By Isabel Custodio, creator of Be Kind Rewind and classic film fan
In 1943, everything from an actress’s next role to her hair color could be determined by the studio at which she worked. Shortly after Olivia de Havilland signed her contract at Warner Bros., Jack Warner decided that she should become a traditional ingenue. He wasn’t necessarily wrong—who could deny the appeal and charm she brought to her films with Errol Flynn—but she craved a challenge and the artistic freedom to seek one. (As she put it, “The life of a love interest could be pretty boring.”) In setting out to shape her own career, de Havilland exhibited a tenacity that, in the wake of her recent passing, requires celebration.
By the time of her now-famous lawsuit against Warner Bros. in 1943, she had already successfully lobbied the studio to loan her out for films elsewhere. Perhaps uncoincidentally, these performances—in Gone with the Wind and Hold Back the Dawn—earned her two Oscar nominations and the greatest praise she’d receive in her time at Warner Bros. Much has been said about de Havilland’s legal victory, and it certainly merits admiration for its long-term implications on contract employment and the studio system. An oft-overlooked aspect of this battle, however, is the great personal risk she took in mounting the case, and the consequences that she suffered after the gavel came down. Though liberated from her contract, she would have to call upon her resilience again.
To challenge the rule was to challenge its makers—the same men who cast roles, greenlit films, and approved budgets.
Jack Warner, infuriated by the dismantling of a system he had wielded in his favor to such great effect, saw to it that de Havilland became unemployable. Two years of stagnation followed, until Paramount intervened with an offer to star in To Each His Own. The film, told primarily in flashback, follows the journey of Jody Norris from age 16 through 45. An unwed mother who gives up her infant son, Norris becomes a successful businesswoman who later meets her son while he is serving in World War II.
This performance, for which she received her first Academy Award for Best Actress, opened the floodgates to a series of roles that revitalized her career and demonstrated how tremendously Warner Bros. had misread her talents. Her tormented, sensitive turns in films like The Snake Pit and The Heiress proved her struggle had not been in vain. She molded her own path and flourished, earning another Best Actress Oscar in 1949 for The Heiress.
As a personal tribute to her, I recently revisited The Snake Pit for the first time in many years. I was pleased to discover that I found her portrayal of Virginia Cunningham as thrilling as I had the first time I saw it. She embraces the film’s rawest aspects, yet her more subtle touches captured my attention the most.
To illustrate Virginia’s break from reality, we’re shown her husband’s memories of lapses in her mental acuity. In one example, she drastically confuses the date. Leaning against the windowsill, she smiles: “It’s such a beautiful day. Almost too beautiful for November.”
It’s May. In disbelief, he asks, “What do you mean, November?”
Her voice suddenly drops into startling contralto. “What do you think it is?” She is harsh and accusatory—not the woman who had just remarked upon a beautiful day, not Melanie Wilkes, not Maid Marian. De Havilland’s ability to pitch her voice (most obviously at use in Dark Mirror, in which she plays twins) gave her a remarkable flexibility with her characters. High, chipper tones introduce us to the sweet, innocent Catherine Sloper in The Heiress; deep, biting tones leave us with a Catherine jaded by and resigned to disappointment.
This emotional range has always driven my interest in de Havilland, in that her persona as an actress is not as easy to pin down as one might initially think. Where Katharine Hepburn’s sporty competitiveness might influence Adam’s Rib, or where Bette Davis’s fiery confidence might appear in The Little Foxes, de Havilland’s best performances (perhaps with the exception of Melanie Wilkes) strayed far from her personal bearing. Her interviews reveal an impossibly regal, eloquent woman, never suggesting the brooding intensity available beneath.
Placing her among her peers for this comparison reminds us that her death, less than a month after her 104th birthday, represents the end of an era. To fans of classic cinema, Olivia de Havilland’s presence was a quiet comfort. It meant that, in some abstract sense, the past was not exactly the past. Through her, we were able to maintain an active connection to the films of that era and to the figures we love, even those who had already left us.
Though she symbolized—and has frequently been called in recent days—the last vestige of Hollywood’s Golden Age, our connection remains as strong as ever.
In 2003, Olivia de Havilland appeared at the 75th Academy Awards to present the 75th Past Oscar Winner Reunion. As she made her way to the podium from the wings, the audience rose to their feet in applause, paying homage to the trailblazer before them. That night marked the 53rd anniversary of her second Oscar win. In her speech, she said, “Much has changed in our world since then, but what hasn’t changed is our love of the movies.”
Isabel Custodio is the writer, narrator, and editor of Be Kind Rewind, a YouTube channel that analyzes Hollywood history through the lens of the Best Actress Academy Award. Her work has been nominated for Best Educational Series at the Shorty Awards and included in a list of Best Video Essays of 2018 by the British Film Institute.