TCM’s star of the day is Olivia de Havilland, and my film pick for the actress is To Each His Own, which airs today at 2:15 A.M. (EST).
This wartime melodrama finds middle-aged American Josephine “Jody” Norris (Olivia de Havilland) in the midst of World War II in London as she recounts her youth during World War I in a small town in upstate New York, when she fell in love with the itinerant pilot, Captain Bart Cosgrove (John Lund), and spent the night with him. Shortly after his untimely death in the war, she bears his illegitimate son, and in an effort to avoid scandal, she comes up with a scheme to adopt him. However, her plan backfires, and he ends up with another family. Forced to watch her son’s life from afar, she devotes her life to trying to remain a part of his as she becomes a successful businesswoman.
By the time Olivia de Havilland starred in To Each His Own, she already had more than two dozen films under her belt. She made her film debut just over a decade before in 1935, when four movies she appeared in were all released, including Captain Blood, which began her famous on-screen pairing with adventure star Errol Flynn. Signed with Warner Bros., she was often given ingénue roles, and de Havilland soon found those parts unsatisfying. Following a couple of successful loan-outs to other studios, in which she had more complex roles in Gone with the Wind and Hold Back the Dawn, both of which resulted in her first two Oscar nominations, de Havilland rejected more of the scripts Warner Bros. offered to her, which still only had her playing the supporting love interest. As a result, the studio put her on suspension and added six more months to her seven-year contract to make up for that period of time she wasn’t working for them. Seeing how unjust this was, she sued Warner Bros. in 1943, and unlike Bette Davis’s previous lawsuit against the studio, de Havilland was victorious. The 1944 ruling, most commonly referred to as the De Havilland Law, resulted in reducing the power of the studios and allowing actors more creative freedom. Unfortunately for de Havilland, Warner Bros. then made efforts to virtually blacklist her, labeling her “difficult” and discouraging other studios from offering her work. It would be nearly three years until de Havilland appeared in a film again, but it proved to be quite a comeback.
Olivia de Havilland eventually found work at Paramount, where she signed a two-picture deal. She had worked with them previously on 1941’s Hold Back the Dawn, in which she earned first Academy Award nomination in the Best Actress category. Before beginning production in 1945 on To Each His Own, she insisted on bringing in Mitchell Leisen to helm the movie, after their successful collaboration on Hold Back the Dawn. Her role in To Each His Own was her most complicated one to date, as it required her to portray a character over the course of 30 years, from a naive, small-town girl to a hardened, middle-aged woman. To help her get into the different ages of her character, de Havilland used a different perfume to help define each time period. She also lowered the pitch of her voice each time her character grew older to further convey the passage of time. Carrying a movie as she never had before, de Havilland won her first Oscar for her performance, which also served as an award from her peers for her triumphant challenge against the studios.
Now established as a distinguished actress, it didn’t take long for Olivia de Havilland to gain more Academy Award recognition. Two years after To Each His Own, she took on her toughest role yet in The Snake Pit, where she played a schizophrenic inmate at a mental institution. Her realistic portrayal of mental illness resulted in another Oscar nomination. Though she didn’t win for her performance, she did the very next year in what is possibly her most acclaimed work in The Heiress. Following a busy decade both on and off-screen, de Havilland’s career winded down, and she worked intermittently in film through the 1970s, and took on several television roles in the 1980s, including the 1986 TV movie Anastasia: The Mystery of Anna, for which she won a Golden Globe and garnered an Emmy nomination for her performance. Following her retirement from acting, she spent the rest of her life in Paris, where she had lived most of her life after moving in the mid-50s. She received several honors afterward, including as recently as 2017 when two weeks after her 101st birthday, she was appointed Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire and is now the oldest woman ever to receive the honor. And after such a fulfilling life, she passed away peacefully this past July at the remarkable age of 104.
It’s no exaggeration that Olivia de Havilland left a big impact on Hollywood, both with her powerful performances and even more notably, her lawsuit against Warner Bros. which changed the way the industry operated. As her victory helped herself and her fellow actors, it also proved beneficial to audiences, as we now have de Havilland’s rich performances in her more rewarding roles to enjoy decades later. Though she won an Academy Award for her work, To Each His Own is more underrated compared to her other acclaimed performances and deserves to be more widely seen. The way she moves through time is truly impressive, relying much more on her acting skills than her appearance to convincingly show her character’s age. There’s barely a moment where she isn’t on screen, and she keeps viewers engaged with the story throughout. While her Oscar win served as a double-award, her recognition here is very deserving, as she was able to really display the range of her talent. The film today serves as a great tribute to a woman who fought hard to get what she wanted, leaving behind an unforgettable legacy that will continue to live on.
I wrote this as a part of the 2020 TCM Summer Under the Stars Blogathon, where bloggers are celebrating the channel’s honorees and movies playing throughout the month. Click the image below to read more posts!