The Very Famous Sibling Rivalry Between Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine

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Perhaps Hollywood’s most famous sibling rivalry was the supposed one between the two sisters Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine, which became the stuff for the media for decades. 15 months separated in age, the sisters pursued the same career choice, competed for the same Oscar category, even attained some of the same love interests. However, it was these similarities that further inflamed their feud from childhood to a lifetime.

As children, the sisters didn’t get along. In her 1978 autobiography No Bed of Roses, Joan indicated that part of their problems came from Olivia’s resentment at having to share the attention with a younger sibling. As they lived in the same room, their collisions frequently happened, from when Joan was still in the crib to their teenage years. The supposed bullying started with Olivia’s picking on Joan, then escalated to hair-pulling, clothes-tearing and even downright fighting, with an incident caused by Olivia that led to Joan’s collarbone fractured. Afterwards, the mistreatment turned more mental, with Olivia reportedly publishing a fake will that read “I bequeath to my sister the ability to win boy’s hearts, which she does not have at present,” as she was the editor of their high school newspaper.

In order to introduce her daughters to great works of art, the well-versed mother taught the sisters diction and elocution at a young age, which led to both of the sisters developing an interest in the arts and particularly in acting. But it was Olivia to enter the film career in Hollywood first, after fortunately getting the spotlight in the Max Reinhardt’s Hollywood Bowl production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. She later became a marquee attraction by co-starring opposite Errol Flynn in a series of eight films for over six years – most noteworthy The Adventures of Robin Hood in 1938. Meanwhile, Joan was told by her mother to not pursue work at Warner Bros. since that was “Olivia’s studio” and forced to change her stage name to Fontaine, her stepfather’s name, because “two de Havillands on the marquee would be too many.”

1940s. Joan Fontaine and Olivia de Havilland smiling at one another while attending an event at the Hollywood Canteen, Los Angeles, California.

Their feud reached new heights at the events of the 1939 classic Gone With the Wind, when Joan recalled that she was turned down for the role Melanie for being “too stylish,” then generously suggested her sister to George Cukor. Olivia earned her first Oscar nomination for the part and made no mention of this. The year after Gone With the Wind won the Best Picture Oscar, the statuette went to Rebecca, and Joan was nominated for Best Actress for the first time.

Their climactic showdown of a lifetime was brought out for the whole Hollywood to see in 1942, when Olivia and Joan were both nominated for Best Actress at the 14th Academy Awards, making them the first pair of siblings to compete for the same Oscar category. When the announcement of Joan’s winning for Suspicion was made, the attendees found themselves surprised at the scene of Olivia seizing Joan’s hand and crowing, “We’ve got it!”, for they had hopefully expected that the losing sister would fly into rage or burst into tears. Olivia’s night of triumph came in 1947, as she won the Best Actress Oscar for To Each His Own. However, when Joan advanced towards her sister to congratulate, Olivia shied away from her, leaving the other sister with a bewildered expression.

1947. Olivia de Havilland turning away from sister Joan Fontaine. Photo by Hymie Fink of Photoplay.

Joan made quite a famous quip to People while she was promoting her autobiography in 1978, that “Olivia has always said I was first at everything – 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!” Back in the day, a woman getting married was seen as a huge step on completing life, therefore Joan tying the knot before her older sister was considered to be something of an accomplishment – ironically, with the actor Brian Aherne, whom Olivia once dated. Their relationship became further complicated, even resulted in a years-long cold war following Joan’s mean remark upon Olivia’s newlywed husband Marcus Goodrich, that “he has had four wives and written one book. Too bad it’s not the other way around.”

Over the years, theirs seemed to be a hot and cold relationship, such as when the sisters spent Christmas together at Joan’s New York apartment in 1961, or attended a party of Marlene Dietrich in 1967. Things suddenly became much worse after the passing of their mother in 1975. Joan accused her sister of not informing her when she was out of the country, and only received an invitation to the memorial service after threatened to give the press the whole story. Joan described the occasion to People, “She scattered a handful of ashes over the grave site and then silently passed the container to me. Not one word was exchanged. I think it is so ironic that the death of this marvelous woman was responsible for our final schism.”

The nature of the talented sisters’ relationship has been reported for decades by the media that it has become firmly established in Hollywood legends. However, when Scott Feinberg from The Hollywood Reporter interviewed both of them, Joan furiously denied the rivalry. “This ‘Olivia feud’ has always irritated me because it has no basis. To this day it has no basis!” She told him. “Olivia and I have never had a quarrel. We have never had any dissatisfaction. We have never had hard words.” Whether their feud was fact, fiction or something in between, people who were not in charges will never know for sure.

Below are 24 photos of the two sisters together:

1934. Sisters Olivia de Havilland (left) and Joan Fontaine at a party in Saratoga, California.

1939, January 13. Olivia de Havilland and her sister, Joan Fontaine attending a party at Warner Bros. Studios in Burbank, California.

1940s. Sisters Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine smiling at one another.

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