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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.”
As both sisters established themselves firmly atop Hollywood’s A-list, their relationship was further tested by quarrels over men. Joan had gotten married in 1939, for the first of four times, before her older sister, which, in those days, was considered something of a slight — and to the actor Brian Aherne, whom Olivia had once dated. On the night before Joan’s wedding, Olivia’s then-boyfriend Howard Hughes, while having a celebratory dance with Joan, apparently tried to convince Joan not to marry Aherne because, he said, he wanted to marry her himself. When Joan, appalled, shared this with Olivia, it seems that Olivia either didn’t believe her or didn’t want to believe her; regardless, it only further complicated their relationship.
Then, in 1946, not long after Olivia wed the author Marcus Goodrich, the first of her two husbands, who had previously been married four times, Joan apparently cracked, “It’s too bad that Olivia’s husband has had so many wives and only one book.” This unnecessarily mean remark, at the outset of Olivia’s marriage, got back to Olivia and elevated an already fractious relationship to an out-and-out cold war. Olivia had no interest in speaking with Joan until Joan apologized, and Joan, for whatever reason, was in no rush to do so. Years later, in 1957, in the only interview in which she ever commented on her relationship with her sister, Olivia told the Associated Press, “Joan is very bright and sharp and has a wit that can be cutting. She said some things about Marcus that hurt me deeply.” Consequently, Olivia continued, “She was aware there was an estrangement between us.”
In 1947, 14 months after her wedding, Olivia finally won a best actress Oscar of her own, for To Each His Own (1946) — the first of two, in fact, that she would within a span of just four years, with the second coming for The Heiress (1949). After Olivia completed her acceptance speech for the former, she was approached backstage by Joan, who, having just presented the best actor prize, stuck around to congratulate her sister. But, as was famously immortalized in a photo snapped by Hymie Fink of Photoplay, Olivia turned away from Joan, snubbing her advance. Daily Variety reported at the time that Olivia then muttered to her press agent, Henry Rogers, “I don’t know why she does that when she knows how I feel.” Joan, for her part, reportedly “stood there looking after her with a bewildered expression and then shrugged her shoulders and walked off.” (Joan would later write, “I went over to congratulate her as I would have done to any winner. She took one look at me, ignored my hand, clutched her Oscar and wheeled away.”) Rogers subsequently told the press, “The girls haven’t spoken to each other for four months. Miss de Havilland had no wish to have her picture taken with her sister. This goes back for years and years, ever since they were kids — a case of two sisters who don’t have a great deal in common.”
Back in May, when I arrived at Olivia’s stately townhouse near the center of Paris, on the same block as the home of a former French president, an assistant led me inside. I instantly saw Olivia peering around a corner, walked over to say hello and was greeted very warmly. She then had her assistant pour us champagne and bring out a tray of finger sandwiches, and, knowing that I had just come from the Cannes Film Festival, regaled me with the story of how her own trip to Cannes 60 years earlier had led to her relocation to Paris.
In 1952, de Havilland divorced Goodrich and, shortly thereafter accepted an invitation to attend the 1953 festival at Cannes along with her young son. From the moment they arrived, she said, she was shadowed by a Frenchman who did not speak to her but wouldn’t let her out of his sight. Days later, when they finally exchanged words, he turned out to be Pierre Galante, the editor of the French magazine Paris Match, and he continued to pursue her, more openly, until she agreed to marry him. Sensing that, with the arrival of television, Hollywood’s Golden Age was ending and that roles worthy of her talents would become fewer and further between, Olivia decided to leave America, move to Paris and tie the knot with Galante in 1955. (They divorced in 1979.)
Over the years between the 1947 Oscar snub and the 1978 publication of Joan’s autobiography, it appears that the sisters had a hot-and-cold relationship. “I swore that I would never reconcile with Joan until she apologized,” Olivia said in her 1957 interview with the AP. “But when I returned to Hollywood after my separation from Marcus [in 1952], it seemed silly to demand an apology again.” Joan told me of Olivia, “She came to my apartment in New York often.” (The two apparently spent Christmas together there in 1961.) They were photographed laughing together at an event in 1967. And, Joan claimed in her autobiography, she went to see Olivia in Paris in 1969, at Olivia’s request, and helped her through financial and marital troubles. (“She signed with my lecture bureau and eventually had so many bookings that I had to find a new bureau to handle mine,” Joan wrote.)
All sources seem to agree that things took a turn for the worse after the death of their beloved mother in 1975. In No Bed of Roses, Joan wrote that she was out of the country at the time of their mother’s death and only learned about the memorial service by happenstance. “I was not invited,” Joan alleged, and it was “only after burning the telephone wires from coast to coast” and threatening to “call the press and give them the whole story” that the service was postponed long enough to allow Joan to be in attendance. Moreover, she told People, “Olivia and the executor of the estate took full charge, disposing of Mother’s effects as well as her body — she was cremated — without bothering to consult me.” At the service, the sisters did not speak and, as Joan described it, “Olivia scattered a handful of ashes, then silently passed the container to me. Thus I said goodbye to my mother. As for Olivia, I had no words at all.”
In 1979, the year after Joan’s autobiography was published, the sisters both attended the Academy’s 50th anniversary celebration of the Oscars and Oscar winners, but were seated on opposite ends of the stage for the “class photo,” apparently at their request, and did not speak with each other at any time. Ten years later, when they were again brought together for an Oscars anniversary celebration, they were still — or again — not on speaking terms; upon discovering that they were staying in adjacent hotel rooms, Joan apparently had her room changed and said she would never return to the Oscars. She never did.
Olivia, on the other hand, did — she swept onto the stage to introduce the class photo at the 75th Academy Awards in 2003, one of the most memorable segments in the history of the Oscars telecast. I told her how special I thought it was, how bummed I was when it wasn’t replicated earlier in 2013 at the 85th Oscars and how much I hoped she might return again to Hollywood for a future Oscars ceremony. She said she would like to, but doubted it would happen, since she had experienced months of sleeping difficulties after returning from her most recent visit to America and did not want to put herself through another similar ordeal. I somewhat fishingly asked if she still had many friends or family in California, and she said that she really did not, apart from “my sibling,” since her life had been in Paris for 60 years — although, she said, she was very close with her niece, Deborah, Joan’s daughter (with whom Joan had at one time become estranged, allegedly out of anger that she was maintaining communication with her aunt).
Sitting just a few feet away from Olivia, who was so gracious to me, and knowing how other nosy interviewers had been received, I could not muster the courage to ask her more about her relationship with Joan. But, 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!” 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.”
I would like to believe that Joan’s account, rather than the decades of media reports to the contrary, represented the truth about the nature of the sisters’ relationship. But unless Olivia, Deborah or Joan’s assistant during her later years, Susan Pfeiffer, wish to share their own perspectives, I suppose we’ll never know for sure.
Joan, while promoting her autobiography in 1978, told People, “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!” Joan died on Dec. 15 — news of which I broke at THR — and on Dec. 16, Olivia issued a rare public 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.”
Earlier this month, after I finished sharing the aforementioned story with Laura Dern and Meg Ryan, Dern was asked to say a few words about her father, Bruce Dern, who was being honored at the luncheon. She paid a very moving tribute to him in front of a roomful of Academy members, after which she received a voluminous round of applause — and then cracked, to lots of laughter, “Although I did just tell Scott, ‘It’s a lie. We’re actually like Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine — we don’t speak.’ “
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