MY COUSIN RACHEL, Olivia de Havilland, Richard Burton, Audrey Dalton, 1952, TM and copyright ©20th Century Fox Film Corp. All rights reserved

My Cousin Rachel is a dark, brooding, and twisted gothic story – the kind Daphne du Maurier was famous for. In the movie,  Olivia de Havilland gave an outstanding performance as Rachel. and Richard Burton made his bravura American film debut as the emotionally high strung Philip Ashley.

This blog post is part of the Olivia de Havilland Centenary Blogathon sponsored by Crystal at The Good old Days of Classic Hollywood and Phyllis of Phyllis Loves Classic Hollywood

The best-selling author Daphne du Maurier was so confident in the sale of the story to Hollywood that it was placed on the market in 1951 for $100,000 plus 5% of the world gross. This was considered an outrageous cost at the time, even if Rebecca had been a hit movie in 1940 and an Oscar-winner. It was 20th Century-Fox that bought the option for My Cousin Rachel, although for a flat $80,000. George Cukor was involved early-on as the potential director, with Vivien Leigh, Jennifer Jones, and even Greta Garbo considered in the role of Rachel. All of these possibilities folded as Nunally Johnson became both the producer and screenwriter, with Henry Koster as director along with the final cast. .

The movie begins during the 1830s. “My entire life had been spent on the Cornish coast of England,” Richard Burton narrates and provides the voce over through many parts of the film. We see him first as the young boy Philip, orphaned, in the care of his much-loved cousin Ambrose. They are at a cross-roads, where Phillip stares up at a hanged man. “Death is the price for a murder,” Ambrose explains to him. Waves crash on the rocky coast, a metaphor for the rough seas of life and a favorite gothic meme

My Cousin Rachel

Philip grows up to be a young man in Ambrose’s mansion, until one day Ambrose decides to travel to Italy, “to improve his health” he says, but he will return in the spring. Philip and his friend Louise (Audrey Dalton) are alarmed when he doesn’t return, but soon a letter arrives saying he met a cousin, a half-Italian , half-English widow named Countess Rachel Sangalletti. This is followed by a letter stating they have married – but that Ambrose does not trust her – and subsequent letters stating that she is tormenting him and causing him maladies, and that he is to come quickly. Louise’s father tells Philip that Ambrose’s father had died from a brain tumor and had similar delusions, but Philip departs immediately nonetheless, only to arrive at the Italian residence to learn that Ambrose had died – and cousin Rachel had disappeared. He learns from a sevant the whereabouts of Ambrose’s lawyer, a Rainaldi who insists that Ambrose died of a brain tumor and not from poisoning. Rainaldi further states that Philip will inherit everything, including the estate, from Ambrose, and Rachel will get nothing. Philip is distrustful nonetheless, and on visiting the headstone of Ambroses’s grave site, he vows “to repay Rachel in pain and suffering.”

After returning to Cornwall, one day cousin Rachel comes to visit. Louise and her father Nicholas, the executor of Ambrose’s estate, says she is penniless and should- out of common courtesy – be put up at the estate. Philip does not greet her, but allows her to stay. When they finally meet he is beguiled by her beauty and charm, and mesmerized, confesses he had vowed to torment her as she had Ambrose.

My Cousin Rachel (1952) directed by Henry Koster shown: Richard Burton, Olivia de Havilland
Photo courtesy Photofest

Soon, the passion of his hatred turned to a passionate and mad love.

My Cousin Rachel 6

He is not yet 25 years old, at which point the terms of the Ambrose Ashley trust state he inherits the estate and all its possessions. Rachel must have known this. Did she come calling to catch Philip in her web? Was she guilty of poisoning Ambrose? We ride the roller-coaster  of Philip’s emotions through his point of view, and try to read the Mona Lisa face of Olivia de Havilland as to Rachel’s intentions.

My Cousin Rachel 2

Philip has been ensnared. First he asks Nicholas to award her 5000 pounds a year, nice sum or revenue from the estate. Next Philip demonstrates his mad love by giving to Rachel the family jewels as a Christmas present, a lavish necklace, which she wears at a dinner party. This gesture shocks Nicholas, who argues with Phiilp so that even Rachel hears, whereby she returns the necklace to him. Embarrassed, Philip only hardens his determination to pursue his love, convinced that her first acceptance of the jewels signified her love in return. Even when he is told that her bank account is overdrawn and she is sending money to Italy, he defends her.



And he will go even further, after turning 25, he legally conveys all the estate to her, jewels, property and all. But he finds that for Rachel, that does not mean that she intends to marry him. At a dinner, he cheerfully announces their engagement, but she denies to all.


MY COUSIN RACHEL, Richard Burton, (right), 1952, TM and Copyright © 20th Century Fox Film Corp. All rights reserved,

Then, as Rainaldi visits Rachel, Philip becomes jealous, and mistrustful, and finally, his hate returns.



When his  rage becomes a physical outburst, Rachel shuns him thereafter, and he enters  into a delirious sickness lasting several days. He awakens with Rachel by his side, and it all seems like a bad dream, and in his mind he believes that she had married him.

My Cousin Rachel (1952) directed by Henry Koster shown: Olivia de Havilland, Richard Burton
Photo courtesy Photofest


As Philip recovers he learns from his gardener that Rachel is planning a trip to Italy. He confronts her about why she was leaving, and learns from her that they were not married. He notices that she has a letter from Rainaldi, postmarked from Plymouth, where she had in fact just met him.  Later, with Louise, he breaks into her chest of drawers to find the letter, which only contains poisonous seeds. He now suspects once more that she killed Ambrose and that she had caused his own illness.

Was Rachel guilty of murder? Is Philip himself paranoid and delusional, or just mad with jealousy? I will not give away the ending, ambiguous as it is, not just because it spoils the ending of the story, but because this would also taint the viewers image of Philip or Rachel throughout the film. Both Olivia de Havilland and Richard Burton give masterful performances. Ms. Havilland gives the perfect inscrutable  performance, not overly manipulative, or stoic, but honestly conveying the appropriate emotion for the moment. As such she can be tender, caring, and sympathetic, or determined, selfish and cold.

The frequently dark, gothic setting of the film, amplified by the cinematography of Joseph La Shelle, with art direction by Lyle Wheeler and John De Cuir, gives a Film Noir feel to the work, which a change of costumes and décor could have thoroughly accomplished. Screenwriter Nunnally Johnson had previously written Woman in the Window and The Dark Mirror, the later another Olivia de Havilland vehicle. The dramatic film score by Franz Waxman (The Bride of Frankenstein, Sunset Blvd) provides plenty of mood and all the appropriate clues as to what type of drama is about to unfold. The costume design by Dorothy Jeakins, under house designer Charles Le Maire at Fox, did an excellent job of designing the women’s costumes within an 1830s silhouette.  Richard Burton was nominated for Best Supporting Actor – and odd nomination – but Olivia de Havilland was considered the lead actor. The film was also considered, in the then Black & White category, for Best Cinematography, Best Costume, and Best Art Direction. Its only award was a Golden Globe for Best Newcomer for Richard Burton.

Happy 100th birthday Olivia de Havilland,  a National Treasure, nay an International Treasure.








Jean Pierre Dorleac Book 2


Famed costume designer Jean-Pierre Dorléac has had a dynamic and fascinating career designing costumes for film, stage, and television. He recounts many of his experiences in his book: The Naked Truth: An Irreverent Chronicle of Delirious Escapades, published last year by Monad Books.  In his many years in Hollywood he met and worked with some of the legends of show business. His talent and skills in designing, sketching, and even producing costumes at the highest levels took him to Universal Studios during Edith Head’s final years. She befriended him and mentored him in the nuances of working with difficult stars. And of course they shared many stories, one in particular which had always grieved Edith, was the story of the creation of the Sabrina dresses.

Mr. Dorléac granted me an interview to cover some of the highlights of his career and the friendships and working relationships he formed in the industry (both good and bad). There are of course many trials and tribulations he went through, as well as experiences with some famous movie stars that do not flatter their reputations. All of that is in the book. As a basic introduction, it covers the period starting with his winning of the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award for the play Marat/Sade in 1973. It took hard work to capitalize on the win before he worked regularly in film or television.  He was befriended by June Lockhart, and the two were often out on the town. Connections he made would later prove helpful. Through her he met Ann Miller, who gifted him a good part of her personal wardrobe, forming the core of an eventual fabulous 25,000 piece vintage garment collection. Next came a promising film assignment starring Henry Fonda, with the then young stars Eileen Brennan and Susan Sarandon: The Last of the Cowboys. The film turned into a disappointment and even given a new title, but working with Henry Fonda was a great experience. In 1977 Jean-Pierre Dorléac was hired at Universal Studios to design period costumes for a TV movie called The Bastard. The risque title it seemed came from a popular novel by John Jakes, a story leading up to the American Revolution.


Jean-Pierre Dorleac Eleanor Parker - Black 2
Mourning gown sketch of Eleanor Parker from “The Bastard.”


Eighteenth century costume was a specialty of Dorléac’s, costumes he had studied at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in France. But as it turned out, that helped him little for his next work, designing the space-age costumes for the cult-favorite Battlestar Galactica, also done for Universal Television. His next film may not have won great praise, but Good Guys Wear Black (Black Tigers), with Chuck Norris, introduced the use of spandex in action-costumes. Battlestar Galactica was  such a hit that a  TV series was produced, and Jean-Pierre Dorléac’s innovative costumes for the series have become legendary. In addition to his film and television costume designing, he has been very active designing for the private wardrobes of many stars.

I asked Jean-Pierre if there  was still so much fan interest in his Battlestar Galactica costumes. “Oh yes”, he said,  “all the time”. “And I have donated  20 Galactica  costumes to museums,” he added. He said his success with science fiction costumes was a surprise since he never liked uniforms and doesn’t read science fiction.  In 1979-1980 his costume design work alternated between the 18th century and the space-age as he designed for another John Jakes saga: The Rebels, and then Galactica 1980 and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.  The Battlestar Galactica costumes used a variety of innovative materials: Whiting & Davis ( famous for its antique purses) chainmail; chromed plastic; spandex jumpsuits; and specially made macramé.

Jean-Pierre Dorleac CU Fashion Show Models
Jean-Pierre Dorléac and models from the TV 6-hour movie “Valley of the Dolls.” He played himself in the film, narrating a fashion show of evening wear during a prominent scene.

The year 1980 became very significant for Jean-Pierre, he designed for both The Blue Lagoon starring then young It Girl Brooke Shield, and the fan-favorite Somewhere in Time, starring Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour. He said Christopher Reeve was then at the height of his egotism and very demanding about his wardrobe. Edith Head’s advice for how to handle fussy stars worked just as well for men, he discovered.

Jean-Pierre started talking about his book by saying that, “I wanted to stay under the radar” after The Blue Lagoon came out. Brooke Shield was immensely popular at the time and there was intense interest in gossip about her and her mother, all of which he wanted to avoid because of his devotion to them. He was very gratified with his costumes for Somewhere in Time, designed for the period of 1912 and nominated for an Academy Award in Best Costume Design. Jean-Pierre said he immersed himself in the Belle-Epoque, “Looking for the character of Elise McKenna, an actress with advanced  haute-couture taste.”  He spent hours looking  for antique laces and accessories. He was finally able to buy $5000 worth of the important silk and cotton laces through a dealer at an antique bazaar.  He was frustrated in his search for period jewelry, however. But at a lunch Edith Head made him a significant present, a magnificent Rhinestone necklace from 1900 that had once belonged to Broadway actress Ethel Jackson. It was the perfect piece for the gown he had in mind and he couldn’t thank Edith enough for this gift, a very valuable piece.


Jean-Pierre Dorleac Crystal necklace and Earrings from SIT
The hand-polished rhinestone necklace, originally worn by Ether Jackson in the1907 Broadway production of “THE MERRY WIDOW,” given to Jean-Pierre Dorleac by Edith Head. It was used in the film “SOMEWHERE IN TIME” that was nominated for Best Costume Design


Jean-Pierre Dorléac  had not started out wanting to be a costume designer. He was interested as a young adult in the history of fashion and worked briefly at Balmain and Dior learning the basics of couture. He has admired many American costume designers. “Orry-Kelly was my favorite designer,” he says. He likes the classic look of the glamour gowns he designed. He knew and admired Walter Plunkett. “He gave me a book with plates of costumes that were inspirations for him in designing ‘Gone with the Wind.'”

Jean-Pierre Dorleac Plunkett Title Page












Jean-Pierre Dorleac Inside Page 2


Jean-Pierre Dorleac GWTW Sketch
“Modes and Manners of the XIX Century” inspired costume designer Walter Plunkett to design Vivien Leigh’s picnic dress for GONE WITH THE WIND from one of the many hand-colored engravings.


He was friends with Theadora Van Runkle, whose personal style of dress  he greatly admired. “She turned everyone’s head when she entered a room,” he said of her. “She had henna red hair and a constant display of vintage jewelry, outrageous beads around her neck and fascinating bracelets.” Jean-Pierre, who renders amazing costume sketches, greatly admired Theadora’s costume sketches as well. He also knew and admired Yvonne Wood and Noel Taylor. And of course there was Edith Head.

“Edith was always very kind and generous,” said Jean-Pierre. “She was never vicious.” This in Hollywood when the changed order of things had made climbing the ladder more like a game of thrones.  She gave him presents, “that were always extra special,” and these always had a particular reflection on her career. Alfred Hitchcock had copies of the scissors made that Grace Kelly used as a murder weapon in Dial M for Murder. He gave a set to Edith Head, even though she was not the costume designer for the movie.  The scissors and their red leather case with her name on it she gave to Jean-Pierre.

Jean-Pierre Dorleac Edith Head scissors
The desk scissors gifted to Edith Head from Alfred Hitchcock that were copies of the murder weapon from DIAL M FOR MURDER. She gave them to Jean-Pierre, who in turn, was inspired by them to create the logo for THE GREATEST AMERICAN HERO.

Jean-Pierre Dorleac Original LogoJean-Pierre Dorleac TV Guide Cover Logo-Edith Head scissors


Regarding the notorious case of the design credit for Audrey Hepburn’s Sabrina dresses, Jean-Pierre had much to say.  Part of the problem started early. “Audrey Young was a bit player at Paramount who did not like Edith.” he said. “She married Billy Wilder in 1949 and wanted to become a costume consultant.” He said that Edith told him that Audrey Hepburn wanted to get couture items from Givenchy but showed up with sketches she had made herself based on what she had seen at his runway show. And Audrey Hepburn had already gone to director Billy Wilder and he consented to giving her what she wanted. Edith said she then modified the sketches “to give them her touch.” Jean-Pierre said that the cutter-fitter (pattern-maker) at the time stated that all the costumes for Audrey Hepburn in Sabrina were made at Paramount. And also that Marjorie Bennett who played the cook said she saw Audrey Hepburn wearing the “bateau-neckline” Sabrina dress coming out of Wardrobe. Edith said that Audrey ‘s characteristic style was her angular features. So she designed her necklines with a pronounced horizontal line. Jean-Pierre emphasized the importance of the continuity of that neckline in the various costumes Audrey Hepburn wears in the film, from basic house-dress, to a sharp black apron,  to the famed bateau neckline “Sabrina” dress, to the charcoal-grey embroidered ball-gown. All these indicate the obvious intention of the designer – the costume designer – who is developing the character in the story, not designing couture.

With all the kindness that Edith Head showed him at the start and throughout his career, Jean-Pierre was saddened at the tarnished reputation she experienced during her final years at Universal. The film-credit embroglio, along with her advanced years and worsening health allowed some people to disrespect her at the studio. He has done his bit to champion her rightful place in Hollywood movie history.

Jean-Pierre Dorléac has earned his own place in movie and television history. He has been nominated 11 times for the Prime-time Emmy Awards for Outstanding Costume Design, winning for Battlestar Galactica and The LotHe has won two Best Costumes Awards from the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Films for Battlestar Galactica and Somewhere in Time. And he was nominated for a Best Costume Oscar for Somewhere in Time. Today he works mainly in South America and Europe. He raises orchids and epiphyllum cactus plants as a hobby. His book The Naked Truth was well-written, highly informative and entertaining, an inside look at Hollywood from the production end – or how much of a game of thrones (unsavory characters and all) it really is. As a fan of film costume this was a great book to read and a wonderful opportunity to talk to this notable costume designer and author. You will no doubt be able to enjoy it on several levels.