Olivia de Havilland is used to being a pioneer. Long before becoming the first woman to preside over the Cannes Film Festival jury, she took on the Hollywood studios’ onerous contract system as a young actress, fighting what was practically a form of indentured servitude. Her successful 1943 lawsuit against Warner Bros. went all the way to the California Supreme Court and resulted in the famous De Havilland Law, which remains a legal landmark.
A few years later, her portrayal in “The Snake Pit” of a woman who suffers a mental breakdown shone a light on conditions in psychiatric institutions, helped spark reforms around the country and earned de Havilland one of her five Oscar nominations. Her first was for the role for which she’ll be forever remembered: as Melanie Wilkes in “Gone With the Wind.” De Havilland wound up winning two statuettes for best actress, once in 1947, for “To Each His Own,” and again in 1950, for “The Heiress.”
Her boundary-breaking stint as head of the jury in Cannes, in 1965, was a daunting but enjoyable experience. Fellow panelists included actor Rex Harrison and French filmmaker Alain Robbe-Grillet; the Palme d’Or went to Richard Lester’s comedy “The Knack … and How to Get It.”
“I was intimidated by my role as the first female president of the Cannes Film Festival jury,” de Havilland, who is 101, tells Variety. “However, I must say that, as the only female on the jury that year, I did enjoy presiding over a committee entirely composed of men.”
That won’t hold true for incoming jury president Cate Blanchett, who will be one of five women on this year’s nine-person panel. But the fact that Blanchett is just the 10th woman to follow in de Havilland’s footsteps, after more than half a century, isn’t a happy one. “I am more than surprised,” de Havilland says. “I am dismayed.”
“I did enjoy presiding over a committee entirely composed of Men.”
Olivia de havilland
Still, she describes herself as “encouraged” that women in show business have banded together to fight abuse and harassment and that the industry is waking up to issues of workplace inequality, such as the gender pay gap. “It’s about time!” de Havilland declares.
And she continues to stand up for herself, filing a lawsuit against FX Networks for what she alleges is a false and damaging portrayal of her in the TV series “Feud: Bette and Joan.” In the show, de Havilland (played by Catherine Zeta-Jones) calls her sister — actress Joan Fontaine, with whom she did carry on a bitter rivalry — a “bitch,” which de Havilland says never happened and insists she would never do. An appeals court tossed out the lawsuit in March.
That was a disappointment for de Havilland, who lives in Paris. But this long-lived icon of Hollywood’s Golden Age can find comfort in knowing that she’s not done setting precedents. Last June, she became the oldest woman ever to receive the British title of “dame,” an honor bestowed on her by Queen Elizabeth II. It was “the most gratifying of birthday presents,” de Havilland said then, shortly before turning 101.
“It’s about time!” said everyone else.