From very early in her career, Olivia sought roles that conveyed complex stories and delved into important experiences of her characters. However, the roles she was often assigned under her contract at Warner Brothers, were not the type of roles she wanted for her career. When she declined a role, Warner Brothers would suspend her contract and add the time she was suspended on at the end, forcing Olivia into a situation where her contract could conceivably never end!
Olivia never shied away from a challenge and risked her own career by filing suit against Warner Brothers on August 23, 1943 after the studio extended her contract six times after "suspending" her for rejecting the roles it suggested. On December 8, 1944, Olivia de Havilland won her lawsuit against Warners Brothers when the California Court of Appeal of the second district unanimously ruled that seven years from the commencement of service meant seven calendar years. Since Olivia had started work under her contract at Warners on May 5, 1936, and seven calendar years had elapsed from that date, the contract was no longer enforceable. This freed Olivia from an unending cycle of suspensions and extensions of her contract at Warner Brothers and enabled her to seek different projects with other studios.
As a result of her efforts, California Labor Law 2855 became known as "the de Havilland Law." Olivia's lawsuit didn't just free her from an unending contract, legions of other actors at the time and in the decades to follow were able to take advantage of the precedent and it has been cited as recently as 2009 involving a dispute over a music contract between EMI Records and Jared Leto and Shannon Leto of the band Thirty Seconds to Mars.
Olivia de Havilland on the lawsuit against Warner Brothers
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My agents, Phil Berg and Bert Allenberg, called me into their offices, South Beverly Drive, 121 -- I forgot the address, it could have been that -- in August of '43, and with them was Martin Gang, a marvelous man and lawyer. They said, "We want Martin to talk to you about your situation. He thinks there is a way out." So Martin explained that there was a California law which limited the right of an employer to enforce a contract against an employee for more than seven years, and that no actor had dared to take advantage of the law by asking for declaratory relief, which is to say an interpretation of a law as it applied to an actor's contract.
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We went into court first, the Superior Court, Judge Charles S. Pernell presiding, in November of that year, 1943. And it is true that Warner Brothers' lawyer did put me on the witness stand, and they said, "Be very careful, because he will try to make you angry and try and make you appear like a spoiled movie actress," Oh, he was so wicked! Gimlet-eyed, and he would say, accusing me in thunderous tones, "Is it not true, Miss De Havilland, that on such-and-such a date, you failed to report to the set to play such-and-such a role in such-and-such a film?" And I, remembering Martin Gang's instructions, said, "I didn't refuse. I declined." So, all this time, I noticed that the judge, he had his hand in front of his face, and I couldn't figure out whether it was his spectacles that were twinkling or, in fact, his eyes, but we certainly had his attention, and I thought, "Maybe I have a little hope here." I think maybe I had a chance after all, and indeed, about three months later or more than that - it was March of 1944, around the 15th of March. I was up on the Island of Adak in the Aleutians, visiting patients in the military hospitals. Someone came to me, a U.S. soldier, and said, "We have a telegram for you." Well, this was really quite extraordinary up there in wartime, and it was from Martin Gang, and it said, "You've won in the Superior Court." Yes, the Superior Court of the State of California. The Warners naturally appealed immediately, and they enjoined every studio in town from employing me. Every studio in town. I think they sent out 125 injunctions, and half of the studios no longer existed, but they did a thorough job at that.
Weren't you taking a great risk, by taking Warner Brothers to court? You were risking that all the studios would blacklist you. How did you come to that decision?
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There really wasn't any doubt about the right decision for me to take, and one of the nice things I thought was, "If I do win, other actors feeling frustration such as I feel will not have to endure that. They will take the suspension, going without pay of course, but knowing they will not have to serve that time again." And indeed, I didn't realize how much that could mean to other artists in the profession until actually, about two or three years ago. I was at a luncheon in Hollywood, and I sat next to a very charming and very able man, very highly regarded man, Roger Mayer, a lawyer. Now, he was not related to Louis B. Mayer, but he was apparently with Metro [MGM studios] for a certain length of time, and he said, "What that meant to writers, you can't imagine." Writers like Scott Fitzgerald, Faulkner was one. He didn't mention those particular names, but indeed, the names he meant were of equal stature. He said, "Those men would be put under contract, and then assigned something, a scene to write in a film for which they had no natural inclination and no knowledge." I mean, say a western, a writer whose great specialty was the Deep South. He said, "Those men couldn't bear to do a poor piece of work, and they knew that they would, and that they would risk their great international reputations in going ahead and trying to meet the requirement of the studio. Now, when you won your case, they were thrilled, because of course, they were perfectly willing to go without pay until they were assigned some kind of work for which they had a feel and knew that they could do a distinguished piece of work by it."
Olivia de Havilland and the women she played
~ Olivia de Havilland
"I longed to play a character who initiated things, who experienced important things, who interpreted the great agonies and joys of human experience", Olivia de Havilland said in 2006 regarding many of her roles at Warners and her desire to seek deeper work. As a result of her efforts to play stronger roles, Olivia left some remarkable performances on film featuring complex women, many who struggled with their own inner turmoil of meeting society's expectations of them and their own expectations of themselves.
Olivia de Havilland as Catherine Sloper in The Heiress
Olivia de Havilland as Virginia Cunningham in The Snake Pit
Visit "Olivia de Havilland at the Oscars" to learn more about Olivia's 60 year history with the Academy Awards
Olivia de Havilland: An inspiration to all women
Olivia de Havilland has been an inspiration to women of all ages. Even into her 90s, Olivia has not shied away. She has attended awards ceremonies, accepted more accolades and honors including highest honors in both the United States and France since 2008, made public appearances, and even narrated an award winning documentary, I remember better when I paint, a film that explores the use of arts in helping Alzheimer's patients. While younger fans may be discovering the world of Maid Marion or Melanie Wilkes for the first time, women who are looking for inspiration today, can find it in Olivia. Well into her 90s, Olivia exudes a confidence about herself, generosity, and grace that is inspiring to all women.
In 2011, Tracey Jackson spoke with 50 inspirational women over the age of 50 about life, their joys, and secrets to happiness. Here is the video that Tracey did with Olivia.