Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Joan Fontaine and Olivia de Havilland's Feud (Photoplay, 1940-1943)

Good afternoon! Sorry for the delay, things were crazy around the library this morning!

If you're not up on your golden age of the studio system feuds, boy, have I got a doozy of a story to tell you today about two of the most estranged celebrities the Hollywood hills ever saw. Actress Joan Fontaine famously quipped of her sister, Olivia de Havilland, in a 1978 interview, “I married first, won the Oscar before Olivia did, and if I die first, she’ll undoubtedly be livid because I beat her to it!” And what's more...damned if she didn't do it! Both women were among the few living classic Hollywood screen beauties until Sunday, when Fontaine passed away at her California home at the age of 96. De Havilland, a year older and half a world away in France, released a statement yesterday expressing that she was "shocked and saddened" by her sister's death, buuuut...those might be a little stronger adjectives than behooves the end of a sixty plus year antipathy between the two Academy Award winners. They are the only siblings to win that industry honor in the same category. Joan won Best Actress in 1942 for  Suspicion, and Olivia the same in 1947 for To Each His Own and in 1950 for The Heiress (Olivia was nominated for her career-defining role as Melanie in Gone With the Wind, but lost to co-star Hattie McDaniel, the first African American performer to win an Academy Award).

I dug through some old Photoplays, courtesy of the Media History Digital Library, for the contemporaneous scoop on their hate-hate relationship. Let's take a look at the raw material:

She always looks particularly stylish in an updo! I love this hair.

Both girls were born in Tokyo, Japan a year apart, Olivia in 1916 and Joan in 1917. Their British national parents split up in 1919, leaving Olivia, Joan, and their mother Lillian, a RADA trained former actress, to fend for themselves. Lillian relocated to Los Angeles and remarried in the 1920's. Joan  spent a good deal of her formative years locked in a chilly, barely tenable détente with her sister, with occasional truces. Apparently the animosity between the two started day one. "Olivia so hated the idea of having a sibling that she wouldn't go near my crib," Joan told People magazine in 1978. Things didn't get much better from there. In her autobiography, No Bed of Roses, a then-sixty-one year old Fontaine tells how a precociously literate Olivia tortured her, at age five, with vivid readings from the Bible of Jesus's crucifixion, to the point that Joan would flee the house. "To this day, " she wrote, half a century having passed in the meantime, "I cannot look at a statue of Christ on the crucifix...without that same anguish recurring." Joan was forbidden by Olivia to speak to her on the school grounds during recess, when the more popular sister would be gaggled up her friends. At sixteen, in a fit of pique, older Olivia trounced Joan so badly that she broke her sister's collarbone. And on, and on. The book's preface asserts that Fontaine has "no wish to...air the family linen", but don't a few details like that make you wish you had even more of an inside line on these girls' childhoods! 

Watching you, watching me...
When Olivia started acting under their shared last name, Joan was forbidden by her sister to use "de Havilland" professionally.  "She was always a stout believer in primogeniture," said Joan, who was to go by "Joan Burfield" and "Joan St. John" before settling on "Fontaine", adopting her stepfather's surname under the advice of a fortune teller. Soon, the girls were both getting decent screen reviews, Olivia in a series of swashbuckling adventures on the Warner Brothers lot with my boyfriend, Errol Flynn, and Joan in smaller parts at RKO. 1939 saw Olivia snag a major role in the movie of the century, Gone with the Wind, but her stellar performance as glamorless, self sacrificing Melanie Wilkes was so memorable, I feel like many film fans forgot how utterly beautiful she was in the thirties'. Until I saw a lot of her Flynn movies, I just assumed she was jealous of her sister's good looks, but de Havilland was as gorgeous if not a touch more so than her sister in her heyday. 

They look VERY alike, actually, when both are made up!
In 1940, Fontaine won an important role of her own-- that of the nameless second Mrs. de Winter in the screen adaptation of Daphne du Maurier's smash bestseller, Rebecca. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starring a drop. dead. gorgeous. Laurence Olivier as Maxim de Winter, the production and resultant picture were stellar. Joan had also gotten married in the meantime to a fellow actor, each of the principals in the wedding party having almost stood the other up at the altar before eventually tying the knot. Asked on set by Olivier, "Who's the chap you married?", Joan proudly replied, "Brian Aherne".... to which the future Sir Larry replied, "Couldn't you do better than that?" OUCH. Catty thing. I like Aherne, but who I am to judge (he was much better as a character actor in the fifties' than as a leading man in the thirties', I'll grant you, and by Joan's account, a rotten first husband). Click on the images below for a joint interview BA and JF did, comparing each other to contemporary stars, from Photoplay:

Careerwise, by 1942, both sisters were nominated for the same award, Best Actress, which Joan won and Olivia did her best to act sanguine about (Fontaine recalls in her book that she was terrified of having incurred the elder sister's wrath, but Olivia was gracious). I haven't seen the movie de Havilland was nominated for (Hold Back the Dawn, with Charles Boyer), but Fontaine was great in her pairing with a possibly homicidal Cary Grant in Suspicion...I had a chance to see it again at the Belcourt during a Hitchcock retrospective, and Fontaine's limpid brown eyes and puppyish devotion to Grant, even as he's planning to murder her, was as effective seventy years later as it was when it was shot.

With her sister at the ceremony, and with Gary Cooper, who also won that year for Sergeant York.
What was interesting to me, in trying to dissect the autobiography and some interviews and copy from the forties', was that there seemed to be no single incident that set the sisters into a confirmed state of antagonism. While Joan insists that their mother's funeral, and her sister's handling of it (Joan was on tour and didn't find out about the services or her mother's death until the last minute, wasn't invited to the memorial, went anyway), became the proverbial nail in the coffin of their relationship, long before that, Olivia and Joan spent most of their lives in just barely concealed open hostility. Asked for a quote on Olivia's first  husband, when news of de Havilland's wedding to the screenwriter broke, Joan fired off, "All I know about him is he has had four wives and written one book. Too bad it's not the other way around". Joan's congratulations, when Olivia finally won her Oscar, were spurned and the winning sister cut the other cold at the ceremony itself, just as a Photoplay photographer captured the moment for posterity. At the birth of her first child, Joan says, "I couldn't call Aunt Olivia, because at the time we were having a frisson." They argued in the forties' over Howard Hughes (Olivia was smitten with him, he was smitten with Joan, Joan was not at all interested in him...so it goes), and later seemed to have little to no contact, long before their mother died. It seems like some people were just born not to get along.

Here's a little on the first press coverage of the feud from a September 1941 issue of Photoplay. The pages are too large to format full size on the blog, but click the image and then click again to enlarge the text and read the article, with gems like "Olivia and Joan, dearly beloved enemies". Ah! The purple prose of the old fan magazines! But maybe not too exaggerated, given the situation.

A 1942 article about her marriage to Aherne, also lining out the problems she had with her sister, and here again,  you'll need to click through to get the print up to normal size:

I have to get back to work, but read these articles and tell me what YOU think about the de Havilland/Fontaine lifelong feud! Are you fans of their films? What have you seen either in that you particularly admired? The idea of this row going on for that long, for so little reason other than "basic dislike", makes you wonder what strong personalities these women must have been to be so set in their ways as to make any reconciliation out of the question! I wish de Havilland had written her own memoir (she did write one book, which I reviewed in this blog post, but it's mainly about her experiences as an expat married to a Frenchman in l'Hexagone)...who knows! Maybe at 97 she still will!

That's all for today! Have a great Tuesday, I'll see you back here tomorrow. Til then!


  1. They're both so beautiful, but sounds like they differed so much in personality. Such a shame they never saw eye to eye... it makes me want to be more forgiving of my siblings!

  2. What great post, I had no idea they where such rivals! And I can't believe I didn't hear about Joan passing last Sunday.. I just read that Joan actually had two daughters whom she had no contact with either.. that's so sad.

    I have only seen Olivia in Robin Hood and Gone With The Wind and Joan in Suspicion and I liked all three of those movies just as much! I was planning on watching Rebecca soon, so I think tonight will be a good occasion.

  3. I am a fan of their films-I do prefer Olivia to Joan though. Joan had this breathless way of speaking sometimes, that I don't enjoy that much. I do love Joan in The Women, and Olivia in Four's A Crowd (she is hilarious in this) and To Each His Own. They are both absolutely gorgeous, the camera loved their faces!

    I have two sisters who no longer speak to each other-so this kind of feud is unfortunately all too familiar to me...



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