The last fragile thread linking us to the Golden Age of Hollywood has snapped. Olivia de Havilland, best-known for her roles in the now controversial Gone With the Wind, To Each His Own, and The Heiress, died on Sunday at the age of 104. Asked what the secret to her longevity was, de Havilland famously answered that she drank a glass of Champagne every night. (She also hoped to die with a flute of bubbly by her side.)
Born in Tokyo, Japan to British parents in 1916, de Havilland was nominated for four Oscars and won twice, in a career that spanned 53 years. (In fact, she and her sister/forever rival, Joan Fontaine, remain the only siblings to have both won Oscars for acting. A resident of Paris since the 1950s, she was also a recipient of France’s Légion d'honneur, the National Medal of the Arts and was named a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II. But while de Havilland’s significant achievements on screen have now guaranteed her a well-earned place in Hollywood history, her off-screen battles with the studio system threatened her ability to achieve such a legacy. Long before actors walked the red carpet in black gowns to declare their solidarity for the Time’s Up initiative, de Havilland took a stand against Warner Bros. that nearly cost her her career.
By the mid-1940s, the studio system was in full swing, with stars tied to arduous, iron-clad contracts that kept them at the mercy of their employers, who crafted an image for them and expected them to stick to. So talented was de Havilland at faking the kind of airhead sweetness studios wanted her to embody that they didn’t expect one of the most significant challenges to the supremacy of their rule to come from her.
De Havilland made her on-screen debut at the age of 18, starring as Hermia in Max Reinhardt’s adaptation of A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream in 1935. In order to take the role, she signed a seven-year contract with Warner Bros., which immediately typecast the 5’3 actress with the kind of face that screams Snow White, as an innocent ingenue. De Havilland chafed against the stereotype, although her breakthrough role, as Melanie Hamilton Wilkes in 1939’s Gone With the Wind, proved that she could make even the most simpering goody-two-shoes into a three-dimensional character, with grit and a backbone of steel underneath all those frills. Though Melanie is supposed to be a softer, wiser foil for the impetuous and headstrong Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh), in de Havilland’s hands, she exuded complexity and depth that hinted at hidden layers beyond her sweet smile. She was nominated for Best Supporting Actress in 1940, though she lost to her co-star Hattie McDaniel, who became the first Black actor to win an Oscar for her role as Mammy.
Asked about her reaction to her Oscars loss in 2004, de Havilland said that once the initial sting had passed, she was overjoyed for McDaniel. "I thought, I'd much rather live in a world where a Black actress who gave a marvellous performance got the award instead of me," she told the Associated Press.
But the role marked an important transition for de Havilland, who decided to use the box office success of Gone with the Wind as a springboard to reach a wider array of meaty, more interesting parts, eschewing the ingenues and love interests she had played in the past. Warner Bros. had other plans, and continued to cast her in the same kind of fluffy roles they had in the past. Eventually, de Havilland began to turn down projects, an assertive stance that was unheard of for a woman at the time. To punish her, infamous studio head Jack Warner began to suspend her contract for six month-periods — if she was unwilling to work the way he wanted her to, she wouldn’t work at all. But to top it off, he then used these interruptions as an excuse to extend her seven-year contract beyond its original end date, arguing that she had not actually worked that full amount of time, and had to remain with Warner Bros. for six more months after it expired in 1942.
De Havilland challenged the studio in court and won. The 1945 ruling, which found that studio’s could not unilaterally and arbitrarily extend an actor’s contract, came to be known as the de Havilland decision and sounded the early death knell for the studio system. By the 1960s, it would be completely dismantled.
In the aftermath of her victory, de Havilland went on to play the remarkable and complex women that would earn her two Oscar wins: unwed mother Jody Norris in To Each His Own (1947), whose decision to give her child up for adoption plagues the rest of her life; and Catherine Sloper in The Heiress (1949), about a bright and shy young woman who becomes hardened by a difficult marriage.
De Havilland’s final film appearance was in 1964 — but she didn’t stop working. In the late 1960s, she made the transition to television, earning an Emmy and Golden Globe nomination. In 1988, she retired from acting altogether, and continued to live in her three-story Paris house near the Bois de Boulogne.
Still, she was a fighter until the end. Seventy-three years after the de Havilland decision, the actress would be embroiled in another lawsuit with a producer. In 2017, at the age of 100, she sued FX and Ryan Murphy Productions over her portrayal in Feud: Betty and Joan, about the infamous rivalry between contemporaries Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. Played by Catherine Zeta Jones in the show, de Havilland was “deeply offended” by Feud’s claim that she called her own sister and longtime rival Joan Fontaine “a bitch.” Her lawsuit alleged infringement of common law right of publicity and false light. Murphy won the suit, but de Havilland persisted, going as far as to petition the Supreme Court of the United States to hear her case. In 2019, that too, was denied.
And yet, her legacy lives on as Hollywood actresses and other creators continue to fight for their right to be heard in a system that too often overlooks them. In 1945, de Havilland struck a blow to an oppressive hierarchy in order to build the career she wanted. What better way is there to honour her memory than continuing that fight, and expanding it to include more marginalized voices? And while you’re at it, drink a glass of Champagne. Keeping Hollywood honest is hard work.