Backlot’s Dueling Divas Blogathon: Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine

This post is for Backlot’s Dueling Divas Blogathon!  You can find the other submissions here.

I am late.  Really late.  I was supposed to have this post up yesterday and somewhere between the baby, the five-hour car drive, and technical difficulties I became late.  So, I apologize wholeheartedly and humbly submit my contribution to the blogathon.

After the death of Joan Fontaine in 2013, Olivia de Havilland released this statement:

“I was shocked and saddened to learn of the passing of my sister, Joan Fontaine, and my niece, Deborah, and I appreciate the many kind expressions of sympathy that we have received.”

Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine were sisters, as many people know.  However, their relationship was an estranged one and the reasons are many and varied.  It also depends on who you ask because both sisters had different perspectives on their relationship.  The death of Joan Fontaine in December of 2013 put a far more tragic spin on the estrangement and inspired me to consider the origins of this feud.

Sibling Rivalry

Fifteen months after Olivia was born along came her sister Joan.  According to Joan, Olivia was not pleased to have a baby sister and made her displeasure known.  “Olivia so hated the idea of having a sibling that she wouldn’t go near my crib,” Joan told People magazine in 1978.  She claimed that Olivia so hated the idea of sharing her parent’s attentions that she started beating up on Joan almost immediately.  It ranged from reading loudly from the bible while Joan was trying to nap, tearing clothes, pulling hair, and even a broken collarbone.  In high school Joan relates that Olivia, as editor of their high school newspaper, published a fake obituary that stated, “I bequeath to my sister the ability to win boys’ hearts, which she does not have at present.”  You might notice that all of this comes from Joan’s point of view and there is a good reason for that.  Olivia never would speak to this aspect of their relationship.  However, it is worth noting that the majority of this information came about when Joan Fontaine was promoting her 1978 autobiography.

The Acting Bug and Mother’s Love

Both women expressed an interest in acting early on, perhaps coming from a desire to please their mother who was a former actress.  After divorcing their father, their mother moved the two girls to Los Angeles to provide a better climate for the sickly Joan.  Olivia got a film career first, serving as an understudy for Gloria Stuart in Max Reinhardt’s production of A MIDSUMMER’S NIGHT DREAM.  When Ms. Stuart left the production, Olivia was given her moment in the spotlight which landed her a seven-year contract with Warner Brothers.  Shortly thereafter she was cast opposite Errol Flynn and the rest, as they say, is history.  Meanwhile Joan was serving as Olivia’s chauffeur, as her sister did not know how to drive, and one night was approached by a studio worker who offered to help make Joan into a movie star as well.  However, Joan recalled, when she mentioned it to her mother she was told that Warner Brothers was “Olivia’s studio’.  Joan decided that two de Havillands on the silver screen would not work, and so decided to adopt her step father’s last name of Fontaine.  She soon signed a two picture deal with RKO before heading over to MGM to film her role in THE WOMEN.

The Oscars

In 1941 Joan Fontaine was nominated for the Best Actress Oscar for her role in SUSPICION.  However, she planned not to attend the ceremony as she believed that if she hadn’t won for what she considered a superior performance the year before (for REBECCA), she certainly wouldn’t win this year.  She was only convinced the attend when Olivia showed up on set with a dress in hand.  Olivia was also nominated for the same Oscar for her role in HOLD BACK THE DAWN, but when the envelope was opened it was Joan’s name that was announced and not her sister.  In her autobiography Joan relates, “I stared across the table, where Olivia was sitting directly opposite me. ‘Get up there, get up there,’ Olivia whispered commandingly. Now what had I done? All the animus we’d felt toward each other as children, the hair-pullings, the savage wrestling watches, the time Olivia fractured my collarbone, all came rushing back in kaleidoscopic imagery. My paralysis was total.”  Joan later said that she took very little joy in her Oscar due to many people noting that she should have won it the year prior for REBECCA.  Then came the 1947 Oscars.  That year Olivia was nominated in the best actress category again, this time for TO EACH HIS OWN.  She won the Oscar and it was after she had accepted the award that Joan tried to congratulate her.  She tried to shake hands with her but found herself snubbed.  “I started to shake hands with her, but she seemed very occupied and busy,” Fontaine told the Associated Press days later. “Maybe she didn’t see me.”  Olivia did see her and told the same AP review, “Our relations have been quite strained for some time — I couldn’t change my attitude.”

Men

Olivia would later tell of how Joan had said some unkind things about author Marcus Goodrich, Olivia’s first husband.  Marcus had been married four times which lead Joan to crack, “It’s too bad that Olivia’s husband has had so many wives and only one book.”  This comment eventually made its way back to Olivia and caused a severe fracture to their already tense relations, and Olivia was unwilling to speak to Joan until she apologized.  For her part, Joan seemed in no hurry to do so.  In a 1957 interview, her only interview in which she spoke about her feud with Joan, Olivia said “Joan is very bright and sharp and has a wit that can be cutting. She said some things about Marcus that hurt me deeply.”  The sisters had also been said to fight over boyfriends, including Howard Hughes.

Mother

Whatever started the feud, one thing cemented it.  In 1975 Olivia and Joan’s mother died and was soon cremated.  Joan claimed that Olivia and the executor of her mother’s estate took over and never consulted with her regarding the cremation.  She also said that they did not invite her to memorial ceremony, which attended any way.  Olivia, on the other hand, claimed that Joan said she did not wish to attend.  After this debacle the sisters were not seen together in public for years.

But is it TRUE?

Over the years several interviews have been done with the sisters and there were indications that the feud was thawing, or at least was not as bad as it was made out to be.  Then in 2013, Scott Feinberg of the Hollywood Reporter published an article about his dealings with the sisters.  In it was this passage:

“…At the end of my earlier phone conversation with Joan, who had already made several references to Olivia over the course of a perfectly coherent and interesting conversation, I felt that I had to at least try — and I was shocked by what I was told: “This ‘Olivia feud’ has always irritated me because it has no basis. To this day it has no basis!”
So, I asked Joan, are the two of you friends? “Of course!” Wow — well, I’m glad to know that, I responded. I guess some people like to sensationalize things. “Oh, right — they have to. Two nice girls liking each other isn’t copy.” So today you and Olivia are in communication? You talk to each other? “Absolutely.” Wow. Well, that’s amazing. I’m so happy to hear that. “Oh, sure.” Later in the conversation, I felt that I had to clarify what I had heard earlier. Was there ever a time when you two did not get along to the point where you wouldn’t speak with one another? “Never. Never. There is not a word of truth about that.” Why do you think people believe that? “Oh, I have no idea. It’s just something to say.” Well, that’s not fair to you. “Oh, it’s terrible.” And have you seen Olivia over the years? “I’ve seen her in Paris. And she came to my apartment in New York often.” I have to say that this is such a nice thing to hear because I was sad to think that you two were on poor terms. “Let me just say, Olivia and I have never had a quarrel. We have never had any dissatisfaction. We have never had hard words. And all this is press.”

Is this true?  Being that Olivia has been loathe to talk about her personal life with her sister, we may never know for sure.  I would like to think that it is, that whatever slights or insults had come about during their younger days had been forgotten or at least forgiven.  These two women, these two fabulous actresses, these two sisters…I hope that they did manage to be friends again.

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