Last week, we left Olivia de Havilland on the precipice of thirty, about to emerge from exile. She’d won her lawsuit against Warner Brothers, gaining her freedom and liberating all actors from endless studio-imposed contract extensions.
She’d paid for the suit with a three year blacklist that ended in 1946 when she made To Each His Own as part of a two picture deal with Paramount Pictures. A bad performance could permanently sink her career and make the De Havilland Decision a hollow victory.
She’d staked everything on her bone-deep belief that she had acting potential beyond fawning over Errol Flynn. She now had a complicated role where she’d play a woman who ages from a young girl in love to a middle-age spinster. She’d be in nearly every scene, expressing a range of emotions.
Hers was the only name above the title.
It was time to put up or shut up.
Spoiler alert…she put up.
To Each His Own is a wonderfully sentimental melodrama. De Havilland was paired again with Mitchell Leisen, who’d directed her to an Oscar nomination in 1941’s Hold Back the Dawn (when Warner Brothers loaned her to Paramount.)
She threw herself into the role, getting into character by wearing the popular perfumes of the different eras, including Chanel #5 during the World War II sections. For her scenes as a middle-aged woman, she channeled her own mother’s mannerisms.
And how was the film received?
It did a respectable box office, and de Havilland was nominated for her third Academy Award, this one for Best Actress. She was up against favorite Jane Wyman for The Yearling, and Golden Globe winner Rosalind Russell in Sister Kenny.
But unlike for Gone With the Wind and Hold Back the Dawn, this time Olivia de Havilland didn’t go home empty handed.
She’d spun her law suit victory into Oscar gold.
As To Each His Own opens, we meet Jody Norris (de Havilland), a lonely middle-aged woman spending New Year’s Eve as a World War II fire warden.
Through flashbacks, we see her as a young woman growing up in Piersen Falls, the smallest of small towns. World War I pilot Captain Bart Cosgrove sweeps her off her feet and she soon finds herself unmarried and pregnant when Cosgrove is killed in action.
Still believing she can find a way to raise her baby and avoid a scandal, Jody is devastated when her friends Corinne and Alex Piersen adopt her baby, believing him to be a war orphan.
Jody moves to New York and finds she has a talent for business when she starts a cosmetics factory. Within a few years she has enough money (and holds enough of the Piersen’s mounting business debts) to blackmail the Piersens into giving her the baby, who is now a young boy.
Jody finally has her heart’s desire, but young Gregory is homesick and desperate to return to the only mother and family he has ever known.
In the film’s most heart-tugging scene, Jody realizes that she’s waited too long, and what’s done can never be undone. She will never be the mother that Gregory wants. With a lump in her throat, she calls the grateful Piersens and returns Gregory to them.
Her friend and business partner asks what he can do to help.
“Let me go to London,” she says of the company’s upcoming expansion city, “and find me fourteen hours work a day.”
And so Jody buries herself in work, tracking her son from afar, until she meets up with him again as a grown man on leave from World War II. A flier, just like his father.
Desperate for a glimpse of him, Jody reaches out one more time in the hopes she can kindle a relationship with the son who doesn’t remember her.
Few actors have fought so hard for an Oscar and all that it symbolizes—acting excellence and prestige. At the ceremony, much was made of the fact that Olivia de Havilland turned away from sister Joan Fontaine when Fontaine tried to congratulate her. Neither sister cites it as a reason for their feud, and the smile on de Havilland’s face clearly shows that annoyed by her sister or not, she was having the night of her life.
And the best was yet to come.
- Amburn, Ellis. Olivia de Havilland and the Golden Age of Hollywood
- Matzen, Robert. Errol & Olivia: Ego & Obsession in Golden Era Hollywood.