Joan Fontaine death: Oscar winner dies at 96, but will sister Olivia de Havilland mourn her?

The 1940s film stars were sibling rivals and rarely spoke

Los Angeles

The 1942 Academy Awards were a watershed for Joan Fontaine, and not just because she won an Oscar for her performance in Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion. In doing so, the 24-year-old triumphed over her older sister, Olivia de Havilland, who had also been nominated. It marked the beginning of a public feud between the siblings that apparently remained unresolved when Fontaine died at her home in California on Sunday, aged 96.

Noel Beutel, a friend of the actress, saw her last week. “She was an amazing woman, she had such a big heart and she will be missed,” he said.

Fontaine, who is survived by her sister, once told The Hollywood Reporter: “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.”

Joan de Beauvoir de Havilland was born in Tokyo in 1917, the second daughter of British parents. Two years later her mother Lillian moved with Joan and Olivia to California, divorced their lawyer father Walter, and married retail executive George Fontaine.

Joan Fontaine at home with her sister Olivia De Havilland, wearing the plain dress, in the 1940s Joan Fontaine at home with her sister Olivia De Havilland, wearing the plain dress, in the 1940s (Rex Features) Though Fontaine was opposed to his step-daughters’ pursuit of acting, Joan would take his surname as her stage name. At 15, she returned to Japan to live with her father, but moved back to the US in 1934 to live with her mother and sister in Hollywood.

De Havilland was the first to enjoy screen success, starring alongside Errol Flynn in Captain Blood and The Adventures of Robin Hood, and taking a significant supporting part in Gone With the Wind.

Meanwhile, Fontaine struggled to stand out in B-movies and minor roles. Her big break came in 1940, when Alfred Hitchcock cast her opposite Laurence Olivier in his screen adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca. She and Olivier were nominated  for Oscars, and the film won Best Picture.

Her next film was Suspicion, in which she played a meek newlywed who thinks her husband, played by Cary Grant, is plotting her murder. Fontaine and de Havilland had fought bitterly as children, but Fontaine’s Oscar win brought their rivalry into the open. The two often competed for the same roles – and even the same men. When de Havilland won an Oscar of her own in 1947, a photographer captured the moment she snubbed Fontaine’s attempts to congratulate her.

The sisters finally stopped speaking altogether in 1975, following their mother’s death from cancer. Fontaine claimed de Havilland failed to invite her to the memorial service, while de Havilland said Fontaine had told her she was too busy to attend. Fontaine later told an interviewer: “My sister was born a lion, and I a tiger, and in the laws of the jungle, they were never friends.”

Fontaine’s career thrived throughout the 1940s and 1950s, with acclaimed performances including the title role in Jane Eyre (1944), with Orson Welles. She earned another Oscar nod for The Constant Nymph (1943) and was critically lauded for her turn in 1948’s Letter From an Unknown Woman, directed by Max Ophüls. Yet she faded from prominence in the 1960s, and her last film role was as a schoolteacher in the 1966 horror The Devil’s Own, after which her talents were limited to television movies and soap operas.

In her 1978 memoir, No Bed of Roses, Fontaine wrote that Hollywood careers “often begin by chance, [and] can evaporate just as quickly”.

Fontaine was married four times, beginning in 1939, when she wed the British actor Brian Aherne. She divorced her last husband, Sports Illustrated editor Alfred Wright Jr, in 1969. She also claimed to have turned down a marriage proposal from the eccentric tycoon Howard Hughes.

She is survived by her daughter Deborah Dozier, from her second marriage to actor and producer William Dozier, and by her adopted daughter Martita. De Havilland, who is 97, lives in Paris.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Novelist Martin Amis at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival

books
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'

After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violence

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Williams will be given a 'meaningful remembrance' at the Emmy Awards

film
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Arctic Monkeys headline this year's Reading and Leeds festivals, but there's a whole host of other bands to check out too
music
Arts and Entertainment
Blue singer Simon Webbe will be confirmed for Strictly Come Dancing

tv
Arts and Entertainment
'The Great British Bake Off' showcases food at its most sumptuous
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Cliff Richard performs at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam on 17 May 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch will voice Shere Khan in Andy Serkis' movie take on The Jungle Book

film
Arts and Entertainment
DJ Calvin Harris performs at the iHeartRadio Music Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
    What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

    What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

    Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
    Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

    Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

    Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
    Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

    Radio 1’s new top ten

    The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
    Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

    Florence Knight's perfect picnic

    Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
    Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

    Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

    The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
    Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

    Mark Hix's summery soups

    Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
    Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

    Tim Sherwood column

    I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
    Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

    Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

    The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition