Olivia de Havilland, Unsung Heroine of American Labor 1916-2020

Over her eventful 104 years, more than half of them as a Hollywood leading lady, Olivia de Havilland was many things. The doe-eyed brunette, who died in July, was Errol Flynn’s and James Cagney’s favorite co-star, a two-time Oscar winner, a successful author, a beloved mother and aunt, recipient of the National Medal of the Arts, Chevalier of the Legion d’Honneur in France and Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. (She was honored by three nations because, though a U.S. citizen, she was born in Tokyo to English parents and had lived in Paris for more than 60 years.)

But among de Havilland’s multiple achievements, perhaps the least known and most consequential is her true-life role as an unsung heroine of American labor history.

In 1943, when her seven-year contract with Warner Brothers was about to expire, she was elated at the prospect of no longer playing the swoony young thing whose eyes magnified the heroic exploits of her co-star, as her Maid Marian enlarged Flynn’s Robin in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), not to mention the seven other films they made together. At 28, she was done playing the eternal ingénue. She had even been on suspension without pay for refusing such parts. Before she drove out the studio gates, Warners told her she owed it six more months for the time she was on suspension.

De Havilland told me in a 1998 interview that she asked her lawyer, Martin Gang, “Isn’t this a kind of indentured servitude?” He concurred, and she brought suit against Warner Brothers for peonage. She knew that her good pals Cagney and Bette Davis had challenged Warners before, but the studio had prevailed because, in 1930s Hollywood, the studios almost inevitably did.

Not this time. After spending 18 months in legal and professional limbo, de Havilland won the case and her free agency when, in 1944, the California Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling that Warner Brothers had appealed: The studio could not extend her seven-year contract. At 5’ 3” and scarcely 100 pounds, de Havilland looked unintimidating, but her iron resolve was draped in velvet and silk. Ultimately, her fight gave her opportunities to play women of iron resolve.

When I asked her about the suit in 1998, she cited Deuteronomy 15, which stipulates that, in the seventh year, slaves shall be freed. “It seemed to me positively unbiblical to hold me to that contract for more than seven years,” she purred in her mellifluous voice. (By then, she was a lector at the American Cathedral in Paris, and her tones, always by turns dulcet and persuasive, were even more so.) She had agreed to the interview on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of Gone with the Wind (1939). When she was offered the role of Melanie, Jack Warner refused to lend her to another studio to play the meaty role. So, de Havilland appealed to his wife, Ann, who persuaded her husband to lend de Havilland to Selznick International for the movie for which she earned her first of five Oscar nominations.

De Havilland reminded me that her legal triumph enabled her to accept the “substantial” roles for which she won her Oscars: as an unwed mother in To Each His Own (1946) and as the eponymous heroine who spurns fortune hunter Montgomery Clift in The Heiress (1949). Not only did winning the suit liberate the actress to choose the roles that earned her kudos and immortality, but it also protected other actors and musicians from being treated like corporate assets. Personally, it enabled her two more decades on screen, in roles as varied as Charlotte Bronte in Devotion (1946) and a mental patient in the movie based on Mary Jane Ward’s autobiographical novel The Snake Pit (1947). In the end, de Havilland enjoyed a career as long as that of Katharine Hepburn.

During my tenure as a journalist, I repeatedly heard actors of de Havilland’s generation (including Davis, Robert Mitchum and James Stewart, to whom she was briefly engaged) cite how the actress’ successful suit shifted the power balance in the industry from management to artist. “We all owe her a debt of gratitude,” said Davis, who lost her battle with Warner Brothers while de Havilland won the war.

Seventy-six years after her victory, California Labor Code 2588 (popularly known as the “De Havilland Law “) continues to protect the creative rights of artists. Over the past two decades, plaintiffs in the music industry including Courtney Love, Olivia Newton-John, Busta Rhymes and Kanye West have had de Havilland to thank.

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