Dysfunctional Sister Act: Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine

Thursday July 30, 2020

Olivia de Havilland
Olivia de Havilland  (Source:Associated Press)

Though not as famous as the feud between Joan Crawford and Bette Davis (chronicled in the FX series "Feud"), the one between sisters Joan Fontaine and Olivia de Havilland is worthy of a miniseries all its own. It can be said to have lasted 90 years — from childhood (the sisters were born 18-months apart with Olivia being the older) through Fontaine's death in 2013 at the age of 96. De Havilland outlasted her sister by eight years, having passed in Paris earlier this week at 104.

Their animosity started at an early age. "Our biggest problem was that we had to share a room," Olivia said in an interview quoted on the Biography website. Joan concurred: ""I remember not one act of kindness from Olivia all through my childhood. She so hated the idea of having a sibling she wouldn't go near my crib."

When Olivia was 9, Page Six reports, she was asked to write a last will and testament. "I bequeath all my beauty to my younger sister, Joan, since she has none," she allegedly wrote. Not to be undone, when she was nine, Joan "decided she would kill her sister," Life Magazine reported in a 1942 profile of the sisters. "She thought it all out carefully: she would let Olivia hit her once, and then again, in silence. But after the third blow, she would plug Olivia between the eyes."

"Though they did occasionally play together, their clashes were frequent, featuring slaps (Joan) and hair-pulling (Olivia)," writes the website Biography. "Joan also accused Olivia of tearing up her outgrown clothes because she didn't want them to go to her younger sister, and also of breaking Fontaine's collarbone when she tried to pull her older sister into a swimming pool."


Joan Fontaine and Judith Anderson in "Rebecca"

As chance would have it about that time Olivia landed the role of Hermia in a famous production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" at the Hollywood Bowl directed by Max Reinhardt. When Warner Brothers decided to make a film based on the production, she repeated the role, which led to a studio contract. Her chemistry with Errol Flynn in "Captain Blood" was electric and the couple made seven films together.

At this time Joan was in Japan, living with her stepfather and his new wife. When she returned Olivia was appearing in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" in San Francisco. "I didn't even recognize her," she told Vanity Fair in 2016. "She had bleached hair. She was smoking. She was no longer my younger sister. I advised her to go to Los Gatos High School and graduate. 'I don't want to,' she told me defiantly. 'I want to do what you are doing.'"

In just a few years she was, making a strong impression in a lesser role in "The Women." Olivia was flying high, having scored the role of Melanie Hamilton in "Gone With the Wind," the most publicized film of its time. For it she received her first Oscar nomination. But in getting the role, she had to ask Jack Warner for a release to work for independent producer David O. Selznick. When Selznick was planning a film of the popular novel "Rebecca" with Alfred Hitchcock, he wanted to Olivia for the role, but knew that Warners wouldn't release her from her contract a second time. Instead, he asked Olivia, "Would you mind if I take your sister? She's perfect."

The role in the enormously popular romance won Fontaine her first Oscar nomination and stardom. The following year, 1941, Hitchcock cast her in "Suspicion," for which she received her second nomination, but this time her competition was Olivia, nominated for "Hold Back the Dawn." It was the first time siblings had been nominated in the same category. On Award night the sisters sat at the same table. When Joan's name was announced for Best Actress, her sister told her to get up and go to the stage; but Fontaine, as she recalled in her biography: "All the animus we'd felt toward each other as children, the hair-pullings, the savage wrestling watches, the time Olivia fractured my collarbone, all came rushing back in kaleidoscopic imagery. My paralysis was total."

It was a moment that shook Olivia as well, the New York Post reports: "Oh, my God," de Havilland reportedly thought after Fontaine's name was announced as the winner. "I've lost prestige with my own sister. And it was true — she was haughty to me after that."

Years later in an interview with the Hollywood Reporter, Joan said: "I was terrified because of Olivia," adding with a laugh, "I'm still afraid of her!" Of beating her sister to an Oscar she said half-jokingly, "That was such a mean thing for me to do."


Olivia de Havilland with her Oscar for "To Each His Own"

In 1946 it was Olivia's turn to win — her first Best Actress Award for "To Each His Own." It was backstage after the ceremony that the moment when the feud began in earnest began. Joan went to congratulate her sister, but Olivia moved away. The moment was captured by a photographer for a movie magazine. The sisters relationship froze at that point. There was a thaw in the early 1960s with the sisters visiting each other, even spending holidays together. But when their mother died in 1975, things turned soured again.

"Joan wrote that she was out of the country at the time of their mother's death and only learned about the memorial service by happenstance," wrote THR. "'I was not invited,' Joan alleged, and it was 'only after burning the telephone wires from coast to coast' and threatening to 'call the press and give them the whole story' that the service was postponed long enough to allow Joan to be in attendance. Moreover, she told People, 'Olivia and the executor of the estate took full charge, disposing of Mother's effects as well as her body — she was cremated — without bothering to consult me.' At the service, the sisters did not speak and, as Joan described it, 'Olivia scattered a handful of ashes, then silently passed the container to me. Thus I said goodbye to my mother. As for Olivia, I had no words at all.'

And things worsened even further when Fontaine published her autobiography "No Bed of Roses" in 1978. "Joan settled this score, most viciously, in interviews, calling the funeral the sisters' 'final schism,'" writes Vanity Fair. While promoting the book Joan said: 'You can divorce your sister as well as your husbands. I don't see her at all and I don't intend to."

The following year the sisters attended the Academy Award ceremony "the Academy's 50th anniversary celebration of the Oscars and Oscar winners," writes THR. "But were seated on opposite ends of the stage for the 'class photo,' apparently at their request, and did not speak with each other at any time. Ten years later, when they were again brought together for an Oscars anniversary celebration, they were still — or again — not on speaking terms; upon discovering that they were staying in adjacent hotel rooms, Joan apparently had her room changed and said she would never return to the Oscars. She never did."

Olivia did return to Oscars, famously in 2003 to introduce the class photo at the Oscar's 75th anniversary.


Olivia de Havilland at the 2003 Academy Awards

What ended the feud was Fontaine's death in 200x at the age of 96. But she may have had the last word on her very complicated relationship with her sister. "I got married first, got an Academy Award first, had a child first. If I die, she'll be furious, because again I'll have got there first!" she once told an interviewer.

For her part, Olivia offered thoughts about on her relationship with Joan. "A feud implies continuing hostile conduct between two parties. I cannot think of a single instance wherein I initiated hostile behavior," e-Havilland-breaks-silence-on-sibling-feud}she told the Associated Press in 2016>.

"But I can think of many occasions where my reaction to deliberately inconsiderate behavior was defensive," she added.

She acknowledged the difficulties in their relationship and said it was "severed" in the end, at which time she nicknamed her "Dragon Lady."

"Dragon Lady, as I eventually decided to call her, was a brilliant, multi-talented person, but with astigmatism in her perception of people and events which often caused her to react in an unfair and even injurious way," she said.

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