The great actor and film historian Louise Brooks (1906-1985) wrote that the movie industry began because a bunch of rich men thought it would be just terrific fun to own beautiful young women. Women like Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn and Olivia de Havilland pushed back against that ownership: the studio contract system.
In 1941, while under contract at Warner Bros., a discouraged de Havilland, finding herself cast in the same sort of undistinguished roles as second-string to the men, decided to take suspensions without pay to avoid the parts she regarded as unacceptable. Loaned out to Paramount Pictures for Hold Back The Dawn, de Havilland received another Academy Award nomination (her first was for Gone With The Wind in 1939), and then she began to count down the months until her contract with Warner Bros. expired.
But, under California’s studio-friendly labor laws, employers could hold actors to personal services contracts for up to seven years. De Havilland’s contract ended in July 1943. But when the day came, she was shocked to find out that she wasn’t free at all. The months of suspension without pay that she had accumulated were tacked on to the end of her original contract period. De Havilland owed the studio seven years of active labor, however long it might take.
The enforceability of the “tack on” terms had never been addressed by the courts and no actor had dared to make a legal challenge, although powerful stars like Hepburn and Davis were able to negotiate modifications in their contracts. De Havilland, at just 27 years old, decided to fight back. She hired an attorney to seek a judicial declaration that the “tack on” provision of the suspension clause was invalid under California state law. Even with the very real possibility of ruining her career by taking on the studio system, never the less, she persevered. In late 1944, the California Appellate Court gave de Havilland, and the rest of the studios contract players, freedom from the Hollywood version of indentured servitude.
Her victory cost her $13,000 (or $200,000 in 2020 money) in legal fees. But, she also won the respect and admiration of her actor colleagues, including her own sister, Joan Fontaine, who said: “Hollywood owes Olivia a great deal…”, and then they went back to feuding. Warner Bros. sent letters to other studios who put de Havilland on a blacklist. She did not work for two years.
De Havilland finally proved it was all worth it, using her artistic freedom to secure the sort of roles she wanted to play, starting with three truly great films: To Each His Own (1946), The Snake Pit (1948) and The Heiress (1949). Her work brought her three more Oscar nominations with two wins and a New York Film Critics Circle Award.
Her court victory is still known today as The De Havilland Law instead of the more formal California Labor Code Section 2855. In legalese, it prevents any court from enforcing an exclusive personal services contract beyond the term of seven calendar years from the commencement of service.
De Havilland was a very good friend of Bette Davis. In the otherwise intriguing Feud: Bette And Joan (2017) she was oddly portrayed by Catherine Zeta-Jones. On June 30, a day before her 101st birthday, de Havilland filed a lawsuit against FX and writer/producer Ryan Murphy for inaccurately portraying her and using her image without permission. Don’t mess with de Havilland!
De Havilland’s legal victory in 1944 reduced the power of the studios and brought greater creative freedom to performers. It also gave women a little bit more clout. The decision was one of the most significant and far-reaching legal rulings in Hollywood history and a female made it happen.
De Havilland’s final credits rolled in July 2020 at her home in Paris. Gone at 104, I would not have been surprised if she had been here today for her 107th birthday.