Film Studies: The belle who broke Hollywood

Click to follow

On the evening of 15 June, in Los Angeles, the Academy is paying tribute to Olivia de Havilland. It is the proper business of the Academy to honor its own veterans, and one does not normally make a point of drawing attention to their schedule. But this evening is out of the ordinary. First of all, Olivia de Havilland is one of the last people alive in the world who was an unquestioned movie star in the 1930s. She will be 90 on 1 July. I can tell you that these facts are not credible because I met the lady recently in Malibu, and I can report that she is strong, fit, alert, funny and mischievous. But there is another reason why that body of professionals should stand for Miss de Havilland, in registering their thanks. It is the legal decision named after her.

Olivia was born in Tokyo in 1916, the daughter of an English singer, Lilian Ruse, and of Walter Havilland, a member of the old Norman family well established in Guernsey, and himself a patents lawyer. She had a younger sister, Joan (I'll come to her), but her parents' marriage was not doing well. The mother decided to remove the two girls to California and ended up in Saratoga, outside San Jose. It was an idyllic existence. The two girls were as pretty as peaches, smart, talented - but helpless rivals. The mother remarried, to a department store manager, and Olivia was cast in the school play - as Hermia in A Midsummer Night's Dream.

When the stepfather heard about this, he said, either you give up the play or you leave this house forever. Olivia left and, in a magical year she was doing Hermia, not just for high school but for the great Austrian producer, Max Reinhardt, in a production at the Hollywood Bowl, and then in a lustrous movie, in a cast that included James Cagney as Bottom and Mickey Rooney as Puck.

She was put under contract by Warner Brothers and chosen to star opposite the studio's new Tasmanian devil (his name was Errol Flynn) in Captain Blood. Olivia would make nine films with Flynn, most notably The Adventures of Robin Hood, where she is, as Maid Marian, the epitome of charm and Saxon prettiness. Their partnership is still hailed in the annals of successful screen chemistry and, to this day, Olivia confesses that she was in complete awe of the Australian, who was seven years older than she was. No, she didn't succumb to him, and she puts that down to her own innocence and his grace, but it was a close thing. I looked at Robin Hood again recently, and it's a marvel to see the Technicolor blush creep into Marian's face when Robin looks at her. Some things are beyond acting.

Time went by and Olivia got a few other good parts: she was cast with Cagney in Raoul Walsh's Strawberry Blonde (a sweet period romance); she was loaned out to Paramount to play the rather naive young woman who married rascal Charles Boyer so he can get into America in Hold Back the Dawn, a Mitchell Leisen picture, written by Billy Wilder; and she was in a little known John Huston picture, In This Our Life, that started a heady romance with Huston (they nearly married). She was nominated for Hold Back the Dawn, but she lost out to Joan Fontaine in Hitchcock's Suspicion. Yes, that Joan - Joan de Havilland (if she hadn't taken a name from her mother). And some say Olivia was miffed.

She was also increasingly upset that her studio, Warners, offered her nothing but consort roles in male-dominated pictures. She became more critical of studio decisions, and she began to decline assignments they required of her. Now, according to the interpretation of the standard seven-year contact that applied to most talent in those days, if you refused an assignment, the time that the picture would have taken was added to the end of your seven years. So temperament or an urge to liberty was rebuked by the law. A few years earlier, another Warners star, Bette Davis, had run away to England to escape jurisdiction. But Warners pursued her in the London courts and won its action against her.

The Havilland family had bred lawyers for centuries and something in Olivia urged her to read the Californian statutes. She found a measure that decreed that any contract of employment that exceeded seven years counted as servitude, and was therefore unlawful. She took advice on the matter. The advice was encouraging. So much so that Olivia de Havilland went on strike against her studio and was prepared to go all the way to the US Supreme Court. In time, she won in the state court, and then received a unanimous verdict in the California appellate court. At that point, the studio elected to fight no further.

The case was established for all players - the seven-year contract went out of fashion, and actors began to be far more powerful in negotiations and securing residual income from films (for example, Olivia has never received a penny in profits from a film she helped out on called Gone With the Wind!) But the legal proceedings kept Olivia away from the screen for three full years when she was at her peak.

She might have feared blacklisting. But, in truth, she was popular, and so good she ran into the great purple passage of her career: in the late 1940s, she won her first Oscar in Leisen's To Each His Own (1946), a wonderful weepie; she was nominated again for The Snake Pit (1948), a very powerful film about a woman who enters an asylum; and she won her second Oscar for The Heiress, William Wyler's adaptation of Henry James's Washington Square, made with Ralph Richardson and Montgomery Clift.

There might have been more, for she was offered the role of Blanche DuBois in the movie of A Streetcar Named Desire. But she turned it down for this unexpected reason: she had just given birth to her first child, a son, and she hardly thought it decent to reward him by playing such an ill-famed woman. She still reckons she did the right thing, and it's a reminder of a person made in the image of the classic Norman aristocracy, a lady above reproach - as well as a witty, modern woman and an actress capable of handling her own legal affairs.