OLIVIA de HAVILLAND
By Suprina Frazier
More Than Just Another Pretty Face
Born Olivia Mary de Havilland on
July 1, 1916 in Tokyo, Japan to a British patent attorney and his actress wife,
Olivia was the first of two children to follow in her mother’s footsteps. Her
one-year younger sister Joan (de Havilland) Fontaine became a renowned actress
as well. In fact, Joan even beat Olivia out for a Best Actress Oscar one year,
receiving the coveted award several years before her sister did. How’s that for
Although Olivia did eventually
taste Oscar victory in 1946 and again in 1949, becoming one of the few actresses
to win multiple Best Actress Academy Awards, it was her stand against Warner
Brothers that made her a cut above the rest and ultimately broke the oppressive
system that kept actors and actresses in virtual slavery to their studios.
Olivia first got bit by the
acting bug while attending high school in California. That bite was obviously
potent enough to produce a genuine love of performing in her, because Olivia
continued to act while enrolled in college. Although Miss de Havilland’s initial
goal was to earn a degree and start a teaching career, all of that changed once
she was discovered after appearing in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Soon
Olivia was hired by director Max Reinhardt as a second understudy for the role
of Hermia in his Hollywood Bowl production of that same work.|
Suddenly, it was as if fate had
stepped in when both understudies dropped out of A Midsummer Night’s Dream,
leaving Olivia to assume that role. Although she was told about the change only
six days before the opening, she turned out to be a resounding success. Then
after being persuaded to tour in the Reinhardt production, Olivia put her
college plans on hold.
Fortunately, that change in life
plans paid off for Olivia as a very important studio head named Jack Warner
caught one of her performances and became so impressed by what he saw that he
convinced her to sign a seven-year contract with Warner Brothers (a company that
he established with three of his brothers). This same contract and studio would
further shape Olivia’s professional destiny and become a vessel through which
Hollywood would forever be changed.
As soon as her contract was
signed, Olivia began to do a number of films. Among them were The Irish in Us
(1935), Captain Blood (1935), Alibi Ike (1935), Anthony Adverse
(1936), The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936), It’s Love I’m After
(1937), The Great Garrick (1937), and Call It a Day (1937) among
When Olivia was paired with
another new Warner Brothers actor named Errol Flynn in the 1935 film Captain
Blood, a true dynamic duo had been
formed. Their studio and fans alike
recognized the on-screen chemistry between the two actors. Soon that film would
become the first of nine to feature Olivia and Errol. The most famous de
Havilland and Flynn film is Michael Curtiz’s The Adventures of Robin Hood
(1938) where the actors starred as the heroic Robin Hood and the faithful Maid
Marian. In fact, that Technicolor film was later nominated for Best Picture of
the Year and took home three other Oscars for its art/set direction, editing,
and musical scoring by Erich Wolfgang Korngold.
In 1939, Olivia made another
pivotal career move. She convinced David O. Selznick to give her the part of
Melanie in Gone With The Wind. Once he agreed, she then convinced Warner
Brothers to loan her out for that part. Following an Oscar nomination for that
role, Olivia boldly asked her studio for better acting roles instead of the
usual ‘sugary sweet’ parts that she’d been given up to that date. Unfortunately,
Warner Brothers responded to her assertions and subsequent script refusals by
placing Olivia on a six-month suspension. On top of that, the studio demanded
that she make up for the lost suspension time when her contract was up. Keep in
mind that at that time all studios were under the assumption that actors and
actresses were nothing more than property to do with as they saw fit.
Proving that she was more than
just another pretty face, Olivia sued Warner Brothers. During her long and
tedious court battle, she didn’t appear in a single film. However, Olivia did
use some of that free time she had to cultivate her personal life. In 1946 she
married Marcus Goodrich. That seven-year marriage produced a son named Benjamin.
When the two-year court battle
was finally over, Olivia emerged as the winner. But Miss de Havilland’s victory
didn’t just signify a great win for her; it was deemed a significant victory for
all performers. Not only did the courts declare that Olivia did not have to make
up her suspension time, they also declared that all contracts with performers
had to be limited to seven years which would include any suspensions issued by
the studio. This soon became known as the ‘De Havilland Law’ and marked the end
of studios treating their performers as mere chattel.
Returning to the silver screen
as a free-lance actress, Olivia made The Well-groomed Bride and To
Each His Own, both in 1946. The latter film earned Miss de Havilland her
very first Oscar as Best Actress of the Year. Her second Best Actress award came
a short time later in 1949 for The Heiress. These outstanding Oscar wins
seemed to indicate that Olivia’s freewill in choosing scripts was enough to give
her the added boost and inspiration she needed to really shine in her craft.
In the 1950’s Olivia shifted her
attention to Broadway for a while before moving to France with her second
husband, Pierre Galante, the then editor of Paris Match. During their
twenty-four year marriage, Olivia had a daughter named Gisele.
Fortunate among her peers on so
many other levels, Olivia de Havilland enjoyed a length acting career as well.
Her exceptional career spanned well into the 70’s and 80’s with her appearing in
both films and television. She even won a Golden Globe for her performance in
1986’s Anastasia: The Mystery of Anna. Her last screen appearance was
The Fifth Musketeer in 1979. Her last acting appearance anywhere was in the
1988 TV movie called The Woman He Loved. Fortunately, the end of Olivia’s
career did not mark the end of her life. She is still very much alive as of this
writing and living in Paris.
Although many fans will forever
remember Miss de Havilland for her role as Melanie in Gone With The Wind,
Olivia’s peers will undoubtedly remember her for the landmark court decision
that changed all of their lives.
Suprina Frazier is a freelance writer from Augusta, Georgia. This is her
second submission to the Profiles and Premiums Newsletter, her previous piece covered
Other Olivia De Havilland Pages:
A Tribute to
Olivia de Havilland Celebrating the career of a living legend, a well-liked
leading lady who is best known for a supporting role and who successfully fought
the studio system in 1943.
Jackson's Olivia De Havilland Page -- The Immortal Actress!