Q&A-Actress De Havilland Discusses Legal Battle
LOS ANGELES - Some 60 years after she took a brave stand for artists rights, legendary actress Olivia de Havilland recently shared her thoughts with The Hollywood Reporter's Robert Osborne about her famous legal battle with Warner Bros. over the terms of her contract, which went all the way to the Supreme Court in 1945, and how much the industry in which she grew up has changed since she moved to Paris in the 1950s.
The Hollywood Reporter: What specifically prompted you to fight your Warner Bros. contract? Was it primarily the films Warners gave you to play after the experience of playing meatier dramatic roles on loan-out to other studios?
Olivia de Havilland: It was not solely because of meatier roles on loan-out -- Melanie in "Gone With the Wind," Emmy Brown in "Hold Back the Dawn" -- that I fought my case. Rather it was because, from the age of 18 when I began my career as Hermia in "A Midsummer Night's Dream," I always wanted to play difficult roles in films with significant themes. With the exception of that first Shakespearean film, no equivalent opportunities were given me at Warner Bros.
THR: How tough was it for you personally to be out of work and off the screen for three years while the fight was going on?
De Havilland: The time during which I was enjoined by Warners from working at any other studio offered me a marvelous opportunity to do something I very much wanted to do: contribute to the welfare of our armed forces (during World War II). This I did through bedside visits to our enlisted men in military hospitals in the United States, Alaska and the Aleutian Islands and the South Pacific.
THR: Was it hard for you financially? How did radio come to your aid at that time?
De Havilland: While fighting the case I drew on my savings to see me through. After I had won in at least one court and the sponsors felt it was safe to employ me, I performed on the "Lux Radio Theatre" and other well-known programs. This was very helpful indeed.
THR: How were you treated by your fellow actors during this time? Was the town supportive?
De Havilland: Absolutely no one in the industry thought I would win the case. When I at last succeeded, lots of flowers and telegrams began to arrive, which, of course, made me very happy.
THR: Did you feel any kind of repercussions from within the industry when you did go back to work in the mid-'40s?
De Havilland: I felt no repercussions when I was at last free to work again.
THR: Did you have any concerns that the studio chiefs who felt stung by "the de Havilland Decision" might try to keep you from winning the Oscar for "To Each His Own" so soon after you won your court case?
De Havilland: No. I did not for a minute think that the studio chiefs would try to keep me from winning the Oscar for "To Each His Own."
THR: Why did you decide to leave Hollywood and move to Paris in the mid-'50s?
De Havilland: In the early 1950s, television, which had so long been kept at bay, became a serious threat to the film industry. Instead of making 100 films a year, the big studios undertook only 50, then 25, then less than that; the Golden Era was coming to an end. A whole civilization was dying, and I knew that whatever replaced it would not be its equal.
At the same time, my own personal life was undergoing dissolution. To my regret it had become necessary for me to divorce my first husband, Marcus Goodrich, in 1952. I now found myself alone with a little boy to bring up in an atmosphere of profound gloom. Invited by the Cannes Film Festival to its April 1953 celebrations, I accepted and attended with my small son (3 1/2 years old) and his nanny in tow. France, still suffering from the humiliation and depredations of war and occupation, was nonetheless experiencing a slow rebirth. An old civilization was coming to life again, and its upward movement was something to which I was keenly sensitive.
When Pierre Galante, whom I met on my arrival in Paris and again at Cannes, followed me to the United States and persuaded me to return to France, I did so with my little boy, and looking forward to the challenges and the growth which living in a foreign country means. It has been an invaluable experience and one which has led me to believe that all young Americans should be obliged to spend at least one school year abroad. It is very necessary not only for their own development and understanding of the world, but also for the good of their country, the United States of America.
THR: What is the most notable difference you see in Hollywood today compared with what it was like when you were living and working there regularly in the 1930s and 1940s?
De Havilland: The salaries! $20 million for one picture!
THR: Where does "the de Havilland Decision" rank in your mind with the many other landmark accomplishments of your career, including two Oscars, two New York Film Critics Awards, "Gone With the Wind," etc.?
De Havilland: I am both proud of and grateful for "the Decision" -- grateful to the judges who rendered it and grateful for the law which it concerned. An odd thing has just occurred to me: When I was 18, I never dreamed that I would one day play in real life a difficult role in a courtroom drama with a significant theme.