Olivia de Havilland, The Heiress
"From the age of 18 when I began my career as Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream," Olivia de Havilland would tell entertainment journalist Robert Osborne, "I always wanted to play difficult roles in films with significant themes. With the exception of that first Shakespearean film, no equivalent opportunities were given me at Warner Bros." (Actually, In This Our Life, for one, does have "significant themes." It also features black characters, not caricatures, something uncommon at that time.)
De Havilland added that "absolutely no one in the industry thought I would win the case. When I at last succeeded, lots of flowers and telegrams began to arrive, which, of course, made me very happy." [Olivia de Havilland at 2008 Bette Davis tribute.]
Following de Havilland’s legal victory, Warner Bros. made sure its remaining contract player Ida Lupino received top billing when the Curtis Bernhardt-directed 1943 drama Devotion, about the Brontë sisters (Lupino, de Havilland, and Nancy Coleman), was finally released in 1946.
De Havilland probably couldn’t have cared less about her Devotion billing, as that same year she starred in two box-office hits: she played twins — one good, one psycho — in Robert Siodmak’s film noir The Dark Mirror at Universal, and suffered as an unwed mother who gives her son up for adoption in Mitchell Leisen’s tearjerker To Each His Own at Paramount. For the latter, de Havilland won her first Best Actress Academy Award. Three years later, she won again for a much better performance in an infinitely better film: William Wyler’s The Heiress, also at Paramount.
Additionally, de Havilland received an Oscar nomination for Anatole Litvak’s 1948 drama The Snake Pit at 20th Century Fox. For her role as a woman committed to a mental institution, she won her first New York Film Critics Circle’s Best Actress Award. The following year, she would win a second time, for The Heiress — thus becoming the first performer to win back-to-back NYFCC honors.
Olivia de Havilland: Film career halted after The Heiress win
Unfortunately, de Havilland’s film career faltered after she won the Academy Award for The Heiress. In 1949, she had given birth to a son, Benjamin. That was to keep her away from movies for a while. Compounding matters, on the advice of her husband, novelist and screenwriter Marcus Goodrich, two days after her Oscar victory de Havilland left the Kurt Frings Agency.
De Havilland’s abrupt departure was reportedly tied to a trade paper ad the agency wanted to run congratulating the actress on her Oscar victory. In Inside Oscar, Damien Bona and Mason Wiley explain that "Goodrich, who had written his wife’s [Oscar] acceptance speech, insisted on approval of the ad’s copy and demanded that it refer to the actress not as ‘Olivia de Havilland,’ but as ‘Miss’ de Havilland." The agency refused.
“There’s a rumor that Olivia de Havilland will be addressed as ‘Miss de Havilland’ in the future by her few close associates,” wrote gossip columnist Sheilah Graham at the time. “That’s the humdinger of a battle, by the way, in which Olivia’s agent, Kurt Frings, told off Olivia’s possessive mate, Marcus Goodrich. Kurt, who dug up the prize-winning picture, The Heiress, for Olivia, is now her ex-agent.”
After her professional split from Kurt Frings, de Havilland wouldn’t make another movie until My Cousin Rachel, released in 1952. Co-starring Richard Burton, the Gothic period drama was not a success.
Perhaps not coincidentally, My Cousin Rachel was released the year before de Havilland and Goodrich were divorced. By that time, after having her affairs managed by Goodrich and then by powerhouse agent / producer Charles K. Feldman (A Streetcar Named Desire, The Seven Year Itch), de Havilland had returned to Kurt Frings. (Diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Disease at age 17, Benjamin would die of complications from treatment for the illness in 1991. Goodrich passed away three weeks later at age 93.)
["Two-Time Oscar Winner: Olivia de Havilland vs. Warner Bros. Pt.3" continues on next page. See link below.]
Sheila Graham quote via Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.