Born: July 1, 1916;

Died: July 26, 2020

OLIVIA de Havilland, who has died aged 104, was an actress who made two important contributions to the golden age of Hollywood. She starred in one of the greatest films ever made – Gone with the Wind – in which she played Melanie, the pure, good contrast to the selfish Scarlett, but she also became a central figure in the shaping of modern Hollywood when she took Warner Brothers to court over her contract and won. It was a famous victory that laid the foundations for the great power that film stars wield today.

In many ways, it was hardly a surprise when de Havilland launched her court case in 1943. She had always been a supremely self-confident person and when she started out as an actress, knew exactly what she wanted. On the set of one of several films she made with Errol Flynn, for example, she asked the action star what he wanted from life and he replied “success”. He then asked her want she wanted and she replied “respect”.

It was this – the respect – that de Havilland felt she did not receive from Warner Brothers, who had signed her to one of the draconian contracts that were typical of the 1930s and 1940s. The contracts meant that stars had to do what they were told to do, and make the films they were told to make, and in de Havilland’s case, she felt this meant inferior pictures that were beneath her talent and ability, particularly after her success in Gone with the Wind.

She had felt this confidence in her own ability from a young age, thanks in part to her mother Lilian, who was great ambitions for her eldest daughter, often to the exclusion of her other daughter Joan (or at least that was how Joan saw it). This apparent favouritism was the foundations of a feud between Olivia and Joan that bubbled away for most of their lives and reached its peak when both of them became movie stars and Joan, who took her stepfather’s name Fontaine, won an Oscar.

“From birth,” Fontaine once said when asked about the feud with her sister, “we were not encouraged by our parents to be anything but rivals, and our careers only emphasised the situation.”

Their parents were Walter de Havilland, a lawyer, and his wife Lilian, who left Britain for a new life in Japan before their daughters were born. When the relationship turned sour over Walter’s affairs, Lilian moved to California with the girls and met and married a department store manager, George Fontaine. He was a disciplinarian with some antediluvian ideas on bringing up children and it was not a happy arrangement for the girls. They called him the Iron Duke.

De Havilland rebelled to some extent, joining a girl gang in Saratoga, California, where she was brought up, but she also excelled at school, becoming editor of the student magazine and a champion debater.

Her acting began in school productions and it was through her dance teacher, Dorothea Johnston, that she won a part of Puck in an open-air production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In the audience on the opening night was the Hollywood producer Hal Wallis, who thought de Havilland would be perfect for the film version of the play. It was this that led to the contract with Warner Brothers when she was still just 18 years old.

Her first few roles with Warner – in undemanding films such as the baseball comedy Alibi Ike and a film with James Cagney called The Irish in Us – sowed the seeds of her discontent with the studio system. On her third film, Captain Blood in 1935, she met, and fell in love with Errol Flynn. She starred with him again in several other films including The Charge of the Light Brigade.

By the time she appeared again with Flynn in The Adventures of Robin Hood in 1938, de Havilland was a major star and was lent by Warners to MGM to appear in Gone with the Wind. The part of Melanie was goody-goody – in the words of the writer Margaret Mitchell, she was as “good as bread and as transparent as spring water” – but de Havilland made the role touching and real. Making the film was also a rewarding experience for her and she became good friends with co-star Vivien Leigh, who played Scarlett.

However, after Gone with the Wind, it was back to Warner Brothers and more unhappiness. De Havilland now realised her star status and wanted films that reflected it, but Jack Warner, the head of the studio, sought to put her in her place. When she refused to appear in a film she thought beneath her, she was suspended without pay. She then walked out for good and in 1943 launched the lawsuit that would make legal, and movie, history.

She launched the case on the basis of a law in California that limited to seven years the time in which an employer could enforce a contract against an employee. By this point, de Havilland had been with Warner Brothers for 11 years. But it was a risky strategy. Not only was she questioning the whole nature of the studio system, she was risking her career and knew she might be blacklisted. Indeed, a furious Jack Warner threatened any producer who wanted to hire her with a lawsuit if they did so.

But de Havilland won the case, which meant she was free to work for whichever studio wanted her. At first, the new freedom looked like it would be good for her career. She starred in To Each his Own (1946), in which she played a fire warden in London during the Second World War, and in the 1949 melodrama The Heiress, with Montgomery Clift. She won the best actress Oscar for both roles.

By the late 1950s and early 1960s, however, her career was beginning to falter. She was also starting to draw criticism from critics for the rather arch and affected style she had developed. One critic said of her role in the 1959 film, Libel, with Dirk Bogarde that she played the part of Lady Maggie Loddon “as if she were balancing Big Ben on her hat”.

She did make two memorable films in the 1960s, though. There was Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte with Bette Davis, in which she played a part that was to have been played by Joan Crawford, who had starred with Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? When Crawford fell ill, de Havilland stepped in and rose to the grand guignol challenge. The other successful film in the 1960s was the psychological thriller Lady in a Cage, in which she played a millionairess who becomes trapped in a stairlift and is tortured by a gang of thieves.

By the 1970s, the good film roles were thin on the ground and, when not making pictures, she did lecture tours to make money. She appeared in the disaster movie Airport 77 and American TV movies such as Murder is Easy, and The Royal Romance of Charles and Diana (1982), about the marriage of Charles and Diana, and in which she played the Queen Mother.

In 1978, she also appeared in the horror movie The Swarm, requiring her to act with a large number of bees. Their stings had apparently been removed but one of the bees still managed to sting her on the hand, prompting one of the film crew to joke “Joan Fontaine must have sent it”.

It was a pretty accurate joke, although towards the end of Fontaine’s life (she died, aged 96, in 2013), it was reported that the sisters had patched up their feud. In her retirement, de Havilland had been living in Paris and made occasional public appearances including the time in 2008 when she received the National Medal of Arts from President George Bush. In 2010, she was also awarded the légion d’honneur, the highest decoration in France.

She had several relationships with leading figures in film, including Howard Hughes and James Stewart, and married twice – the first time to the writer Marcus Goodrich and the second to the French journalist Pierre Galante. Her son Benjamin died when he was 42 of heart disease. Her daughter Gisèle was executive editor of Paris Match.