As our headline suggests, it’s not a great idea to take on Olivia DeHavilland, no matter how alluring she appears in the above photo.
Why? Well, for the simple reason that when sufficiently provoked, deHavilland (who lives in Paris, and turned 101 this month) takes the other party to court — and often emerges victorious.
We’ve written lots about DeHavilland’s career, her movies with Errol Flynn, her legendary battles with sister Joan Fontaine, her Oscar-winning performances in 1946’s To Each His Own and 1949’s The Heiress, and her Oscar nominated turn as Melanie Hamilton in Gone With The Wind.
But today we’ll focus on another of her accomplishments: DeHavilland’s name will live on for another, perhaps more important, reason. It’s called “The de Havilland Law.”
No kidding. Olivia actually has a legal precedent named after her, one that changed the course of business in Hollywood, and considerably loosened the control of the stars by the powerful studios.
In short, “the de Havilland law” re-defined the standard seven-year personal services contracts that studios imposed on actors and actresses. (We’re not sure where the seven years came from but we speculate that the duration initially comprised two years of studio introductory build-up followed by five years of capitalizing on an actor or actress’ presumed star status.)
Anyway, de Havilland chafed under the arrangement since, as the studios saw it, the personal service contract meter stopped clicking when an actor or actress was not actually working — especially during periods when they were suspended for balking at front office orders to take disliked roles.
Thus, a seven-year-contract in effect extended on a calendar basis far beyond the stated personal services term of seven years. That gave studios immense power to control the careers of their contracted stars, preventing them from seeking on their own employment at other studios.
Even the biggest stars could be tied to one studio for their whole careers.
DeHavilland’s contract at her home studio, Warner Brothers, began in 1936. By 1943, she figured she had had enough and wanted out. Abetted by the Screen Actors Guild, she took Warners to court, and challenged the prevailing interpretation of the seven-year rule. A year later, California’s Second District Court of Appeals ruled in her favor.
Seven years from the actual beginning of services means seven calendar years, the Court said. Thus, de Havilland’s time was up, and she was free to seek work elsewhere.
The case is still considered an entertainment industry landmark and crops up on all manner of Hollywood contract disputes. When tv host Johnny Carson once considered leaving the NBC network (he never did, it turns out), his attorney cited “the de Havilland Law” as his prospective pathway to a more lucrative offer from ABC.
After de Havilland won her case, actors and actresses were no longer considered pampered and highly paid “indentured servants.”
Now, DeHavilland is going legal again.
The defendants are the FX Networks and Ryan Murphy Productions, who gave us the recent tv program, Feud: Bette and Joan, portraying the decades-long rivalry between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford.
DeHavilland’s character pops up on the FX series in several episodes as a confidante and friend to Davis (as she was in real life), and as participant in the rivalry between the two screen divas. Her character is played by Catherine Zeta-Jones.
DeHavilland alleges that her likeness and identity were misappropriated without her permission, and were falsely used to exploit the show’s commercial interests. The actress is seeking damages for “emotional harm” and “harm to her reputation.” She also seeks an injunction prohibiting the use of her likeness and name.
Specifically, DeHavilland objects to being portrayed as a hypocrite, selling gossip in order to promote herself at the Academy Awards.
Her suit states: Olivia DeHavilland has made efforts, spent time and money, protecting her well-defined public image as one who does not engage in gossip and other unkind, ill-mannered behavior.
We’ll keep our eyes on how her lawsuit progresses, but we are not betting against Olivia.