Ms. de Havilland was the older sister of Oscar-winning actress Joan Fontaine, with whom she had a long rivalry. She also was one of the last links to the old studio system whose treatment of actors she did much to transform. Both in her backstage fight for meatier roles and her public court battle, Ms. de Havilland displayed a steely persistence at odds with her diminutive stature and soft-spoken screen image.
Her 1940s lawsuit against Warner Bros., her home studio, changed the course of her career and that of countless others long at the mercy of film executives, who held nearly all the power in long-term contracts. It was a remarkable legacy by any measure, all the more so when some of the same Hollywood powers she had bested allowed her to shift more consistently from painted-doll roles to acclaimed dramatic fare.
After the lawsuit was resolved, Ms. de Havilland was praised by the Screen Actors Guild for her historic contribution to the profession. Decades later, she surprised many by appearing at a dinner honoring her old adversary, studio chief Jack L. Warner.
“When I learned that I was invited to attend this dinner at which Jack Warner was to receive a humanitarian award, I decided to accept,” she said, adding a flash of pointed humor: “I’m all for encouraging humanitarianism, especially in Jack.”
Ms. de Havilland’s ascent to stardom came at whiplash-inducing speed. She was 18 when she was plucked from obscurity to play Hermia in theater impresario Max Reinhardt’s celebrated 1934 Hollywood Bowl production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Reinhardt also cast her in the 1935 film version of the Shakespeare fantasy, which starred James Cagney and Mickey Rooney.
She signed a long-term contract with Warner Bros., the studio making the film, and began her rise as a dewy-eyed ingénue in swashbuckling action films co-starring Errol Flynn.
She felt confined by the casting decisions and yearned to play more complicated characters. “I had no real opportunity to develop and to explore difficult roles,” she told the American Academy of Achievement in 2006, “and that was tiresome.”
In 1938, she got a call from independent producer David O. Selznick, who was preparing to make “Gone With the Wind,” a Civil War epic based on Margaret Mitchell’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel that has drawn renewed scrutiny recently because it glosses over the horrors of slavery and offers a racist depiction of African Americans.
Meeting with Selznick secretly, Ms. de Havilland tested for the role of the modest and virtuous Melanie Hamilton. It was not the starring role — that would be the monumentally self-absorbed Scarlett O’Hara, played by English actress Vivien Leigh. But Melanie was a pivotal character who marries Scarlett’s first love, Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard).
Ms. de Havilland said she coveted the role of Melanie because she felt that, as a driven career woman who put herself before others, she understood Scarlett all too well. She saw Melanie as a greater challenge, vastly more complex in her “deep femininity” and endless well of self-sacrifice.
Jack Warner initially refused to lend her to Selznick. Out of what Ms. de Havilland later called an act of youthful desperation, she lobbied the mogul’s wife over tea at the Brown Derby restaurant. Ann Warner, a former actress who understood struggle and ambition, persuaded her husband to allow her to take the role.
For “Gone With the Wind,” Ms. de Havilland received an Oscar nomination for best supporting actress but lost to Hattie McDaniel, who played the slave Mammy in the film. Though Leigh won the Oscar for best actress, critic and filmmaker Pare Lorentz, writing in McCall’s magazine, described Ms. de Havilland as almost having stolen the movie from its star with a performance that was “mature, charming and flawless.”
Bucking the studio system
Like the outspoken and strong-willed Warner Bros. actress Bette Davis, Ms. de Havilland was suspended for refusing roles she deemed unworthy of her skills. In the late 1930s, Davis lost a lawsuit challenging the studio strictures but reached an agreement for better roles. Ms. de Havilland remained determined to break the studio’s strong-arm techniques.
“There’s too much of the factory attitude around a studio,” she told an interviewer in 1940, three years before filing her suit.
In what became a 1945 landmark contract ruling known as “the de Havilland decision,” her attorneys used California anti-peonage statutes to support the actress’s case that a seven-year contract was limited to seven calendar years rather than time spent working. That was an important distinction at a time when studios routinely suspended performers and did not count that suspension period as time under contract.
At the trial, Ms. de Havilland dressed in a simple black suit and, on her attorney’s advice, spoke demurely so as not to come off like a spoiled movie star; Davis had been clobbered in the press for likening her lucrative contract, amid the Depression, to slavery. When the Warner Bros. lawyer asked Ms. de Havilland whether she “willfully refused” certain roles, she calmly responded, “I declined.”
The Supreme Court of California chose not to review two lower court rulings in Ms. de Havilland’s favor, and the result was considered a key moment in the eventual collapse of the all-powerful studio system that built up stars and controlled all aspects of their lives.
Her court battles behind her, Ms. de Havilland entered a particularly fruitful phase of her career as a freelancer. She won a best actress Oscar for playing a self-sacrificing, unwed mother in the soapy drama “To Each His Own” (1946) and won again three years later for portraying a social wallflower belittled by her wealthy father (Ralph Richardson) and pursued by a handsome gold digger (Montgomery Clift) in “The Heiress” (1949).
Ms. de Havilland was also nominated for a best actress Oscar for “The Snake Pit” (1948), playing an inmate of a mental institution. The drama was a landmark in its portrayal of mental illness, and she won a New York Film Critics Award for best actress.
Even in less groundbreaking fare, Ms. de Havilland was admired for the nimbleness of her performances. She played identical twins, one of whom is a killer, in the thriller “The Dark Mirror” (1946). Reviewer James Agee found her performance “thoughtful, quiet, detailed and well-sustained.”
In addition to her acting career, Ms. de Havilland became known for her rift with Fontaine, one of the longest sibling rivalries and feuds in the film colony. The roots of the estrangement were never made public, but at times it was attributed to professional competition that may have even been stoked by their mother.
Both sisters were nominated for the 1942 Oscar — Fontaine for the Alfred Hitchcock film “Suspicion” and Ms. de Havilland for “Hold Back the Dawn,” in which she played a shy American schoolteacher manipulated by a Lothario. Fontaine won, and spats followed over movie roles and the romantic attention of powerful men such as billionaire Howard Hughes.
The sisters tenuously reconciled over the years, but the truces held for only so long. Tellingly, Fontaine later claimed she was approached first to play Melanie Wilkes but was turned down as too chic-looking for the part. She said she then recommended her older sister to producer Selznick.
The break between sisters became permanent after their mother’s death in 1975, when Fontaine was initially not invited to the memorial service and later gave a vinegary interview to the Hollywood Reporter.
“I married first, won the Oscar before Olivia did, and if I die first, she’ll undoubtedly be livid because I beat her to it!” she said. (Fontaine died in 2013, at 96.)
Escaping to the stage
Olivia Mary de Havilland was born in Tokyo on July 1, 1916, to British parents. Her father headed a patent law firm. Her mother was a choral singer and actress in amateur stage shows for the Anglican community.
Her parents divorced, and her mother moved to California, taking Olivia and Joan. They settled in Saratoga, near San Jose, and her mother married a prosperous businessman and cruel disciplinarian named George Fontaine. (Joan later took her stepfather’s surname for her movie career.)
Ms. de Havilland escaped from family tensions through acting. She won strong reviews in community theater productions, which brought her to the attention of Reinhardt. She was initially an understudy for the role of Hermia at the Hollywood Bowl but wound up playing the part onstage.
Within a year, Ms. de Havilland was starring opposite Flynn in the hit “Captain Blood.” She developed a strong physical attraction to Flynn and said she would repeatedly flub kissing scenes so they would have to be repeated. But she said they never consummated their relationship. Among the reasons: his ceaseless practical jokes, such as hiding a rubber snake in her pantaloon, turned her off.
Her marriages to novelist Marcus Goodrich and Paris Match magazine editor Pierre Galante ended in divorce. A son from the first marriage, Benjamin Goodrich, died in 1991. Survivors include a daughter from the second marriage, Gisèle Galante Chulack.
After settling in Paris in the mid-1950s, Ms. de Havilland wrote a best-selling book of essays about her adjustment to French life, “Every Frenchman Has One” (1962), whose title referred to a liver. She increasingly withdrew from acting, with two of her better late-career roles in the Gothic thriller genre.
In 2017, Ms. de Havilland brought a defamation suit against the FX Networks for portraying her in the miniseries “Feud: Bette and Joan” — set in the 1960s — as a gossip who stoked the rivalry between Davis and actress Joan Crawford. Ms. de Havilland, who sought to control her likeness, said the filmmakers did not seek her consent.
“At this stage of my life and career I am in a unique position to stand up and speak truth to power — an action that would be very difficult for a young actor to undertake,” she told the New York Times. A California appellate court ruled against her in 2018, in what free-speech advocates hailed as a victory. The actress’s attorney said she would appeal, but the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the case.
Long into her retirement, Ms. de Havilland told an interviewer that she was grateful for having worked in the era she did. “If I were a young actress today, I wouldn’t go into the business,” she said. “The only career that would interest me is the kind that Meryl Streep is having. But who else has that kind of career anymore?”
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