Sibling rivalry: Hollywood's oldest feud

Screen legends Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine have always had one problem: each other. Now in their nineties, the antagonism goes on. Rupert Cornwell reports

Thursday 15 May 2008 00:00 BST

Whatever happened to Olivia and Joan? Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine that is, among the brightest jewels of 1940s Hollywood, Oscar-winners both but also sisters locked into an ancient sibling rivalry that, according to accounts from the tinsel city, is alive and well even though both are now in their 90s, grandes dames from a vanished era.

Eight decades or more, you would have thought, is time enough to let bygones be bygones. But in this sad, remarkable but all too human instance, the answer appears to be, no. A couple of weeks ago, the Academy of Motion Pictures which organises the Oscars held a bash honouring the late actress Bette Davis on the 100th anniversary of her birth. In so doing, they unwittingly laid bare this celebrity feud for the ages.

Naturally, Joan and Olivia, among the closest surviving contemporaries of Bette Davis were invited. According to insiders, Olivia – who lives in Paris – at first let it be known she could not manage so long a trip. Upon learning her sister would not be coming, Joan agreed to attend. Then Olivia decided after all she would be there in person to commemorate Davis, her friend with whom she had worked in films such as Hush Sweet Charlotte. So Joan in the end took a pass. There are some wounds, it seems, that time cannot heal.

That Bette Davis was indirectly responsible for this latest contretemps, is fitting. If the real-life sibling rivalry between Hollywood stars has any equivalent on the silver screen, it is in the brilliantly macabre Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? that Davis made in 1962 with a rival of her era, another Joan, this one Joan Crawford.

In the film, Davis plays Jane, the star child actress, fallen on booze and hard times, who is fated to have to look after her elder, far more successful, but now crippled famous sister Blanche. Neither Olivia de Havilland nor Joan Fontaine of course ever lost their lustre, nor have they ever behaved to each other with the sadism and criminal intent manifested by Jane and Blanche. On the other hand, even in their bitter declining years, Jane and Blanche were striplings by comparison.

Olivia and Joan were born to an English couple just one year apart in Tokyo, in 1916 and 1917. The father was a patent lawyer, their mother an actress. Both girls suffered from ill health, and when Olivia was just two, the family moved to California, where her parents divorced and the father returned to Japan.

By the time she was 19, both Joan (who had by now taken the stage name of Fontaine) and Olivia were already starting to make a name for themselves in Hollywood. They were not only setting out on glittering careers, but with each successive step up the ladder of stardom more salt seems to have been rubbed into the raw emotions that by all accounts had divided them from their childhood.

An industry as dynastic and interconnected as Hollywood has had its share of feuds, but the Fontaine/de Havilland estrangement is one for the ages. Theirs is no petulant exchange of talcum powder, forgiven or forgotten the next morning. For seven decades, maybe nine decades, it has separated two of the leading actresses of their generation.

They were the first sisters to win Oscars, and the first to be nominated for best actress in the same year, a co-incidence that repeated itself in 1965 with Lynn and Vanessa Redgrave. In that particular family there was no feud, and in any case neither Redgrave won.

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Not so in 1941. The previous year, Joan had been nominated for her role as the sweet and unworldly second Ms De Winter in Alfred Hitchcock's masterpiece Rebecca, based on the novel by Daphne du Maurier. Indeed, the feud between the sisters may have been sealed at that moment. One story is that both were chasing the part, and Joan got it. In the event, the Oscar went to Ginger Rogers, but within 12 months they were in contention again, Joan for her role in Suspicion, her second film with Hitchcock, and Olivia for Hold Back The Dawn. The award was presented by Rogers, and the winner was ... Joan Fontaine. Years later, Joan would remember how she froze as her name rang out, with her older sister sitting next to her.

As Olivia told her to "Get up there," Joan burst into tears, she wrote of the moment. All the resentments and jealousies of an uncomfortably shared childhood returned; "the hair-pulling, the savage wrestling matches, the time Olivia fractured my collar bone, all came rushing back in kaleidoscopic imagery. My paralysis was total ... I felt age four, being confronted by my older sister. Damn it! I had incurred her wrath again."

Such feuds, of course, make glorious copy. The imagined tiffs between Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are fodder enough for today's supermarket tabloids. But imagine the coverage if Jolie and, say, Gwyneth Paltrow were siblings, and truly at each other's throats. That is the star megawattage of the two de Havilland sisters in their day.

In a historical context, it is even more remarkable. If Rebecca was indeed the match that lit the fuse of rivalry, the sisters have been at it since Hitler invaded France. But by Joan's account, the feud extends from the 1920s; in other words they were fighting with each other when Charles Lindbergh first flew the Atlantic.

Of course, the quarrel may have been exaggerated on occasion for publicity purposes; Joan at one stage claimed the whole thing had been cooked up by studio PR people. But the events on that same Oscars stage five years later suggest otherwise.

In 1946 Olivia was nominated again, for To Each His Own, and this time she won. The prize was to have been presented by Joan Crawford. But Crawford pulled out, and the Academy, perhaps believing that there could be better setting for reconciliation, replaced her with Fontaine.

So Joan it was who called her sister's name, and Olivia stepped up to the podium. The grudge match, you might have thought, was over, but it was not. Anyone expecting a soft hug of reconciliation, now that honours were finally even, watched as Olivia even refused to shake her younger sister's hand. In 1949, Olivia won a second Oscar, for her role in William Wyler's The Heiress. But the ancient enmity persisted.

By 1975, it is said, they were no longer on speaking terms, after Olivia did not invite Joan to a memorial service for their mother. That was Joan's version. Olivia says she did invite Joan, who was too busy to attend.

In 1987, both were invited to the Oscars awards ceremony in its 60th anniversary year. Instead, the story goes, someone made the error of booking them in next door to each other at the Four Seasons hotel, prompting Joan to have her room switched. Later she was stuck in limo gridlock as she arrived for the ceremony, and was forced to get out and walk, "This is the last Oscars show for me," she is reported to have said. "From now on they can muck it up for themselves."

Today, these legends of the silver screen are 91 and 90 years old. Olivia is the last surviving major cast member of the 1939 epic Gone With The Wind (in which she won her first Oscar nomination, for the part of Melanie, only to be beaten out by Hattie McDaniel, the first black actress to be so honoured). Olivia has been based in Paris since the 1950s, while Joan, apparently in better health, lives in Carmel, California, where she is sometimes seen out with five dogs.

But why can't they make up? Despite Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? most movies heal such rifts in the final reel. But for a couple of nonagenarians, the "happy ending" possibilities are running low. But then again, life can be more complicated, more untidy, and on occasion just plain nastier than the movies.

Siblings can share love, or they can drift apart. But they cannot be indifferent to each other. If they don't get on, the ability to get on each other's nerves, and thus to press their mutual rage button, is encoded in their genes.

Charles Higham, in his 1987 biography, Sisters: The Story of Olivia De Havilland and Joan Fontaine, says Olivia never got used to the idea of a younger sister. She would, apparently, rip up her old clothes that Joan was supposed to wear as hand-me-downs, forcing her to stitch them back together. Joan is said to have resented what she saw as her mother's favouritism for Olivia.

This volatile mix was stirred into the dog-eat-dog, celebrity culture of the movie industry, where the greatest feat of all is to retain a sense of proportion. For Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine, that task proved too great.

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