The Woman Who Beat Hollywood

Outside of her brace of Oscars, Olivia de Havilland’s biggest achievement was in forcing studios to pay actors who did not want to work. She wasn’t the first person to take on the studios as I discovered when researching my book When Women Ruled Hollywood. Bette Davis, Myrna Loy and Hedy Lamarr preceded her.

De Havilland owed the studio several months on her contract since she had failed to fulfill its terms by refusing to work and was put on suspension. She took the view that the suspension should form part of her contract. The law agreed.

De Havilland was without doubt a great actress – her Oscars for To Each His Own (1946) and The Heiress (1949) plus nominations for Gone with the Wind (1939), Hold Back the Dawn (1941) and my favorite The Snake Pit (1948) attest to that.

But without Errol Flynn at her side she was never a big star. Her only big hit once she left the Warner Brothers comfort zone was medical drama Not as a Stranger (1955) which had strong co-stars in Frank Sinatra and Robert Mitchum. Once she won her freedom she was only seen 15 pictures in 20 years. Both Joan Crawford and Bette Davis made 50 per cent more.

She enjoyed one of the great screen partnerships with Errol Flynn in swashbucklers like Captain Blood (1935) and The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and westerns Dodge City (1939) and They Died with their Boots On (1941). Despite her protestations to the contrary, Warner Brothers looked after their ingenue and developed her talent. Versatility was key to remaining a star – the public soon grew tired of a star confined to single genre – and she appeared in westerns, drama, comedies.

Her main problem was her age. She was only 19 when Captain Blood appeared. She was competing with the more mature Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, eight and twelve years older, respectively, for the best parts the studio had to offer. Warner Brothers was also willing to let her go out on loan, her first two nominations were for work at other studios, MGM and Paramount. Since most of the top male actors were much older, it would be hard for her to be accepted by audiences as their equal in a romance or drama.

That she won her case against the studio was as much to do with politics as anything else. The idea that an actor should enjoy more freedom in the workplace than a miner or a nurse was patently preposterous. However, the government was involved in aggressive action against Hollywood that would result in the break-up of the studio system and make hundreds of actors, who depended on contracts, freelancers whether they liked it or not.

However, she certainly made great use of her freedom, as the unwed mother in To Each His Own, confined to a mental asylum in The Snake Pit and forced to choose between money and happiness in William Wyler’s The Heiress.

After a three-year hiatus, she returned with another strong performance in the adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel (1952). But by the end of the decade she had lost her star status, demoted to leading lady, below Alan Ladd in the billing for in The Proud Rebel (1958) and Dirk Bogarde in Libel (1959). After the reissue of Gone with the Wind in 1961, her career briefly revived – with romantic drama Light in the Piazza (1962) and powerful performances as the woman terrorized by thugs in Lady in a Cage (1964) and Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964).   

Thereafter, there were occasional supporting roles and television parts. Her last movie was The Fifth Musketeer (1979).