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The Power of Resilience

Olivia de Havilland died on July 26, 2020. This incandescent star of stage and screen was the last living thread connecting the 21st Century to Hollywood’s Golden Age. Her career spanned 53 years during which she earned two Oscars, a Golden Globe and numerous honors that encompassed two continents, two centuries and a remarkable 104 years.

Ms. de Havilland never failed to present a refined and cultured manner. Yet beneath this subtle air lay a fearless female of enduring resilience and strength.

Olivia came of age at the height of Hollywood’s “studio system”. Movie factories like MGM and Warner Brothers locked their talent into ironclad, multi-year contracts that dictated the roles and films in which they would play. Actors – including stars – had no say over their roles or careers. The studios called the tune and the actors danced. Case closed.

From the beginning, Olivia’s film roles were limited to ingénues, maidens and long-suffering wives. Over time, she grew increasingly dissatisfied by the characters the studio made her play. She knew she possessed a range far greater than she was permitted to play.

In 1940, Olivia took a stand. She refused to accept the studio’s next acting assignment and, as a result, was suspended. In time, the bosses (all men) in the front office relented, at long last offering a script containing a character of strength and substance. Her performance in “Hold Back the Dawn” provided the first of five Oscar nominations.

By 1943, Olivia’s seven-year contract with Warner Brothers ended, freeing her to play parts that challenged her range. However, the studio asserted that California law permitted them to suspend a contract player for rejecting a role and thereby tack that time to the end of their contract.

Most actors accepted that provision. Not Olivia. She filed suit challenging Warner’s position, saying a contract is a contract which did not give one party greater latitude over the other. The court battle ended in 1944 when the California Court of Appeals for the Second District found in Olivia’s favor.

The "de Havilland Law", as it became known, turned out to be one of the film industry's most significant and far reaching legal decisions. It curtailed the power of the studios while granting greater creative freedom to actors. It was arguably the first crack that would lead to the collapse of the studio system that autocratically ruled film-making for more than half of a century.

In addition to championing the arts and creative freedom, Olivia advocated for the rule of law and personal self-determination. In 1952, she became a world citizen when she chose Paris to be her personal residence, where she lived-out the remainder of her years. She continued acting, from Hollywood to Broadway, always in pursuit of roles that stretched the expanse of her talents.

In 2017, at the age of 101, Ms. de Havilland filed suit in Los Angeles against FX Studios, complaining her portrayal in a televised mini-series in what she considered an inaccurate and unflattering way. Although she lost that case, she remained resolute and strong until her last breath.

Olivia de Havilland was a rebel, albeit a genteel rebel. She was a fighter. She was resilient. She refused to accept the dictates of a system she knew to be fundamentally unfair. She lived life on her terms, not those of convention. For 104 years, Olivia de Havilland lived life with grace, courage and resilience in a style that was distinctly her own.

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