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Olivia de Havilland Turns 99: Warner Bros. Legal Fight Changed U.S. Labor Law

Olivia de Havilland
Olivia de Havilland picture

U.S. labor history-making 'Gone with the Wind' star and two-time Best Actress winner Olivia de Havilland turns 99

(This Olivia de Havilland article is currently being revised and expanded.) Two-time Best Actress Academy Award winner Olivia de Havilland, the only surviving major Gone with the Wind cast member and oldest surviving Oscar winner, is turning 99 years old today, July 1.[1] Also known for her widely publicized feud with sister Joan Fontaine and for her eight movies with Errol Flynn, de Havilland should be remembered as well for having made Hollywood labor history.

This particular history has nothing to do with de Havilland's films, her two Oscars, Gone with the Wind, Joan Fontaine, or Errol Flynn. Instead, history was made as a result of a legal fight: after winning a lawsuit against Warner Bros. in the mid-'40s, Olivia de Havilland put an end to treacherous contractual agreements that allowed Hollywood studios and independent moguls to extend their grip on their contract talent.

Japanese-born Englishwoman

Born on July 1, 1916, to English parents living in Japan, Olivia de Havilland became a Warners leading lady in 1935. That year, in addition to run-of-the-mill fare such as the Joe E. Brown comedy Alibi Ike and the James Cagney-Pat O'Brien programmer The Irish in Us, de Havilland was cast in two Best Picture Academy Award nominees:

  • Max Reinhardt and William Dieterle's sumptuous A Midsummer Night's Dream.
  • Michael Curtiz's period adventure Captain Blood, a box office hit and her first pairing with Errol Flynn.

In the ensuing years, de Havilland and Flynn would be paired up again in classics and near-classics such as The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), and Dodge City (1939).[2] On her own, de Havilland was cast in both comedies and dramas, generally as a decorative leading lady to the likes of Leslie Howard, George Brent, and Dick Powell.[3]

Olivia de Havilland Oscar nominations

In 1939, Olivia de Havilland was finally given the chance to prove herself more than a pretty face with a sweet smile: on loan-out to David O. Selznick and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, her performance as Melanie Wilkes in Victor Fleming's blockbuster Gone with the Wind earned her a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination.[4]

Two years later, on loan to Paramount, de Havilland was a Best Actress contender for Mitchell Leisen's romantic melodrama Hold Back the Dawn (1941), in which she plays a naive, small-town American who falls for émigré-wannabe Charles Boyer. (De Havilland's younger sister and nemesis, Joan Fontaine, was that year's winner for Alfred Hitchcock's thriller Suspicion.)[5]

Thanks to the mix of box office success, critical acclaim, and increasing prestige, by the early '40s Olivia de Havilland had become one of Warner Bros.' most important contract players. Yet, perhaps with the exception of John Huston's unbridled melo In This Our Life, Jack Warner's studio continued to cast de Havilland in insipid, decorative roles.[6]

Meatier female parts went to Bette Davis – between 1938–1944, Davis received five Best Actress Oscar nominations, including one win, for her WB films.[7] Her rejects usually went either to stars on loan from other studios or to Warners' other female dramatic talent, Ida Lupino. Or perhaps to someone like Barbara Stanwyck, with whom the studio didn't have an exclusive, long-term contract.

Olivia de Havilland vs. Warner Bros.: RKO comedy 'Government Girl' leads to rift

In 1943, as part of a deal that had provided David O. Selznick contract player Ingrid Bergman with a key role in Warners' Casablanca, the studio loaned out Olivia de Havilland to the independent producer (who, coincidentally, also had Joan Fontaine under contract).[8]

Instead of putting de Havilland to use, Selznick, ever the champion talent negotiator (to his financial advantage), passed the actress on to RKO, which wanted her to star in screenwriter-turned-director Dudley Nichols' lame wartime comedy Government Girl. Co-starring minor leading man Sonny Tufts as her love interest, de Havilland did star in the movie – which features one of her weakest performances. Lest her film career take a swift downturn, she decided it was time to split from Warners.

The studio, however, wasn't going to make things easy for her.[9]

Hollywood studios held the power

In those days, Hollywood studios could suspend without pay recalcitrant talent; the moguls could then add the suspension time to the end of their employees' contract. Studios could also renegotiate contracts every six months or, in some cases, every year; the performer was unable to drop the studio, but the studio could either drop the performer or give him/her a salary raise that didn't necessarily match the contract player's growing box office popularity.

And finally, studios and independent moguls such as David O. Selznick and Samuel Goldwyn were free to loan out stars for a high fee of which only a portion, usually what was stipulated in the star's original contract, would go to the loaned-out player.

Olivia de Havilland Gone with the Wind Melanie Wilkes
Olivia de Havilland as Melanie Wilkes, Gone with the Wind

Olivia de Havilland at Warners: No respect

Ironically, while Olivia de Havilland was becoming increasingly frustrated at Warners, Selznick loaned Joan Fontaine to the studio to star in Edmund Goulding's 1943 release The Constant Nymph. The romantic drama, co-starring de Havilland's Hold Back the Dawn leading man Charles Boyer, earned Fontaine her third Best Actress Academy Award nomination.

Considering how Warner Bros. treated de Havilland, it's not surprising that her two Academy Award nominations during her tenure at the studio were the result of her work elsewhere: Gone with the Wind was a Selznick-MGM co-production, while Hold Back the Dawn was made at Paramount.

Unable to work elsewhere throughout the court hearings, de Havilland used her free time to tour U.S. hospitals filled with wounded World War II combatants. To make ends meet, she relied on her savings.

Admittedly, de Havilland wasn't the first movie star to take on a studio: Greta Garbo walked out on MGM in the late '20s, while Bette Davis and Myrna Loy fought, respectively, Warners and MGM in the mid-'30s. Davis was forced to return to Warners and abide by the studio's terms; Garbo and Loy got the pay raise they wanted, but their victories didn't lead to the creation or “affirmation” of any laws. (Though Loy's year-long absence from MGM was a definite boost to the careers of Luise Rainer and Rosalind Russell.)

De Havilland Law

In the case of Olivia de Havilland, however, her fight with Warners was to have a lasting impact. As a result of her December 1944 court victory, the stipulations found in California's 1937 Labor Code Section 2855 – since then popularly known as “De Havilland Law” – were deemed applicable to Hollywood studios and other entertainment entities, which could no longer unilaterally extend their employees' contracts beyond seven years from the start of their hiring. (As a result of pressure from record companies, Code Section 2855 was diluted in 1987 by way of a subdivision amendment applying to “the production of phonorecords.” A Republican initiative to add a similar exemption in the field of professional sports failed in 2007.)

Olivia de Havilland The Heiress
Olivia de Havilland, The Heiress

“From the age of 18 when I began my career as Hermia in A Midsummer Night's Dream,” Olivia de Havilland would tell entertainment journalist Robert Osborne, “I always wanted to play difficult roles in films with significant themes. With the exception of that first Shakespearean film, no equivalent opportunities were given me at Warner Bros.” (Actually, In This Our Life, for one, does have “significant themes.” It also features black characters, not caricatures, something uncommon at that time.)

De Havilland added that “absolutely no one in the industry thought I would win the case. When I at last succeeded, lots of flowers and telegrams began to arrive, which, of course, made me very happy.” [Olivia de Havilland at 2008 Bette Davis tribute.]

Following de Havilland's legal victory, Warner Bros. made sure its remaining contract player Ida Lupino received top billing when the Curtis Bernhardt-directed 1943 drama Devotion, about the Brontë sisters (Lupino, de Havilland, and Nancy Coleman), was finally released in 1946.

De Havilland probably couldn't have cared less about her Devotion billing, as that same year she starred in two box office hits: she played twins – one good, one psycho – in Robert Siodmak's film noir The Dark Mirror at Universal, and suffered as an unwed mother who gives her son up for adoption in Mitchell Leisen's tearjerker To Each His Own at Paramount. For the latter, de Havilland won her first Best Actress Academy Award. Three years later, she won again for a much better performance in an infinitely better film: William Wyler's The Heiress, also at Paramount.

Additionally, de Havilland received an Oscar nomination for Anatole Litvak's 1948 drama The Snake Pit at 20th Century Fox. For her role as a woman committed to a mental institution, she won her first New York Film Critics Circle's Best Actress Award. The following year, she would win a second time, for The Heiress – thus becoming the first performer to win back-to-back NYFCC honors.

Olivia de Havilland: Film career halted after The Heiress win

Unfortunately, de Havilland's film career faltered after she won the Academy Award for The Heiress. In 1949, she had given birth to a son, Benjamin. That was to keep her away from movies for a while. Compounding matters, on the advice of her husband, novelist and screenwriter Marcus Goodrich, two days after her Oscar victory de Havilland left the Kurt Frings Agency.

De Havilland's abrupt departure was reportedly tied to a trade paper ad the agency wanted to run congratulating the actress on her Oscar victory. In Inside Oscar, Damien Bona and Mason Wiley explain that “Goodrich, who had written his wife's [Oscar] acceptance speech, insisted on approval of the ad's copy and demanded that it refer to the actress not as 'Olivia de Havilland,' but as 'Miss' de Havilland.” The agency refused.

“There's a rumor that Olivia de Havilland will be addressed as 'Miss de Havilland' in the future by her few close associates,” wrote gossip columnist Sheilah Graham at the time. “That's the humdinger of a battle, by the way, in which Olivia's agent, Kurt Frings, told off Olivia's possessive mate, Marcus Goodrich. Kurt, who dug up the prize-winning picture, The Heiress, for Olivia, is now her ex-agent.”

After her professional split from Kurt Frings, de Havilland wouldn't make another movie until My Cousin Rachel, released in 1952. Co-starring Richard Burton, the Gothic period drama was not a success.

Perhaps not coincidentally, My Cousin Rachel was released the year before de Havilland and Goodrich were divorced. By that time, after having her affairs managed by Goodrich and then by powerhouse agent / producer Charles K. Feldman (A Streetcar Named Desire, The Seven Year Itch), de Havilland had returned to Kurt Frings. (Diagnosed with Hodgkin's Disease at age 17, Benjamin would die of complications from treatment for the illness in 1991. Goodrich passed away three weeks later at age 93.)

Olivia de Havilland The Swarm[Olivia de Havilland picture: Irwin Allen's The Swarm.]

Olivia de Havilland's second marriage was to journalist Pierre Galante in 1955. De Havilland moved to Paris, making only sporadic movie appearances (The Ambassador's Daughter, Libel, The Proud Rebel, Light in the Piazza). None of those made much of an impact, whether with critics or at the box office, though Robert Aldrich's over-the-top 1964 thriller Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte was a box office hit. Co-starring de Havilland's fellow Warner Bros. contract player Bette Davis, Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte had de Havilland playing against type. Also in 1964, Walter Grauman's Lady in a Cage gave de Havilland a good chance to display her acting skills as an invalid stuck in an elevator while terrorized by hoodlum James Caan and pals.

In the '70s, de Havilland made only a handful of films – Pope Joan, Airport '77, The Swarm, The Fifth Musketeer – all in supporting roles. In the last three, she was one of many old-timers (e.g., Rex Harrison, James Stewart, Fred MacMurray, Helmut Dantine, Henry Fonda, Joseph Cotten) cast in what amounted to cameos. During that time and in the ensuing decade, de Havilland also made sporadic television appearances, winning a Golden Globe and receiving an Emmy nod for the 1986 miniseries Anastasia: The Mystery of Anna. De Havilland and Pierre Galante were divorced in 1979.

De Havilland's last role was in Charles Jarrott's 1988 television movie The Woman He Loved, which starred Jane Seymour and Anthony Andrews as Wallis Simpson and the Prince of Wales.

Olivia de Havilland back at Warner Bros.

Following her split from Warner Bros. in 1943, 35 years would pass before Olivia de Havilland was to appear in another Warners feature: the aforementioned The Swarm, an all-star disaster flick that makes the vast majority of de Havilland's output as a WB contract player look like a series of masterpieces. The Swarm was released in 1978, the same year Jack Warner died.

Note: This is a much expanded and updated version of an Olivia de Havilland vs. Warner Bros. article initially posted in March 2011, at the time of the Charlie Sheen vs. Warner Bros. lawsuit.

'Olivia de Havilland Turns 99: Warner Bros. Legal Fight Changed U.S. Labor Law' notes

[1] Following the deaths of Joan Fontaine, Luise Rainer, and Mickey Rooney, Olivia de Havilland is now the only adult Hollywood star of the 1930s – name above the title in A productions – still around.

Jane Withers was a child star, while Mary Carlisle, Marsha Hunt, Patricia Morison, and Maureen O'Hara were minor leading ladies. (Hunt and O'Hara – and to a lesser extent Morison – would become bigger movie names the following decade.)

Among international stars, de Havilland's two fellow '30s survivors are both from France – where, coincidentally, de Havilland lives: Danielle Darrieux and Michèle Morgan.

See also: “Movie Stars of the 1930s Still Alive.”

Surviving 'Gone with the Wind' cast members

Following the deaths of Mary Anderson and Alicia Rhett in 2014, besides Olivia de Havilland the only other surviving Gone with the Wind cast member is Mickey Kuhn, 82, who played Melanie's son, Beau Wilkes.

Including uncredited (and unconfirmed) bits, online sources claim the oldest surviving Gone with the Wind cast member is Shep Houghton, who is supposed to have turned 101 last June 4.

Olivia de Havilland and Errol Flynn movies

[2] Below is a list of the eight films starring Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland. All of them were Warner Bros. releases. And all but the last one were directed (or co-directed) by Michael Curtiz.

  • Captain Blood (1935).
    Dir.: Michael Curtiz.
    Cast: Errol Flynn. Olivia de Havilland. Lionel Atwill. Basil Rathbone. Ross Alexander. Guy Kibbee. Donald Meek. Henry Stephenson.
  • The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936).
    Dir.: Michael Curtiz.
    Cast: Errol Flynn. Olivia de Havilland. Patric Knowles. Henry Stephenson. Nigel Bruce. Donald Crisp. David Niven. C. Henry Gordon. Spring Buyington. E.E. Clive. J. Carrol Naish.
  • Four's a Crowd (1938).
    Dir.: Michael Curtiz.
    Cast: Errol Flynn. Olivia de Havilland. Rosalind Russell. Patric Knowles. Walter Connolly. Hugh Herbert. Melville Cooper. Franklin Pangborn. Herman Bing. Margaret Hamilton.
  • The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938).
    Dir.: Michael Curtiz. William Keighley.
    Cast: Errol Flynn. Olivia de Havilland. Basil Rathbone. Claude Rains. Alan Hale. Patric Knowles. Eugene Pallette. Melville Cooper. Ian Hunter. Una O'Connor.
  • The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939).
    Dir.: Michael Curtiz.
    Cast: Errol Flynn. Bette Davis. Olivia de Havilland. Donald Crisp. Alan Hale. Vincent Price. Henry Stephenson. Henry Daniell. James Stephenson. Nanette Fabray (as Nanette Fabares). Ralph Forbes. Robert Warwick. Leo G. Carroll.
  • Dodge City (1939).
    Dir.: Michael Curtiz.
    Cast: Errol Flynn. Olivia de Havilland. Ann Sheridan. Bruce Cabot. Frank McHugh. Alan Hale. John Litel. Henry Travers. Henry O'Neil. Victor Jory. William Lundigan. Guinn 'Big Boy' Williams. Bobs Watson. Gloria Holden. Ward Bond. Cora Witherspoon.
  • Santa Fe Trail (1940).
    Dir.: Michael Curtiz.
    Cast: Errol Flynn. Olivia de Havilland. Raymond Massey. Ronald Reagan. Alan Hale. William Lundigan. Van Heflin. Gene Reynolds. Henry O'Neill. Guinn 'Big Boy' Williams. Alan Baxter. John Litel. Moroni Olsen.
  • They Died with Their Boots On (1941).
    Dir.: Raoul Walsh.
    Cast: Errol Flynn. Olivia de Havilland. Arthur Kennedy. Charley Grapewin. Gene Lockhart. Anthony Quinn. Stanley Ridges. John Litel. Walter Hampden. Sydney Greenstreet. Regis Toomey. Hattie McDaniel.

Olivia de Havilland movies of the '30s

[3] Excluding her pairings with Errol Flynn and the titles mentioned in the main text, below is the list of Olivia de Havilland movies of the mid-to-late '30s, in addition to her respective leading men and directors.

  • Anthony Adverse (1936).
    Dir.: Mervyn LeRoy.
    Cast: Fredric March. Olivia de Havilland. Claude Rains. Gale Sondergaard. Donald Woods. Edmund Gwenn. Anita Louise. Louis Hayward.
  • Call It a Day (1937).
    Dir.: Archie Mayo.
    Cast: Olivia de Havilland. Ian Hunter. Anita Louise. Alice Brady. Roland Young. Frieda Inescort. Bonita Granville. Peggy Wood.
  • It's Love I'm After (1937).
    Dir.: Archie Mayo.
    Cast: Leslie Howard. Bette Davis. Olivia de Havilland. Patric Knowles. Eric Blore. Bonita Granville. Spring Byington.
  • The Great Garrick (1937).
    Dir.: James Whale.
    Cast: Brian Aherne. Olivia de Havilland. Edward Everett Horton. Melville Cooper. Lionel Atwill. Luis Alberni. Lana Turner. Marie Wilson. Etienne Girardot.
  • Gold Is Where You Find It (1938).
    Dir.: Michael Curtiz.
    Cast: George Brent. Olivia de Havilland. Claude Rains. Margaret Lindsay. John Litel. Tim Holt. Barton MacLane. Sidney Toler.
  • Hard to Get (1938).
    Dir.: Ray Enright.
    Cast: Dick Powell. Olivia de Havilland. Charles Winninger. Allen Jenkins. Bonita Granville. Isabel Jeans. Melville Cooper. Penny Singleton. Grady Sutton. Thurston Hall. John Ridgely.
  • Wings of the Navy (1939).
    Dir.: Lloyd Bacon.
    Cast: George Brent. Olivia de Havilland. John Payne. Frank McHugh. John Litel. Victor Jory. Henry O'Neill. John Ridgely. Regis Toomey.
  • Raffles (1939).
    Dir.: Sam Wood.
    Cast: David Niven. Olivia de Havilland. Dame May Whitty. Dudley Digges. Douglas Walton. E.E. Clive. Lionel Pape. Peter Godfrey. Margaret Seddon. Gilbert Emery.

[4] The Best Supporting Actress Oscar winner of 1939 was Hattie McDaniel, who played Mammy in Gone with the Wind.

The other nominees were:

[5] Besides sisters Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine, the other 1941 Best Actress Oscar nominees were:

  • Bette Davis for William Wyler's The Little Foxes.
  • Greer Garson for Mervyn LeRoy's Blossoms in the Dust.
  • Barbara Stanwyck for Howard Hawks' Ball of Fire.

Since then, only sisters Lynn Redgrave and Vanessa Redgrave would vie for the Best Actress Oscar in the same year: the former for Silvio Narizzano's Georgy Girl, the latter for Karel Reisz's Morgan!, at the 1967 Oscar ceremony. Both lost to Elizabeth Taylor for Mike Nichols' Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Also of note, Olivia de Havilland is the earliest Academy Award nominee and the earliest winner in the acting categories.

Also in the acting categories, de Havilland is the only surviving Oscar nominee of the 1930s, and one of only four surviving nominees of the 1940s.

Below is the list of surviving pre-1960 Oscar nominees in the acting categories (as of early July 2015).

  • Olivia de Havilland (Gone with the Wind, 1939; Hold Back the Dawn, 1941; winner for To Each His Own, 1946; The Snake Pit, 1948; winner for The Heiress, 1949).
  • Angela Lansbury (Gaslight, 1944; The Picture of Dorian Grey, 1945).*
  • Ann Blyth (Mildred Pierce, 1945).
  • Kirk Douglas (Champion, 1949; The Bad and the Beautiful, 1952; Lust for Life, 1956).
  • Nancy Olson (Sunset Blvd., 1950).
  • Lee Grant (Detective Story, 1951).*
  • Terry Moore (Come Back, Little Sheba, 1952).
  • Leslie Caron (Lili, 1953).*
  • Eva Marie Saint (winner for On the Waterfront, 1954).
  • Marisa Pavan (The Rose Tattoo, 1955).
  • Carroll Baker (Baby Doll, 1956).
  • Dorothy Malone (winner for Written on the Wind, 1956).
  • Patty McCormack (The Bad Seed, 1956).
  • Don Murray (Bus Stop, 1956).
  • Joanne Woodward (winner for The Three Faces of Eve, 1957).*
  • Russ Tamblyn (Peyton Place, 1957).
  • Shirley MacLaine (Some Came Running, 1958).*
  • Sidney Poitier (The Defiant Ones, 1958).*
  • Cara Williams (The Defiant Ones, 1958).
  • Theodore Bikel (The Defiant Ones, 1958).
  • Doris Day (Pillow Talk, 1959).
  • Susan Kohner (Imitation of Life, 1959).
  • Robert Vaughn (The Young Philadelphians, 1959).

* Denotes performers who also received Oscar nominations in 1960 or later.

  • Shirley MacLaine for The Apartment, 1960; Irma La Douce, 1963; and The Turning Point, 1977. She won for Terms of Endearment, 1983.
  • Angela Lansbury for The Manchurian Candidate, 1962.
  • Leslie Caron w for The L-Shaped Room, 1963.
  • Sidney Poitier won for Lilies of the Field, 1963.
  • Joanne Woodward for Rachel, Rachel, 1968; Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams, 1973; Mr. and Mrs. Bridge, 1990.
  • Lee Grant for The Landlord, 1970; and Voyage of the Damned, 1976. She won for Shampoo, 1975.

Also of note, 1952 Best Supporting Actress nominee Colette Marchand – for John Huston's Moulin Rouge – died at age 90 last June 5.


Olivia de Havilland pictures via Doctor Macro.

Sheila Graham quote via Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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5 Comments to Olivia de Havilland Turns 99: Warner Bros. Legal Fight Changed U.S. Labor Law

  1. Chuckie888

    I'm not sure you could say that HUSH..HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE had no impact other than being a box office hit.

    The film was nominated for 7 Oscars, more than any other film of the horror genre up until that time. And even today, the title is sometimes used as a metaphor for small town scandal.

  2. rship19

    ALSO: Please bear in mind her role as John Ireland's wife 'The Adventurers' (1970?).

  3. Andre


    Re: “My Cousin Rachel.” I meant it was not a box-office success for Olivia de Havilland (who, tellingly, didn't receive a Best Actress Oscar nomination despite a strong campaign, as per “Inside Oscar.”)

    Check out this May 7, 1953, memo from 20th Century Fox head Darryl Zanuck to Philip Dunne:

    “Many excellent pictures have been defeated by unsatisfactory or unpopular subject matter. In this regard we have had our own bitter experience with pictures like “Viva Zapata!” “My Cousin Rachel”…”
    From Rudy Behlmer's “Memo from Darryl F. Zanuck: The Golden Years at Twentieth Century-Fox.”

    And I wasn't “belittling” Olivia de Havilland's late '50s/early '60s films. Just stating the fact that they didn't cause much of a stir either at the box office or with critics / awards groups. It's been a while, but I remember enjoying “Light in the Piazza.” Though certainly not “The Ambassador's Daughter”…

  4. Scott

    On the contrary, “My Cousin Rachel” was an excellent version of the Daphne DuMaurier best-seller and de Havilland and Burton were fine in the leads. The NY Times said: “Olivia de Havilland does a dandy job as the soft and gracious Rachel with just a faint touch of the viper's tongue,” and she was nominated for a Golden Globe Best Actress. Burton received a Supporting Actor Oscar nomination and the film itself received four Academy Award noms. A great score by Franz Waxman is now available on CD.

    And I wouldn't belittle films like “The Proud Rebel” r “Light in the Piazza,” both sensitive films which drew highly respectable reviews. Her best performances during the latter part of her career were “Lady in a Cage” and “Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte,” as you've indicated.

    The stage work in the '60s (“A Gift of Time” with Henry Fonda) and her best-seller “Every Frenchman Has One,” were among other accomplishments. Olivia has so many sterling films on her resume that it seems pointless to make her later films seem so worthless by comparison.

  5. Trippy Trellis

    The best performance of all time by an actress: Olivia de Havilland in “The Heiress”/ Vivien Leigh in “A Streetcar Named Desire”.