The most unlikely action heroine in cinema pours coffee into a porcelain cup in the garden of her Paris home and recalls the day she dragged a sword down the stairs of Tara to defend Scarlett O’Hara’s womanly assets.
“Brave, gutsy and ballsy for the time,” whispers the film’s last living principal cast member, offering a butter cookie from a woven silver basket. “In all of my movies, I was the action heroine who wasn’t too active. It wasn’t considered ladylike for a woman to blow things up on screen.”
Then, in 1943, America’s sweetheart decided to blow up Hollywood. She was 27.
“It was the passivity of my action roles that led me to take real action against the men who ran the studios,” says the 94-year-old screen legend, who never pocketed more than $25,000 of the $1.45 billion in global receipts that “Gone With the Wind” has toted up since its premiere in 1939.
“What I did shocked the businessmen,” De Havilland says in a sly damsel-in-distress voice. “Would you like another cookie?”
A Fan in Paris
Though associated with the American south through “Gone With the Wind” and New York thanks to “The Heiress,” De Havilland has long been at home in Paris.
On Sept. 9, she visited the Elysee Palace, where French President Nicolas Sarkozy adorned her with the insignia of “chevalier,” or knight, in the Legion of Honor at a ceremony in the gilded Grande Salle des Fetes.
“Here I am, the president of France, and I have sweet Melanie in front of me,” Sarkozy said. “I’m sure everyone in France would like to be in my place.”
“You’re an extraordinary actress but you’re also a rebel,” he said. “You’re the only one who took on the big American studios.”
Noting that she has lived in France for many years, Sarkozy said, “It’s unthinkable that no one thought to give you the Legion of Honor. But I have to say, France loves you.”
The actress was married to French journalist and Paris Match editor Pierre Galante. Now she lives alone in an elegant 16th arrondissement townhouse across the street from the Malaysian Embassy. Despite numerous awards for her movie roles, there’s nothing on the walls of shelves to suggest that she was once the brightest star in Hollywood.
Once upon a time, long before Sigourney Weaver made millions killing slimy space creatures in the “Alien” film franchise and Angelina Jolie, pistols blazing, plowed through the bad guys and a piece of the box-office take in her “Lara Croft” thrillers, De Havilland was Hollywood’s demure go-to- heroine in now furry blockbusters like “Dodge City,” “Charge of the Light Brigade” and “Anthony Adverse.”
Errol and Basil
“Errol remains the model for today’s action hero,” De Havilland says of her favorite leading man. “Basil’s portrayal of evil characters remains the template for all actors who play villains. The three of us were very aware that we were making action movies.”
Yet despite winning two Oscars for Best Actress, De Havilland says her most important screen legacy can be traced to a series of events that began on the morning of Nov. 15, 1943, in an office at 121 South Beverly Drive in Los Angeles.
“That was the day I met Martin Gang,” De Havilland says. “A wonderful lawyer. He told me it was illegal for the studio bosses to keep actors locked up with salaried contracts.”
At the time, studio heads like Jack Warner at Warner Brothers and Darryl F. Zanuck at 20th Century Fox dictated when their actors could work, whom they worked with and how much they could be paid. Stars who pushed free agency were extinguished.
“Martin, I said, show me that law in writing,” De Havilland says she told Gang. “And there it was, a few short paragraphs that stated it was illegal for an employer in California to enforce a contract against an employee for more than seven years. Let’s go after Warner Brothers, Martin. But only if you’re willing to take this case to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary. He agreed, such a splendid man.”
De Havilland’s next move was a visit to her friend Bernard Newman, head designer at Bergdorf Goodman and chief costume designer at RKO Pictures. “I needed the right outfit for my court appearance,” De Havilland says through a cunning smile. “I needed to use all my theatrical skills.”
Poring over designs with Newman, De Havilland emerged from the fitting room and headed to the Los Angeles Superior Court in what’s perhaps the sexiest action-heroine costume ever stitched.
“A simple and demure black-silk suit, a black hat and a black veil, which I, of course, tied beneath my chin when I testified,” De Havilland says. “Warner’s lawyer wanted to trick me into losing my temper and make me out to be a simple girl. Hah! What a horrible man; he tried to break me on the stand for nearly five hours.”
De Havilland’s most vivid memory of her testimony in support of free agency was Judge Charles Pernell. “His eyes twinkled at me from the bench,” she says. “I won the case, but Warner appealed. So I went back to Bernard for a new outfit, a shepherd’s plaid suit, this time without a veil.”
Lawyers today call the star’s ultimate 1944 California Court of Appeal victory over Warner and the powerful clique of studio bosses the De Havilland Decision, the ruling that today gives film-industry workers the right to negotiate compensation packages on a per-film basis.
“For the studio heads, the ideal woman was slightly helpless and in need of protection,” De Havilland says. “They didn’t believe I would be any different in real life. The boldest the studio ever allowed me to be on film was as Maid Marian in ‘‘The Adventures of Robin Hood.’”
De Havilland says the first thing Warner did after losing the appeal was order the studio’s accountants and financial research department to figure out how much he’d have to pay to keep her in his films. “Jack knew I was a big moneymaker, but he didn’t know just how much it would cost him.”
Still, De Havilland says Warner and his cronies thought she’d never defeat their authoritative monopoly and did everything in their power to ensure that outcome.
“I wasn’t especially popular socially,” De Havilland says. “Nobody invited me to their parties, not even Errol, in fear that I might bump into a studio head and give him a piece of my mind.”
One of De Havilland’s few allies was the film producer and oil- and aviation-industry titan Howard Hughes, though his money and influence were unable to prevent Warner from getting a court injunction that enjoined more than 125 Hollywood studios from employing her during the appeal process. At the same time, De Havilland says the studio’s publicity department ensured that the Hollywood trade press and newspapers around the country ignored the case.
“The trial was a big indiscreet event,” De Havilland says. “The studios told the press that it wouldn’t be tactful to report on it. The publishers played along because they didn’t want to alienate the studios, particularly when the newspapers needed studio advertising.”
The leading lady’s signature bedroom brown eyes appear moist. She shuffles a single strand of large white pearls with a finger and delivers her line:
“Oh, they blacklisted me,” De Havilland says. A slight pause. The expected tear turns to action-heroine acid. “I did not care. The main thing for me was to do the work I wanted to do, where I wanted to do it and hopefully give others the same opportunity.”
The lady is still a star.
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Beech at email@example.com.