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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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.