My Cousin Rachel (1952):  Third Oscar Be Damned!

Richard Burton, Olivia de Havilland in My Cousin Rachel (1952)
My Cousin Rachel (1952)

Olivia de Havilland’s biographers are unanimous in their verdict that after her Oscar-winning turn in The Heiress (1949), Olivia de Havilland made the inexplicable error of turning down the role of Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951).

Ellis Amburn dedicates an entire chapter in his biography questioning her Streetcar decision, noting:

“[Hedda] Hopper asked her [de Havilland] to explain why she refused to play…the best role of the century in the best play of the century.”1

But to say turning down Streetcar was a mistake is to completely miss the point.

For A Streetcar Named Desire was to be made at Warner Brothers.

Warner Brothers—still run by Jack Warner, who had bedeviled her since she was nineteen years old, forcing her to beg his wife for the opportunity to play in Gone with the Wind, then punishing her post-Wind by trying to work her to death.  Warner, who had hired lawyers to attack her as a spoiled actress during her lawsuit.  Warner, who had done everything in his power to permanently blackball her from Hollywood.

Though she was too classy to come right out and say it, hell would freeze over before Olivia de Havilland worked for Jack Warner again, third Oscar be damned.2

“I thought Vivien [Leigh] absolutely marvelous in the part,” she told biographer Victoria Amador in 2012.  “I have never regretted that I did not play Blanche.”3

I take her at her word.

So instead of taking the “part of the century” she made the gothic mystery My Cousin Rachel (1952.)

It’s 1838, and twenty-four year old Philip Ashley (Richard Burton in his first Hollywood film) is mourning the death of his cousin Ambrose, the man who raised him after his parents died when he was only a few months old.

Two years before his death, Ambrose left his home with Philip on the Cornish coast of England to seek better weather for his health.  While away, Ambrose marries Rachel, a woman Philip has never met.  Shortly before his death, Ambrose sent Philip a nearly incoherent letter that makes damning accusations against Rachel.  Though most of Philip’s confidantes believe the letter’s contents are the delusions of a man going mad, Philip wants revenge for Rachel’s part in his cherished cousin’s death.

He’s thrown for a loop when Rachel (de Havilland) arrives much younger—though ten years his senior—and far more beautiful than he expected.  His passion turns to lust and then a violent need to possess her.

The film is a game of cat and mouse—is Rachel guilty or not?  She certainly capitalizes on Philip’s desire for her, but is she a desperate woman with nowhere to go or a murderess looking for her next victim?

Richard Burton, Olivia de Havilland in My Cousin Rachel (1952)

And Philip certainly gives Rachel reason to fear him.

The film is told from Philip’s point of view, and as he is forever tormented by the question of Rachel’s guilt or innocence, so are we.

It’s a good but not great psychological thriller that will have you wondering about Rachel’s motivations long after you’ve finished it.  (And don’t go looking for answers in the 2017 Rachel Weisz-Sam Claflin remake—you won’t find them there, either.)

Richard Burton, Olivia de Havilland in My Cousin Rachel (1952)

And here, dear reader, is where we will pull the curtain on the story of the De Havilland sisters. 

Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine continued to work in film throughout the fifties and sixties, before turning mostly to television.  Both were still appearing onscreen in the 1980s.

Joan Fontaine is a legend of old Hollywood, the only actor in a Hitchcock film to win a best acting Oscar, and gave the world the forever gift of her perfect portrayal of the second Mrs. DeWinter in Rebecca (1940).

Olivia De Havilland leaves behind her legacy of Melanie Wilkes, two Oscars for Best Actress, and the DeHavilland Decision, a law still cited today.  Jared Leto’s rock band used the law in 2009 to gain more money for their music, and Leto met De Havilland in 2010 to thank her for her courageous fight against the studios.

And as for the their lifelong feud?

They stopped speaking to one another for good in 1975 after their mother’s death.

Joan Fontaine and Olivia de Havilland with their mother
In happier times: Mother Lilian, Joan Fontaine, Olivia de Havilland

But there’s one final plot twist.

In 2017, the FX series Feud told the story of the feud between Joan Crawford and Bette Davis.  In it, Catherine Zeta-Jones as Olivia de Havilland calls Joan Fontaine a “bitch.”

De Havilland so strongly objected to word “bitch” being used about her sister that at the age of 101 she sued the creators of the show, but this time she lost her legal fight.

The line between love and hate is never thinner than between sisters who don’t get along.

My Cousin Rachel (1952) Verdict:  Film Buffs Only

Notes

  1. Amburn, Ellis. Olivia de Havilland and the Golden Age of Hollywood
  2. Olivia de Havilland did not return to the Warner Brothers studio for 35 years. In 1975 she starred in The Swarm, after Jack Warner had retired.
  3. Amador, Victoria. Olivia de Havilland: Lady Triumphant.

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.

Richard Burton, Olivia de Havilland in My Cousin Rachel (1952)

4 thoughts on “My Cousin Rachel (1952):  Third Oscar Be Damned!

  1. No disrespect to Olivia, but I think Leigh’s Blache is perfect, and just because a role is iconic doesn’t make her the best choice for it. She had a wealth of great roles, and a game-changing career, and not playing Blacnhe isn’t worth regrets. I do like this film, maybe more than you, and like the remake too; who wants to have every bit of mystery resolved? Olivia remained the ultimate grande dame, and as well as the battles of the studios you describe, that’s legacy enough.

    • Completely agree. She didn’t want to do it, and that’s probably for the best. And I’m with you, I don’t think she would’ve done it better than Leigh, I don’t think anyone would have. I think Rachel might be a film I’d like more the second time around. Instead of waiting for the “answer”, I could just enjoy the ride.

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