New Details About the Joan Fontaine-Olivia de Havilland Feud Revealed
THR awards analyst Scott Feinberg's recent interviews with the sisters shed new light on their complicated relationship.
At a luncheon earlier this month, I was seated beside the actresses Laura Dern and Meg Ryan and we began chatting about classic movies, a shared passion of ours. Eventually, the conversation led us to Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine, the legendary Oscar-winning sisters. Within the last nine months I had interviewed both of the nonagenarians for a book that I am writing about old movies for young people; I spoke with Joan, who was living in Carmel, by telephone in March, and Olivia in-person at her home in Paris after the Cannes Film Festival wrapped up in May. Laura and Meg were anxious to know the answer to the same question that every person with whom I spoke after those interviews had asked me: Was "the feud" -- a supposed decades-long cold war between the two sisters -- finally over?
The answer was not so simple.
As kids, Olivia and Joan, who were separated in age by 15 months, didn't really get along. Joan, who was much more open to discussing the feud over the years than Olivia was, suggested in her 1978 best-selling autobiography No Bed of Roses that the root of their problem was Olivia's unhappiness at having to share the attention of her parents with someone else after Joan's birth. Supposedly, Olivia began picking on Joan when the younger sibling was still in the crib and, as they entered adolescence, the bullying escalated to hair-pulling, tearing clothes that were to become hand-me-downs and even outright fighting, with one incident causing a break in Joan's collarbone. Later, the abuse became less physical and more psychological. As editor of their high school newspaper, Olivia apparently published a fake will: "I bequeath to my sister the ability to win boys' hearts, which she does not have at present."
Olivia and Joan both expressed an interest in acting from a young age -- perhaps to try to impress and win the affections of their mother, a former (and future) actress who had divorced their father when they were infants and moved them from Tokyo, where he had worked as a professor and attorney, to Los Angeles, which offered a climate that was thought to be better for the health of sickly young Joan. But it was Olivia who wound up with a film career first. She was cast as the understudy for Gloria Stuart, the well-known film actress (who would one day play the old woman in Titanic), who was playing the part of Hermia in the great Max Reinhardt's highly anticipated Hollywood Bowl production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. When Stuart abruptly left the production for a film gig shortly before opening night, Olivia was given her moment in the spotlight and shined. She was then cast in the all-star big-screen adaptation of the play (1935), which required her to sign a seven-year contract with Warner Bros., and she was shortly thereafter cast opposite Errol Flynn in the first of eight films that they would make together over the next six years -- including The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) -- which helped to turn her into a marquee attraction.
Joan, meanwhile, began serving as Olivia's chauffeur, since Olivia, at the time, didn't know how to drive. Joan recalled to me that one night, while waiting to pick up Olivia at the Warners lot, she was approached by a studio employee who told her that she should be in films and he wanted to help her make that happen -- but when Joan mentioned this to her mother she was told that Warner Bros. was "Olivia's studio" and that she was not to pursue work there. Joan told me that she eventually was forced to accept that, "Two de Havillands on the marquee would be too many, so I had to leave Olivia's distinguished name for her and I took my stepfather's name." Joan got herself an agent and soon signed a two-picture contract at RKO, where she appeared in George Stevens' Damsels in Distress (1937) and Gunga Din (1939) before heading over to MGM to shoot a small part in The Women (1939) for George Cukor.
Meanwhile, David O. Selznick and his independent studio Selznick International Pictures were putting together Gone With the Wind (1939), and virtually every major actress in town wanted to play the part of Scarlett O'Hara. Joan told me that Cukor, the film's initial director, called her in to discuss a part in the picture -- not Scarlett, but rather Melanie -- and, as she recalls: "I made a tremendous mistake and I have regretted it always. Because it was George Cukor, I wore some rather chic clothes. He said, 'Oh, you're much too stylish for the role that I want you to do.' And I said, 'Well, what about my sister?' And he said, 'Who's your sister?' I explained. And he said, 'Thank you.' And that's how Olivia got that role."
Joan's version of events suggests several things: that she was the first choice for Melanie; that Olivia was less stylish than she; and that Olivia only got the part for which she will always be remembered because of Joan's generosity. Olivia's version of how she got the part makes no mention of this, either because it never happened or because she wants it thought that she got the part on her own. Regardless, Olivia told me that Cukor called her up one day and asked if she would be open to doing something "highly illegal," which intrigued her and led her to ask what. He told her that he wanted her to secretly come in and read for the part of Melanie with him and Selznick, even though she was under contract to Warner Bros., and if she seemed right for the part they would find a way to make things work. She came in, and went over well, but when Selznick asked Jack Warner to loan her out for the picture he refused -- until, that is, Olivia secretly met with and convinced Mrs. Warner to lobby on her behalf, which ultimately worked. The rest, as they say, is history.
Gone With the Wind brought Olivia the first of her five Oscar nominations, and her only one in the supporting actress -- as opposed to lead actress -- category. Oscar night, though, proved to be a humiliating experience for her: Olivia, who felt that she should have been nominated in the lead actress category alongside Vivien Leigh, not only had to settle for a supporting nom, but then lost to her co-star Hattie McDaniel, marking the first time that a person of color had ever won an Oscar. Because of her race, McDaniel had been forced to sit in the back of the room near the kitchen, and was as shocked as anyone, save for perhaps Olivia, to hear her name called. Olivia, for her part, would later admit that the loss thrust her into something of a depression for a few weeks, but that she then moved on.
Meanwhile, around the same time, Joan caught her big break: winning the first-rate part of the "second Mrs. De Winter" opposite Laurence Olivier in Alfred Hitchcock's first American film -- also produced by Selznick -- Rebecca (1940). Olivier had wanted his then-lover and future wife Vivien Leigh for the part, and wasn't particularly kind to Joan during the making of the picture. "Hitch" seized upon this and told Joan that none of her co-stars wanted her to play the part or liked her very much, which only enhanced her portrayal of a frightened and tormented woman. ("I have an inferiority complex, anyway," Joan confessed to me, interestingly enough. "It just added to it.") The year after Gone With the Wind won the best picture Oscar and Olivia scored her first Oscar nom for best supporting actress, Rebecca was nominated for best picture and Joan was nominated for best actress. Many picked Joan to win, but, while the film won, she did not.
The following year brought a showdown for the ages: Olivia and Joan were both nominated for the best actress Oscar -- Olivia for Hold Back the Dawn and Joan for another Hitchcock film, Suspicion -- marking the first time that a pair of siblings had competed against one another in the same category at the Academy Awards. (It has happened only once since, when Lynn Redgrave and Vanessa Redgrave were both nominated for best actress 25 years later.) Moreover, in those days the ceremony occurred over dinner -- and the two were seated at the same table. Joan had planned to skip the ceremony, concluding that if she hadn't won the year before for what she considered a superior film and performance, she wasn't likely to win that year. It was only because Olivia showed up to the set of the picture that Joan was working on with a dress in hand that she was convinced to attend. But at the ceremony, when Joan's name was called, she recalled in her autobiography that she froze: "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."
I asked Joan about that moment and she recalled, "I was terrified because of Olivia," adding with a laugh, "I'm still afraid of her!" Of beating her sister to an Oscar she said half-jokingly, "That was such a mean thing for me to do," and then more seriously added, "When I did get it, everybody said, 'Oh, boy, you should have got that for the other one [Rebecca],' so I didn't get any satisfaction out of it at all."