In my early career, I was blessed with having many meaningful mentors; including filmmakers:  Duke Goldstone, Mevyn LeRoy, Mike (“M.J.”) Frankovich, and Dick Powell.  But next to Duke Goldstone, I probably learned more from the iconic food and wine critic of the 1960s through the ‘90s, Robert Lawrence Balzer.  And the learning experience was not confined to food and wine but included the equivalent of a PhD degree in many diverse subjects, the most important to me probably being plain ole writing; writing with a flair for description.  What I learned was that being overly descriptive was worse than being non-descriptive; that sometimes less is best. 


These lessons from Robert later got me hired as a journalist for Reuters; first covering the final months of the Zimbabwe War of Independence, reporting from Bulawayo to Victoria Falls, and later the Gulf War, reporting from Israel.   


Of the many sojourns and fabulous meals I have enjoyed with Robert Lawrence Balzer, two stand out as most memorable, both for different reasons.   The first was a dinner at Le Grand Véfour Restaurant in Paris with actress Olivia de Havilland.  


Although this was three years before I would become a journalist for Reuters, instinctively I was out to interview Olivia, to get her thoughts on Errol Flynn, her sister Joan Fountain, and all of the fabulous movies she had made during her long and lustrous career. 


We were in France to film TV commercials for some of the world’s greatest wineries; which commercials were to air in the Far East and Australasia.  While in Paris on Wednesday 16 June 1978, the iconic food and wine critic Robert Lawrence Balzer invited Beverly Amphlett and me to join him and his longtime friend Olivia de Havilland for dinner at the Michelin Guide three-star Paris restaurant (which I understand has recently been downgraded to two-stars); located at 17 Rue de Beaujolais. 


Whenever I asked Olivia a question about her pictures and her relationship with Errol Flynn, Howard Hughes and others, she cleverly turned the conversation back to me, so it wasn’t about her but about us.  She was very interested in the law school courses I had audited at USC while attending film school in 1968 – ’69.   


Nevertheless I pressed on.  Olivia did admit to being surprised at the success of “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” (1938) with Errol Flynn.  She felt her character, Maid Marian, was written a little thin and didn’t really want to play the role but inherited it when the original actress became pregnant out of wedlock.   The second of eight films they would do together, Olivia told us that despite the 28 year-old Errol Flynn’s flamboyant performance, the actor told her he found the role boring.     


Originally budgeted at $1.6 million, the budget eventually ballooned to $2 million, the most expensive Warner’s film to date, but it turned out to be the studio's biggest money-maker in 1939, making back far in excess of its cost.


When I finally asked Olivia what started the feud between her and her sister Joan (de Havilland) Fontaine, Robert Balzer turned pale and shot me a look that clearly told me that this was a verboten subject and quickly interrupted to order another bottle of a fantastic wine from one of Paris’s finest the wine cellars.    


After the interruption, Olivia came back to ask why I chose to pursue the risky, up-and-down career of feature filmmaking instead of entertainment law.  I was somewhat taken aback by her interest in my brief law studies until it dawned upon me that on August 23, 1943, Olivia had filed her famous law suit against Warner Bros. that set precedents in labor law.  


Known as the “de Havilland decision” it was the beginning of the end for the so-called studio system.  As I explained to Robert and Beverly the significance of the decree, I could see that Olivia was smiling and impressed by my knowledge of the case.   As an aside, it was one of the cases studied in my first USC entertainment law course.     


Briefly put, the labor code statute at the time limited an actor’s personal service contract to seven years.  But Hollywood industry lawyers in the 1920s, ‘30s, and ‘40s took the position that an exclusive personal services contract should be treated as suspended during the periods when the artist was not actually working.  Since no artist could be working every single day (that is, including holidays and weekends), this interpretation meant those seven years of actual service would be spread over a much longer calendar period, thus extending the time during which the studio system had complete control of a young artist's career. 


In response, actress Olivia de Havilland filed her lawsuit against Warmer Bros., which suit was backed by the Screen Actors Guild.  The lawsuit resulted in a landmark decision in de Havilland’s favor. 


The three-justice panel adopted the common sense view that seven years from the commencement of service means seven calendar years.  Since de Havilland had started performance under her Warner annual contract on May 5, 1936 (which had been renewed six times pursuant to its terms since then), and seven calendar years had elapsed from that date, the contract was no longer enforceable and she was free to seek projects with other studios. 


De Havilland's legal victory reduced the power of the studios and extended great-er creative freedom to performers.  The decision was one of the most significant and far-reaching legal rulings in Hollywood. 


After relating the case history, Olivia told me that she was going to say a prayer for me at Norte Dame Cathedral, that I might rekindle my pursuit of law.  Sadly, I never did.  


During the dinner at Grand Vefour, it was obvious Olivia had a very special re-lationship with Robert Lawrence Balzer; albeit anything but sexual; probably dating back to the days when Howard Hughes rented Balzer’s speculator Mulholland Drive home, later sold to Marlon Brando.  It was more like Balzer was the equally intelligent fun loving sibling that Olivia lacked when her sister abandoned her.  


Even though I was an invited guest, I felt so guilty by having dominating the conversation that I picked up the tab.  In departing, Robert gave Olivia more than enough francs to cover her cab ride home plus a handsome tip.  


On our cab ride back to our own domicile at the Paris Grand Hotel at 2 Rue Scribe, near the Opera, Robert told us the story behind Olivia’s longtime feud with her sister.  


Born in Tokyo, Japan to a geisha frequenting patent lawyer, the sisters were relocated to California after their mother's divorce.  With Olivia's career on the rise at Warner Brothers collaborating with Errol Flynn, their mother pushed the highly competitive Joan into acting, changing her surname to Fontaine. 


Soon both were fighting over aviator billionaire Howard Hughes and the role of Melanie in Gone with the Wind which was ultimately won by Olivia.  


Balzer went on to relate that when Olivia won her Oscar in 1946 for To Each His Own, Joan recalled in her autobiography, “No Bed of Roses,” that after Olivia delivered her speech and entered the wings, Joan went over to congratulate her, as she would have done to any winner.  Joan claimed that Olivia took one look at her, ignored her hand, clutched her Oscar and walked away.  Olivia has vehe-mently denied that this ever happened.  


Despite awkward attempts at reconciliation, the final break came when their mother Lillian died from cancer in 1975. 


At the service, Joan refused to speak to Olivia.  In Joan’s autobiography, she describes Olivia’s scattering a handful of ashes, then silently passing the container to Joan.  “'Thus I said goodbye to my mother.  As for Olivia, I had no words." 


In 2010, when the President of France, Nicolas Sarkozy, awarded Olivia de Havilland, 94, France’s most  prestigious Legion d'honneur, in Paris, amidst family and friends one person was not surprisingly in attendance – her sister Joan Fontaine. 


There’s a lot more to the separation of the siblings, much of it focusing around their mother, Lillian, who is said to have driven a reluctant Joan into show business.  But that story is available on the Internet, should anyone be fascinated by that sort of journalism.