The Unprecedented Bravery of Olivia de Havilland

The Gone With the Wind film legend, who died at age 104, went up against a broken Hollywood studio system—and helped change the industry forever.

Olivia de Havilland in the 1939 hit Warner Bros. film Dodge City (Everett Collection)

Olivia de Havilland was the last great living female star of the movies’ golden age, in the 1930s and ’40s. She died today at 104 at her home in Paris, and her radiant visage and sinuous voice will haunt audiences for at least another century, whether as Errol Flynn’s blushing Maid Marian in The Adventures of Robin Hood, or as her old friend Bette Davis’s scheming foil in the Grand Guignol of Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte.

Yet de Havilland’s most lasting impact on Hollywood history is lodged not on celluloid but in the less glamorous pages of California’s law books, the result of her risky 1943 decision to sue her bosses at Warner Bros. Pictures. That move destroyed the indentured servitude that was the studio system, and helped pave the way for the modern age of movie stars as independent mini-moguls, with control of their own artistic and financial fortunes.

To be sure, de Havilland was plenty glamorous. She won two Academy Awards for Best Actress. She had passionate public romances with James Stewart, Howard Hughes, and John Huston, and survived a seriocomic courtship by a young John F. Kennedy. She maintained the most epic sororal feud in Hollywood history with her sister, Joan Fontaine. Yet her fearless, feminist stance in a Los Angeles County courtroom in the middle of World War II is her enduring legacy.

When de Havilland signed her first standard seven-year contract, with Warner Bros. in 1936, she was still a minor and it had to be approved by the courts. Born in Tokyo to British parents, she had grown up mostly in Northern California and was discovered by the Austrian director Max Reinhardt, who cast her in his 1935 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. As she blossomed from a promising young player into a star—in a string of swashbuckling costume dramas with Flynn, and then as the indelible Melanie Hamilton in Gone With the Wind—de Havilland grew pickier about the parts she would accept.

Each time she turned one down, the studio’s imperious production chief, Jack L. Warner (whom she dubbed “Jack the Warden”), would suspend her without pay and tack the suspension time onto her existing contract. Warner had exacted similar penance from such talented but quarrelsome stars as Bette Davis and James Cagney, who turned down assembly-line roles that they felt were beneath them. But it was de Havilland who finally decided to do something about it.

“I realized it was never at Warner I was going to have the work that I so much wanted to have,” she would recall in a video interview with the American Academy of Achievement late in life. “I thought, I have to refuse; I must do it, and I did, and of course I was put on suspension.” By 1943, when her seven-year contract should have been up, she had accumulated an additional six months of suspension time. On the advice of Martin Gang, a prominent Hollywood lawyer (who would later defend victims of the Hollywood blacklist as well as those who named Communists and fellow travelers), de Havilland filed suit under an obscure state anti-peonage law, which barred any employer from enforcing a personal-services contract for more than seven years.

Warner was incensed. “We brought her from obscurity to prominence and can show that we made a profit on every picture she has ever been in and made it possible for her to get $125,000 for each picture, which she is now getting,” he fumed, according to Olivia de Havilland and the Golden Age of Hollywood, a 2018 biography by Ellis Amburn. Gang warned de Havilland that the Warner Bros. lawyer who put her on the witness stand in superior court would try to make her angry and “appear like a spoiled movie actress.”  “And, oh, he was so wicked,” de Havilland told the American Academy of Achievement. “He would say accusingly, in thunderous tones, ‘Is it not true, Miss de Havilland, that on such and such a date you failed to report to the set to play such and such a role in such and such a film?’ And I, remembering Martin Gang’s instructions, said, ‘I didn’t refuse. I declined.’”

De Havilland won in the trial and appellate courts, which agreed that “seven years” meant seven calendar years, not seven elapsed years of working time. But Warner Bros. effectively blacklisted her from working for any other studio for a time, and appealed the case all the way to the California State Supreme Court, which eventually declined to reverse the lower courts’ findings.

“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.