“There really wasn’t any doubt about the right decision for me to take,” de Havilland would recall. “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’ll take the suspension, without pay, of course, but knowing they will not have to serve that time again.” In fact, prominent stars like Jimmy Stewart and Clark Gable, whose contracts had been extended because of service in World War II, promptly took advantage of “the de Havilland rule,” as it came to be known, to forge lucrative freelance careers. In the decades since, entertainers as diverse as Johnny Carson, Courtney Love, Melissa Manchester, and Jared Leto have also invoked the ruling, in contexts from television-talk-show obligations to multimillion-dollar recording contracts.
As for de Havilland, after two years without work, she struck out for Paramount Pictures and 20th Century Fox and soon enough won her two Oscars, for To Each His Own (1946) and The Heiress (1949), while also making a harrowing impression as the victim of a nervous breakdown confined to an asylum in The Snake Pit (1948). But as the 1950s dawned, de Havilland never quite regained her former stardom, and in 1952, she forsook Hollywood for Paris and a marriage to Pierre Galante, the editor of Paris Match magazine. She continued to make occasional appearances in both film and television until 1988, when she played her last role, in The Woman He Loved, a TV movie about the abdication of King Edward VIII.
In later years, de Havilland recounted her adventures with the same kind of sly wit that had impelled her to tell Hal Kern, Gone With the Wind’s film editor, that she could do a better job of retching in the climactic first-act finale than Vivien Leigh, who played Scarlett O’Hara and didn’t think vomiting was ladylike. (Kern agreed, and it’s de Havilland’s desperate sounds that appear on the finished soundtrack). A post–World War II teatime encounter in her home with a smitten Kennedy, just back from naval service in the Pacific, came to an amusing end. “He was quite silent,” she would say in a British newspaper interview many years later. “His friend did most of the talking. He just sat there, those great big eyes staring. Then when it was time for them to leave, we walked into the hallway and he very decisively opened the door—and it was the closet, and all my old boxes of summer hats and tennis rackets fell on his head.” Later, she declined a dinner invitation from Kennedy, claiming she had to study her lines, and when Kennedy spotted her dining that night at Romanoff’s with the much older author Ludwig Bemelmans, he was dumbfounded. “Do you think it was me walking into the closet?” he asked a friend. “Do you think that’s what really did it?”
Near the end of her life, beginning in 2017, de Havilland waged one last legal battle, this time a losing one, as she sued FX and the producer Ryan Murphy over her portrayal by Catherine Zeta-Jones in Feud: Bette and Joan, a miniseries about the rivalry between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, in which the de Havilland character is seen reminiscing about Davis. De Havilland claimed the portrayal was an unauthorized use of her name and likeness. But a California appeals court dismissed the case on First Amendment grounds and the California and United States Supreme Courts declined to review the decision.
To the end, de Havilland remained wryly proud of her role as a champion of working actors. “I suppose you’d like to know how actresses of my day differ from actresses of today,” she said to the American Academy of Achievement interviewer in 2006. “Well,” she went on, cocking an eyebrow as the hint of a smile crept into her twinkling eyes, “the actresses of today are richer.”
Thanks in no small part to Olivia de Havilland, they are.