"I would like respect for difficult work well done."
I love Olivia de Havilland. I grew up watching her treat everyone she met with grace and southern gentility (even the woman trying to steal her husband) as Melanie in "Gone with the Wind", and I swooned so hard over her romantic rendezvous with Errol Flynn, my one true love, in the eight movies she starred in with him. Thankfully, that radiance she displayed on screen can still be enjoyed today, as she is approaching her 100th birthday. She is one of the few remaining stars who can speak to the oppressive studio system of the 20s, 30s and early 40s, but she also has the unique distinction of being credited as the one who brought it to its knees. In her heyday, Olivia was as kind and lovely as her most famous character, but she certainly didn't share Melanie's meekness. She didn't marry until she was 30, quite unusual for the time, and when she did walk down the aisle, there was never a big time celebrity waiting for her. She did; however, date big names like Jimmy Stewart, John Houston and even Howard Hughes. While she was dating Hughes, she got her pilot's license! When she first earned the title of America's Sweetheart, she wasn't even American at all. Her parents were British and she was born in Tokyo. She was actually naturalized just a few days before Pearl Harbor. Can you imagine if she had just waited a few days? It could have been a very different story for the Japan-born Brit.
What makes Olivia #WCW worthy?
Honestly, I could go on and on about what makes Olivia such a glorious role model, but I don't have the time, and I doubt you guys would want to read it all. But, I do encourage you to check out Olivia's interview on the Academy of Achievement's website! It's nine parts of pure gold, and getting to watch her tell her story is just fabulous. Anywho, I'll let the paragraphs below show you why you will inevitably want to learn more about her.
Sure, Olivia was graceful and lovely on screen, but the amount of grace she was able to muster off screen was certainly commendable. No matter how beautifully she conducted herself, she always had to address the elephant in the room... Joan Fontaine. Joan was an academy award winning actress as well and a highly pursued talent in the 30s and 40s. She also happened to be Olivia's estranged sister. The sisterly-feud fueled the tabloid fires for years, and still continues to flicker today. Though the original reason for their falling out is not really known, Joan always had a biting word for her older sister, and she usually used the newspapers as her chosen method of delivery. When Olivia married her first husband, a writer with one book to his credit, Joan told the press, "All I know about him is that he's had four wives and written one book. Too bad it's not the other way around." Oooooooouch. Can you imagine the fire that must've shot from Olivia's eyes when she read that?? Despite the urge to slap a ho after such a comment, Olivia never said a word to the media. Rarely did she ever dignify Joan's constant baiting with even the slightest response. To this day, she doesn't fan the fire and only speaks lovingly of her sister. That's grace, y'all.
In her early days, Olivia was part of the Warner Brothers studio headed up by Jack Warner. Olivia was the resident brunette ingénue, there was also a blonde one, and she was basically cast as the prize at the end of the male leads cinematic journey. Not a full-bodied character with her own path or desires, just a trophy. Shortly after she met Errol Flynn (#SWOON), he asked her what she wanted out of life. The 18-year-old simply said, "I would like respect for difficult work well done." Now that's a young lady who is going places. When the studio system wasn't living up to that life goal, she decided to take things into her own hands. When she was offered a read-through for "Gone with the Wind", she had to resort to particularly stealthy measures because it was being filmed at a rival studio. When asked if he would loan Olivia to the studio to play Melanie, Jack refused over and over again. Olivia then went to the real decision maker, Jack Warner's wife. She invited his wife to tea, pled her case, and went on to play a role that would get her an academy award nomination.... Moxie.
I'm sorry, but I couldn't NOT put a picture of Errol on here. LOOK AT THAT JAW. #MarryMe
Olivia never liked the way the studio system treated its actors and crew members, but as time went on, the injustice became more than she could stand. The standard contract was seven years. One would assume that meant seven calendar years, but that was not how the law was interpreted. Every time you passed on a film, you were put on suspension for the duration of that project. And that suspension time did not go toward the seven years. It was basically tacked onto the end of the contract time. Olivia read the contract law and believed it was intended to be interpreted as calendar year, so she decided to do something about it. Despite the fact that she could be blacklisted, she sued Warner Brothers. And guess what.... she won. When asked if she was afraid of committing career suicide with this move, Olivia said, "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.'" After the trials ended, Jack Warner, ever the gentleman, sent about 125 injunctions to every studio they could think of telling them not to hire her. Instead of being blacklisted, Olivia was able to choose projects that she was passionate about and went on to win her first of two Oscars just a few years later. To this day, California Labor Code Section 2855 is still referred to as "The de Havilland Decision".
While her case was in court, she was on suspension and decided that during that time she wanted to get involved with the war effort. She visited military hospitals and helped with the USO, but one day she met an army major who had an idea. The celebrities visiting the wounded troops rarely went to the psychiatric wards, as it was seen to be too dangerous. But the major thought she could do a lot of good there and asked her to take a chance. Olivia was hooked. These young men were in dire need of compassion, especially in an age when the stigma of mental illness kept those stories out of the public eye. Olivia enjoyed being a kind and positive presence for the soldiers in these war-torn areas, but she wanted to do more. She felt that the families back how needed to be educated so they could provide the proper support for their soldiers, when they returned home. There was so little understanding of how to care for someone with these psychological wounds and her opportunity to educate came in the form of "The Snake Pit". This movie was based on a controversial autobiography of a young woman who was institutionalized. "The Snake Pit" was probably the first movie to show a serious study of mental illness in a lead character, and shed light on the treatment of patients at these institutions. Not only did it earn an Oscar nomination for Olivia, but, more importantly, it actually influenced reforms in the conditions of such institutions throughout the United States.
One of the things that I think is especially remarkable about Olivia is her optimism. She will be 100 in July and is in no hurry to finish her long-awaited autobiography. In her interview with the Academy of Achievement, she said that the character that she holds most dear is Melanie, admiring what she calls her "other-people oriented" way of life. "She had this marvelous capacity to relate to people with whom she would normally have no relationship. For example, look at her behavior with Belle Watlin, absolutely astounding, marvelous." Maybe the secret to living to 100 is having that same sense of optimism that Olivia and Melanie share. Even if it doesn't guarantee a long life, I believe this mentality will ensure a full one. Thank you for being you, Olivia. If you're ever looking for someone to have champagne and macarons with, you just let me know.
Isn't she though?
*All photos are public domain and were found on Wikimedia Commons.*