Von Babasin had a memorable summer job in 1976.
The then 21-year old worked on craft services for “Airport ’77,” a disaster movie with a cast that included Oscar-winners and legends such as Jack Lemmon, Lee Grant, George Kennedy, and James Stewart. But the Grande Dame on set was Olivia de Havilland, who despite her stature, spent most of the production soldiering through one grueling scene after another.
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“She spent long days, soaking wet, crashing around the plane as we emptied the dump tanks through the fuselage, got the shot, and set it all back to first position to do it all over again,” Babasin remembers. “And, she was a trooper through it all.”
“Airport ’77” was a big box office hit in its day, but it has largely faded from memory, as have many of de Havilland’s films, a consequence of being a centenarian in a business that is constantly on the prowl for the shiny and new. But de Havilland’s legacy extends far beyond her on-screen work in such indelible classics as “Gone With the Wind” and “The Heiress.”
The actress, who died last weekend at the age of 104, having outlived many of her contemporaries by several decades, forever altered the employment structure in Hollywood by taking on the major studios and winning. It was an endurance act that eclipsed anything she was required to do that summer on “Airport ’77.”
That’s because when de Havilland first broke into the movie business, studios had all the power. Stars were signed to long-term contracts and asked to work six days a week, for long hours. If they refused to be loaned out to another studio or declined a role, they could be suspended without pay. The length of the suspension was added to that of the contract.
“It was essentially a form of indentured servitude,” says Howard Suber, professor emeritus of film history at UCLA. “These contracts gave all of the advantages to the studio and made it nearly impossible for stars to have a say in their careers.”
De Havilland, under contract with Warner Bros., grew dissatisfied with the quality of the roles she was being offered. She was looking to stretch — to play characters with more shading, and to do more than simply swoon over Errol Flynn, her co-star in Warner’s productions such as “The Adventures of Robin Hood” and “Captain Blood.” In short, she wanted to play more parts like Melanie, the kind-hearted and sheltered southern belle in “Gone With the Wind,” or Emmy, the school teacher who falls for a con artist in “Hold Back the Dawn.” Both films earned de Havilland Oscar nominations, but they only came her way after Warner Bros. loaned her out to MGM and Paramount, respectively.
“I knew that I had an audience, that people really were interested in my work, and that they would go to see a film because I was in it, and that I had a responsibility toward them,” de Havilland remembered in an interview with the Academy of Achievement. “I couldn’t bear to disappoint them by doing indifferent work in an indifferent film.”
In 1943, de Havilland’s seven-year contract ended, but Warner Bros. announced that she was not yet free to move on. The studio claimed that she owed them an additional six months for the time she was under suspension for refusing to perform in certain films. De Havilland fought back, suing and arguing that the contract was for seven years, suspension or not, and that Warner Bros. was violating labor law. It was a gutsy move for her. Other, bigger stars, such as James Cagney and Bette Davis, had challenged the control of the studios in court, and had mostly been unsuccessful. In the 1930s, Davis tried to get out of her contract at Warner Bros. by suing the studio in the U.K., only to lose and be forced to return to Hollywood in debt and with a reputation in the press for being spoiled and ungrateful.
“When Olivia took Warner Bros. to court, she was basically taking on the system,” says Thomas J. Stipanowich, professor of law at Pepperdine University. “A lawsuit like this could have destroyed her career at a time when it was just blossoming.”
Still, de Havilland and her attorney Martin Gang persisted. They acknowledged that the suspensions had taken place, but they argued that under California state law, employment contracts were only enforceable for up to seven calendar years. She won the first trial, but Warner Bros. appealed, a period of time in which de Havilland was stuck in a painful sort of limbo. The studio went on to lose its case in a decision considered to be such a landmark that it has been dubbed the “de Havilland law,” Superior Court Judge Charles S. Burnell said that the actress’s contract was a form of “peonage” or illegal servitude. In a big, splashy headline, Variety, noting the ruling, declared on March 15, 1944, “De Havilland Free Agent.”
“The court took away any wiggle room that employers had,” said Alan R. Friedman, partner at Fox Rothschild. “It was a decision applying to more than just Hollywood. It applied to every employee in California.”
In the long term, it also changed the face of the movie business by encouraging other performers and filmmakers to strike out on their own and control their own destiny. Instead of relying on studios to create their image, more and more actors formed their own production companies or found projects to champion that suited their tastes and ambitions. Multi-hyphenates such as Brad Pitt, Kirk Douglas, Robert Redford, Reese Witherspoon, and Clint Eastwood might not have enjoyed the same kinds of careers had de Havilland not weakened the control of the major studios.
“If you love movies then you love the people who make movies,” said Ben Mankiewicz, Turner Classic Movies host. “And you love them because they are the work of great writers, directors, actors, cinematographers, and hair stylists. These are all artists and they deserve to have as much freedom as reasonably possible to create their magic.”
Not that there weren’t repercussions for de Havilland. Warner Bros. and its vindictive head Jack Warner tried to pressure other studios not to hire the star. Nevertheless, de Havilland’s talent won out, and over the ensuing decade she would go on to score two Oscars for “To Each His Own” and “The Heiress,” as well as another nomination for “The Snake Pit.”
“If she had not broken away, she definitely would not have had the career trajectory that she enjoyed or gotten to play the roles she played,” says Jeanine Basinger, chair of the film studies department at Wesleyan University. “She would not have had the longevity that she had. By the way, neither would a lot of actors.”
The system that allowed Warner to exert such outsized control would soon be swept aside, a casualty of de Havilland’s legal victory, as well as a 1948 Supreme Court ruling that forced studios to divest from their theater chains. The rise of television in the 1950s further accelerated that decline.
But those were the kind of systemic challenges, both legal and technological in origin, that any business faces. De Havilland’s case represents a triumph of the individual over an industry. Her courage and her role in bringing about real and necessary change to an exploitative business is ultimately worth more than any critical praise or honors she received in a decades-long career.
“She was tough and she stayed with it, and as a result she brought the studios to their knees,” says Basinger. “Other actresses have won Academy Awards. Other stars have been as famous. But few had as far-reaching an impact as de Havilland did.”
Jazz Tangcay contributed to this report.
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