This 101-Year-Old Hollywood Icon Threw Down The Gauntlet To The TV Execs Who Enraged Her

Olivia de Havilland earned her last film credit in 1988, but the screen legend’s dealings with Hollywood executives didn’t end there. Thirty years later, she found herself enraged by a TV show and its creative team – so she threw down the gauntlet.

In the 1930s, Hollywood had reached what is now known as its “Golden Age,” a time in which people made at least one visit to the movies a week. That was because industry leaders had improved film-making technology, as well as the stories they told through their flicks.

At that point in time, movie goers wanted romance – a love fulfilled against all odds. And there’s perhaps no greater example of a Golden Age film that meets that criteria than Gone with the Wind. Olivia de Havilland endeared herself to audiences everywhere with her portrayal of Melanie Hamilton in that classic movie.

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Critics loved her, too. Although she lost out on the Oscar for her supporting role in Gone with the Wind in 1939, she would later win two Best Actress statuettes – one for her part in 1946’s To Each His Own, and another three years later for The Heiress.

During that time, de Havilland made waves behind the scenes, too. In 1936, she had signed a contract with Warner Bros. that allowed film executives to suspend her for refusing roles and extend the length of her contract because of it. By 1944, she wanted out.

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The California Court of Appeals ruled in her favor, sending a message to Hollywood and fortifying the state’s labor laws. Now, according to what’s known as the de Havilland law, a contract for personal services cannot last longer than seven years.

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In spite of her many triumphs and accolades – after she turned 100, she was even given the title of dame by the Queen of England – de Havilland managed to lead a very private life off-screen. She raised a daughter, Gisele, and a son, Benjamin, while pursuing her career.

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Still, with so much interest in and glorification of the Golden Age of Hollywood, de Havilland’s story eventually ended up back in the spotlight. On March 5, 2017, a TV show called Feud premiered on FX and took viewers back in time to watch a notorious conflict unfurl between actresses Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, played by Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange, respectively.

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The dramatized version of events also featured Catherine Zeta-Jones as none other than Olivia de Havilland. “For nearly half a century, they hated each other and we loved them for it,” Zeta-Jones said of Davis and Crawford in a scene where she’s wearing de Havilland’s exact look from the 1978 Oscars.

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Feud also shed light on the discord between de Havilland and her sister, actress Joan Fontaine, from whom she was estranged for more than 30 years. Zeta-Jones’s character described her sister as a “bitch” on the show, although de Havilland had only referred to Fontaine as “dragon lady” in the press.

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The Oscar winner’s portrayal on the show was an all-around surprise to her, she told The New York Times. “When ‘Feud’ was first being publicized, I was interested to see how it would portray my dear friend Bette Davis. Then friends and family started getting in touch with me, informing me that my identity was actually being represented on the program,” de Havilland said.

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“No one from Fox had contacted me about this to ask my permission, to request my input, or to see how I felt about it,” de Havilland went on. But then, it got worse – “When I learned that the Olivia de Havilland character called my sister Joan ‘a b****’ and gossiped about Bette Davis and Joan Crawford’s personal and private relationship, I was deeply offended,” she said.

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Her offense lead her to action and de Havilland filed a lawsuit stating that Feud’s creators had no authorization to use her name and likeness to promote their show. Furthermore, the Oscar winner said that they had cast her in a false light as a vulgar gossip, which wasn’t like her at all.

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“A large part of the reason I decided to move forward with my action against Fox is that I realize that at this stage of my life and career I am in a unique position to stand up and speak truth to power — an action that would be very difficult for a young actor to undertake,” de Havilland said.

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She went on, saying, “I believe in the right to free speech but it certainly must not be abused by using it to protect published falsehoods or to improperly benefit from the use of someone’s name and reputation without their consent.”

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“Fox crossed both of these lines with Feud, and if it is allowed to do this without any consequences, then the use of lies about well-known public figures masquerading as the truth will become more and more common. This is not moral and it should not be permitted,” de Havilland concluded.

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But Fox and the show staff swung back, pointing out that they had changed de Havilland’s description of her sister from “dragon lady” because they “thought ‘b****’ was more mainstream and would be better understood by the modern audience,” Feud writer Tim Minear said, according to court documents.

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Plus, their lawyers pointed to bloopers and other interview clips that showed de Havilland using expletives and speaking to the press about other actors and actresses. “Looking back at my younger self, I wish I had been more guarded in my language,” de Havilland told the court, “But these outtakes are just that, not language that I did or would use in discussing other friends or family.”

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By March of 2018, the court had reached a verdict in the de Havilland case. Despite the screen legend’s argument, California’s Second District Court of Appeal ruled unanimously in favor of Feud, citing the First Amendment as protection for their portrayal of de Havilland.

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Although de Havilland was undoubtedly displeased with the result, it proved to be a huge victory for the screenwriters that she had blamed. Without that type of protection, any public figure could have filed suit against Hollywood creatives for the way they were portrayed in a fictional work of art.

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