Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland: Two Women Who Defied Hollywood
Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland are two of the most famous actresses of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Besides talent, they stand out from their contemporaries because they filed lawsuits against Warner Bros. Pictures. Both were contracted to the studio in the 1930s and were unhappy. Among many other actors of the time, Davis and Havilland were exploited by the studio but chose to take a stand in hopes of voiding their contracts. In a Hollywood contract, actors were expected to follow a strict set of rules – on a film set and in life – and had to make any movie they were given whether they wanted to or not. A studio essentially owned an actor.
Bette Davis was born on April 5, 1908, in Lowell, Massachusetts. Her father left when she was young and she, and her sister Barbara, were raised by their mother. Davis showed an interest in acting from an early age and starred in High School plays. She had a successful Broadway career before making the transition to Hollywood. In 1931, Davis signed a contract with Universal Pictures before switching to Warner Bros. the following year. She performed bit parts in a handful of movies before being loaned to RKO for Of Human Bondage (1934). This was Davis’ first Academy Award nomination. People in and out of the American film industry began to take notice. Over the next few years, Davis received Best Actress Academy Awards for Dangerous (1935) and Jezebel (1938).
By the mid-1930s, Davis was beginning to get fed up with Warner Bros. She was unhappy with the roles she was getting and became disillusioned with the studio. She felt that the average parts were damaging to her career. As a way of rebelling, in 1937, Davis headed to England. Warner Bros. placed an injunction on Davis as they saw this move as a breach of contract. Davis sued hoping to get out of her contract and eventually lost. Though it was a failure, the incident did lead to better roles and a higher salary for Davis. She led the way for her friend Olivia de Havilland.
de Havilland started her life – July 1, 1916 – in Tokyo, Japan, before moving to the United States with her family when she was young. She signed a seven year contract with Warner Bros. in 1935. She made an impact early on in her career starring in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935) and was frequently featured with actor Errol Flynn as an onscreen couple. de Havilland is best known for playing Melanie Hamilton in Gone with the Wind (1939), and – as of 2017 – is the only surviving cast member. She won an Academy Award for To Each His Own (1946) and was nominated for Best Actress for her work on Gone with the Wind. She lost to Hattie McDaniel, the first African-American woman to win the award. She has also been critically praised for her performance in The Snake Pit (1948). She played a woman with a mental illness.
Like Davis, de Havilland was unhappy with Warner Bros. and frequently clashed with them. She kept being cast as a one-dimensional, objectified love interest for the male protagonist. As time went on, de Havilland refused to act in assigned films and was suspended without pay for a period of time. This happened on and off throughout the years. de Havilland’s contract came to an end in 1943. She was shocked to discover she owed Warner Bros. work for the time she was suspended. A total of six months had accumulated. She filed a lawsuit and the case went to court in 1945. This was unheard of at the time as stars never challenged the big studios. de Havilland won and was released from her Warner Bros. commitments. The landmark ruling became known as The De Havilland Law. It states that an actor is contracted to a studio for exactly a seven year calendar period. The case is still regularly referenced in American entertainment lawsuits.
de Havilland’s career soared in the 1940s but slowed down by the 1950s. She appeared alongside Bette Davis in Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964). de Havilland was also nominated for Academy Awards for The Heiress (1949) and My Cousin Rachel (1952), winning the former. She received a Nation Medal of Arts award from President Bush for her life’s work in 2008.
Bette Davis had a long and critically acclaimed acting career before her passing in 1989. The story of her fallout with Joan Crawford was turned into a television series, Feud (2017). It stars Susan Sarandon (Davis) and Jessica Lange (Crawford). The two’s bitter relationship started on the set of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962). They did not get along at all. Davis was nominated for Best Actress at the 1962 Academy Awards. Crawford was not and felt the nomination should’ve been hers. Crawford took their rivalry to the next level. Davis eventually lost to Anne Bancroft. Instead of Bancroft, Crawford headed to the stage and accepted the award in her place. Prior to the event, she had contacted all the other nominees and offered to accept on their behalf. Davis was at a loss for words.
de Havilland is suing the producers of Feud for using her likeness without permission. She retired from acting in 1988 and currently resides in France.
By: Matthew J. Healy
Bette Davis Biography.com (https://www.biography.com/people/bette-davis-9267626)
Bette Davis vs Joan Crawford – Hollywood’s most notorious feud (http://www.queensofvintage.com/bette-davis-vs-joan-crawford/)
De Haviland v. Warner Bros. Pictures (http://law.justia.com/cases/california/court-of-appeal/2d/67/225.html)
How Bette Davis Became a Hollywood Icon By Refusing to Conform at Every Turn (https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2016/04/bette-davis-birthday)
Olivia de Havilland Biography.com (https://www.biography.com/people/olivia-de-havilland-9269867)
Olivia de Havilland: The actress who took on the studio system and won (http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-stipanowich-de-havilland--20160701-snap-story.html)
The Clippings File: Bette Davis and the System (https://www.newyorker.com/culture/richard-brody/the-clippings-file-bette-davis-and-the-system)
The Star System (http://www.classichollywoodcentral.com/the-star-system/)
Why Olivia de Havilland Is Suing FX Over Feud: Bette and Joan (https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2017/06/olivia-de-havilland-feud-fx-lawsuit)