How Olivia de Havilland changed Hollywood

Despite Olivia de Havilland’s outstanding success at the box office, her studio, Warner Brothers, arbitrarily decided in 1943 to add six months to her contract to cover time that she had spent on suspension.

Olivia decided to fight the decision and even though Bette Davis had failed to have a similar extension overturned in the courts in the 1930s, she successfully sued the studio in 1943, with the support the Screen Actors Guild.

The case put a limit of seven years on a performer’s contract and became known as the ‘de Havilland decision’. Her success with the case won her great praise from her fellow actors, however, Warner Brothers decided never to put her in one of their films again.

Olivia’s tenacity and determination in dealing with her studio is something of a family trait. Her sister is the equally famous Hollywood actresses Joan Fontaine and their cousin was the noted British aircraft designer and manufacturer, Geoffrey de Havilland.

Geoffrey had a highly accomplished aviation career in Great Britain, which included the twin-engined DH88 Comet that won the MacRoberston England to Australia air race in 1934. It was this aircraft that served as the basis for the iconic World War Two bomber, the Mosquito.

Another de Havilland landmark, also called Comet, was the DH106, which became the world’s first operational jet airliner when it entered service with BOAC in 1952 on their London to Johannesburg run.

Olivia and Joan were born to actress Lillian Augusta Ruse, whose stage name was Lillian Fontaine, and Walter Augustus de Havilland, a patent lawyer who had a practice in Japan. Olivia Mary de Havilland was born on 1 July 1916 in Tokyo and her sister, Joan de Beauvoir de Havilland, was born the following year on 22 October 1917, also in Tokyo.

Olivia’s sister Joan adopted the stage name Joan Fontaine and is famous for many reasons, not least of all that she is the only actress to have won an Oscar for a performance in an Alfred Hitchcock film. She won the Academy Award for Best Actress in the 1941 film Suspicion, opposite Cary Grant and with Cedric Hardwicke, Nigel Bruce and May Whitty.

Olivia achieved great acclaim as an actress, with scores of successful film appearances to her name, including numerous roles opposite Errol Flynn, in particular Flynn’s first leading role in the 1935 film Captain Blood and in the 1938 film The Adventures of Robin Hood. She won the Academy Award for Best Actress twice. The first was for the 1946 film To Each His Own, with Mary Anderson, Roland Culver and John Lund in his first screen role, and the second was for the 1949 film The Heiress, with Montgomery Clift and Ralph Richardson.

Olivia was nominated as Best Actress three times, for the 1939 blockbuster Gone with the Wind, with Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh and Leslie Howard, for the 1941 film Hold Back the Dawn, with Charles Boyer and Paulette Goddard and for the 1948 film The Snake Pit, with Mark Stevens, Leo Genn and Celeste Holm.