★ Actresses Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine, pictured in 1944. Sisters as well as fellow film stars, the two women are the only siblings ever to have both won Best Actress at the Academy Awards. While that is undeniably noteworthy, their notoriously strained personal relationship has garnered far more attention.
The seeds of their lifelong rivalry were established in early childhood, although the sisters give wildly differing accounts of their formative years. Olivia has repeatedly asserted that she “adored” her younger sister, while Joan told an interviewer in 1978, “I regret that I remember not one act of kindness from Olivia all through my childhood”. Some facts both sisters acknowledged, however – hair-pulling fights, teasing, and getting the other into trouble informed many of their childhood interactions, as did Joan’s resentment of Olivia’s alleged status as the ‘favourite’ daughter. This perceived inequality was amplified by Joan’s hatred of being forced to wear Olivia’s hand-me-down dresses and shoes. Their mother’s overprotective attitude to the frequently ill Joan also caused tension between them, with the oft-repeated expression “Livvie can, Joan can’t” resulting in Joan being prevented from participating in activities Olivia was allowed to enjoy.
Sibling rivalry in childhood developed into professional rivalry as adults. As the first to become an actress, Olivia’s career overshadowed her younger sister’s for several years. Joan was even compelled to adopt a different surname, as she was told by her mother that she could not use the family name ‘de Havilland’ in case she overshadowed Olivia’s already established career. Tensions increased when both sisters were nominated for Best Actress at the Academy Awards in 1942 – de Havilland for Hold Back the Dawn, and Fontaine for Suspicion. When the award went to Fontaine, she rejected de Havilland’s gracious attempts to congratulate her, leaving her sister offended and publicly embarrassed, and sparking a flurry of press stories about the “war of the star sisters”.
Their relationship became further strained in 1946, after Fontaine made disparaging remarks to an interviewer about de Havilland’s new husband, Marcus Goodrich. She stated, “All I know about him is that he’s had four wives and written one book. Too bad it’s not the other way around.” Deeply hurt by her sister’s remarks, de Havilland waited for, but never received, an apology. The following year, de Havilland won her first Academy Award for her performance in To Each His Own. Echoing their earlier Oscars encounter, Fontaine claimed that de Havilland had rejected her attempts to offer a congratulatory handshake, with the allegation prompting another rash of tabloid stories about their feud. The incident also caused a five-year rift between the two, during which neither would speak to the other, and it may even have led to an estrangement between Fontaine and her own daughters, who maintained their relationship with their aunt, de Havilland.
A thaw in relations followed de Havilland’s divorce from Goodrich in 1953, with the sisters resuming contact and even spending Christmas together in 1961. The reconciliation was not to last though, and the final severing of ties occurred in 1975 when they disagreed over how their mother should be treated for cancer. Things became increasingly bitter when Fontaine (who was on tour with a production of Cactus Flower) claimed that de Havilland (who had remained at her mother’s side during her illness) had not told her about their mother’s death. De Havilland had in fact sent a telegram, but due to Fontaine’s travelling it took two weeks to reach her. At the funeral, the sisters exchanged no words and in her 1978 book No Bed of Roses, Fontaine labelled the moment the “final schism”.
Years of estrangement became decades, and as de Havilland and Fontaine both entered their 90s, it was commonly joked that each sister was “trying to outlive the other”. The opposite may have been the case however, as Joan famously once declared “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!”. Although she was the younger sibling, Fontaine did indeed ‘get there first’, when she died on 15th December 2013 at the age of 96. The following day, de Havilland released a rare public statement to the media, saying she was “shocked and saddened” by the news of her sister’s death. Characteristically reticent about the subject of her sister, de Havilland made no mention of the acrimonious side of their relationship – a bitter personal feud which had lasted so long, and which had now ended so definitively.