Two amazing actresses: Sisters Joan Fontaine and Olivia de Haviland

Last night I watched the movie “Suspicion” with Joan Fontaine. 



Feuding Sisters: Olivia de Havilland & Joan Fontaine

Over the years, the Academy has recognized acting families, with awards bestowed upon siblings, parents and children, and even cousins.  The Huston’s, the Fonda’s, the Coppola’s, and the Redgrave’s, are among the acting families, who have multiple awards amongst them.  But perhaps the most interesting, would be that duo of feuding sisters, who’s private infighting, became Hollywood gossip, and who would butt heads at the Oscar ceremonies on more than one occasion! 

Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine were both army brats, two sisters born one year apart in Tokyo , where their father was stationed, back in 1916-17.  The girls suffered from ill-health, forcing the parents to move to California when they were young.  During that time, their parents divorced, and their father returned to Tokyo.

The sisters admit that growing up together, that they fought constantly.  According to Fontaine, elder sister, Olivia never got used to the idea of a younger sister, and thus a jealous rivalry was begun.  Their fighting was so bitter as children, that it often resulted in fist fighting, as much as it did petty squabbling.

Olivia was the first to venture into acting, taking the stage in the early thirties.  Sister Joan followed suit a few years later.  

As they were both being courted for contracts with movie studios, Joan changed her name to Fontaine,  supposedly on the advice of a fortune teller.  While Joan started to work her way up the ranks of RKO, playing smaller roles to Katherine Hepburn and Joan Crawford, Olivia was signed with Warner’s, playing high profile roles in Robin Hood and in several Bette Davis films.  

By 1939, Olivia had made a name for herself, so much so, that she was a popular choice with fans, and with casting agents, to play Melanie, in the classic, Gone With the Wind. Olivia earned her first nomination for Best Supporting Actress, playing the ultra-pure wife of the man that Scarlett O’Hara is hot-to-trot for.

Of course, the award would ultimately be handed out to her co-star, Hattie McDaniel, the first black actress to ever win the award, but that fact didn’t console de Havilland.  She later admitted, that for at least two weeks after her defeat, she was convinced that ‘there was no God.’  She admitted that on the night that McDaniel won,  she ‘couldn’t stay at that table another minute.  I had to be alone, so I wandered out into the kitchen and cried.’  She said that it took a few days before she could finally be ‘proud’ that she “belonged to a profession which honored a black woman who merited this, in a time when other groups had neither the honesty, nor the courage to do the same sort of thing.”

The very next year, David Selznick was looking for a vehicle to follow up his success on Gone With the Wind.  He chose Rebecca, and gave newcomer, Alfred Hitchcock free reign to direct.  Hitchcock cast the other sister, Joan, in the lead role of the meek and mild, second Mrs. de Winter.  The film was a success, garnering yet another Best Picture win for Selznick’s camp.  Meanwhile, Joan was suddenly a big star, and found herself nominated for her first Best Actress Award.

Despite raving reviews by the critics, and a huge fan base that was gunning for her, Joan didn’t win that year.  Instead, the award went to Ginger Rogers, who was perhaps being honored for a decade worth of fine work in classic musicals and comedies, rather than for the second grade weepy, Kitty Foyle, for which she was nominated.  Fontaine was gracious about losing, stating that ‘to have won for my first good role, would have been precipitous.’ 

The 1941 Oscar’s marked the first round in the battle of the feuding sisters, when both of them were nominated for the Best Actress Oscar.  Joan received the nod for Suspicion, her second film with Alfred Hitchcock directing her, while Olivia was recognized for Hold Back the Dawn.  

Joan actually didn’t plan on attending the ceremony, stating that she had to be up early the next morning, however, older sister, Olivia twisted her arm, stating, “You have to be there.  Your absence would look odd.”

Gingers Rogers presented the Best Actress award, while the two sisters sat next to each other at the Selznick table.  When she called out Joan’s name, Joan remembers how she just froze.  “Get up there,” her sister nudged.  Joan remembers bursting into tears at that very moment.  “All the animus we felt toward each other as children,” she recalled.  “The hair pulling, the savage wrestling matches, the time Olivia fractured my collar bone, all came rushing back in kaleidoscopic imagery.  My paralysis was total … I felt age four, being confronted by my older sister.  Damn it!  I incurred her wrath again.”

Here is a picture of her in Suspicion above.

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