Chalk it up to older sister bullying or perhaps to the usual frictions of sisters engaged in a feverishly competitive business. But there’s no denying that the Oscar for Hollywood’s longest lasting (and perhaps most intense) sibling rivalry goes to….Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine.
Hello, everybody. Joe Morella and Frank Segers, your classic movie guys, here today with the first of what we hope with be semi-regular looks at un-brotherly and un-sisterly behavior between classic Hollywood siblings.
The De Havilland-Fontaine contretemps are certainly the most long lasting since both grand dames are still alive at this writing. Olivia turns 96 in July while Joan passes the 95 mark in late October. (The daughters of a British patent attorney, Olivia retained the family surname while Joan, for obvious reasons, was compelled to change hers, and borrowed her stern stepfather’s monicker.)
Having lived in Paris for the last some 60 years, Olivia was awarded two years ago the Legion d’honneur, the French government’s prestigious award.
The French have great memories for the accomplishments of Hollywood’s classic stars, and deHavilland was feted not only for her chosen place of residency but for her popular identification as Melanie Hamilton Wilkes in Gone With The Wind and for her two best-actress Oscar roles, respectively, as an unwed mother forced to give up her son in 1946’s To Each His Own and as the homely heroine pursued by a dazzling but devious Montgomery Clift in 1949’s The Heiress.
The European press covered the event, and noted that Fontaine was NOT present for the ceremonies conducted at Elysee Palace in Paris by then President Nicolas Sarkozy.
These two…have been at loggerheads for most of their lives, thundered the Daily Mail, the British newspaper. At times, they were in competition for the same men… Sometimes they fought for the same leading roles…Olivia and Joan have not spoken a word to one another for more than 35 years.
Not sure we buy that, but a look at Joan’s 1978 autobiography, No Bed of Roses, uncovers many highly unflattering references to her older sibling. Here are some:
— I regret that I remember not one act of kindness from (Olivia) all through my childhood.
— One July day in 1933, enraged by something I said or did, Olivia threw me down on the poolside flagstone border, jumped on top of me and fractured my collarbone.
— There has always been great curiosity about the relationship between Olivia and me. From birth we were not encouraged by our parents or nurses to be anything but rivals, and our careers only emphasized the situation. As both Olivia and I can be classified as achievers, our impetus may well be the sibling rivalry that still exists. Perhaps without it we might never have striven to excel….
Well, you get the idea.
Joan’s book also documents (from her point of view) several social gaffes perpetrated by Olivia through the years including one at the Academy Award ceremonies at which DeHavilland was awarded her To Each His Own Oscar.
I, standing close by, went over to congratulate her as I would have done to any winner, wrote Joan. She took one look at me, ignored my outstretched hand, clutched her Oscar to her bosom, and wheeled away…Olivia’s reaction was totally inexplicable to me.
A more ticklish situation at the Awards ceremony occurred five years earlier when both Joan and Olivia were up for best actress citations — Joan for Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion and Olivia for Hold Back The Dawn. As soon as the previous year’s winner Ginger Rogers announced from stage that “the winner is…Joan…,” Fontaine recalls that, I froze.
I stared across the table, where Olivia was sitting directly opposite me. ‘Get up there, get up there,’ she whispered commandingly. Now what had I done!
All the animus we’d felt towards each other as children, the hair-pullings, the savage wrestling matches, the time Olivia fractured my collarbone, all came rushing back in Kaleidoscopic imagery. My paralysis was total. I felt Olivia would spring across the table and grab me by the hair.
I felt age four, being confronted by my older sister. Damn it, I’d incurred her wrath again!
Included in Joan’s autobiography is a photo of middle-aged Olivia and Joan posing with their aged mother. The caption reads: “Last family portrait.” All three are laughing.