single time and it can make you feel quite panicked… You see, it’s a perilous place to be on a pinnacle.”
When our day ended in 2003, and with de Havilland having understood my geeky obsession with the Academy Awards and Old Hollywood, she lent me a coffee table book commemorating the 75 years of Oscar. It had been inscribed to her, but she had no compunction about handing it to me and saying essentially, take this home, you’ll enjoy it. I did take it home in 2003 and returned it… in 2011. She was gracious as ever.