Sisters Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine have taken sibling rivalry to a whole new level – their bitter feud is the stuff of Hollywood legend.

Even today, with both of them in their 90s, there is no sign of a reconciliation. Born only a year and three months apart, the two sisters have been rivals from early childhood, both battling for affection from their mother Lilian. Joan once remarked that Olivia “was still too young to accept the arrival of a competitor for the affections of her parents and adoring staff.”

When the two – both beautiful, both gifted actors – started their film careers, they would find themselves competing for the same roles. To avoid confusion, their mother forced Joan to change her name to Fontaine – the name of her step-father – to not take advantage of Olivia’s fame, and forbade her to accept a contract with Warner Bros, “because that is Olivia’s studio”.

De Havilland is probably best known for her role as Melanie Hamilton Wilkes in Gone With the Wind, a role Joan actually auditioned for first. Once she realised the character would be a very plain girl, she suggested her sister as a dig who promptly got the role. Similarly, it was Joan who beat her sister to the role of the second Mrs de Winter in Hitchcock’s Rebecca.  That year, both sisters were Oscar-nominated, Olivia for Gone With The Wind, Joan for Rebecca, neither won.

Their competition also extended to men, who would use their insecurities to further their rivalry. The night before Joan’s wedding to British movie star Brian Aherne , Olivia’s boyfriend — billionaire Howard Hughes — danced with the bride-to-be Joan and tried to talk her out of the marriage, saying he wanted to marry her himself. Joan, shocked by his duplicity, told Olivia, with inevitable consequences for their own relationship.

At the 1946 Oscars, Joan Crawford was scheduled to present an Academy Award, but was replaced by her sister after she pulled out. When de Havilland was announced as the winner, Fontaine refused to even shake her hand. Four decades on, the two were once again booked to attend the Oscars when a booking error put the sisters in adjacent rooms at the Four Seasons Hotel, with Joan demanding that her room be switched, and vowing never to attend to the ceremony again.

Their final break had already come in February 1975, when their mother died from cancer and Joan alleged she had not been invited to the memorial service. Both attended in the end yet didn’t say a single word to each other.

Today, Joan, four times married and divorced, lives with her five dogs at her home in California. Olivia, twice divorced, lives in a Parisian townhouse.

2 Responses

  1. Retta

    Nice article on two actresses. However it was a little difficult to follow and the photograph on the right doesn’t appear to be Joan Fontaine. It is so sad that the real reason for such hatred of each other may never be known and that their parents couldn’t or wouldn’t see it when the girls were young. It sounds as though it was encouraged. I have read bits and pieces on their relationship each article seems to bring a little bit more to the story.

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  2. Ruth Conner

    Enjoyed both sisters acting, and movies. Would be nice to hear they are speaking again before one of them passes on, and left to be bereft, and sorry.

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