7/31/20: Two Great Actresses – Two Feuding Sisters

By Fred Muenz

Academy Award winning actress Olivia de Havilland died this past Sunday, July 26, 2020, three weeks after her 104th birthday. She and her sister, Academy Award winning actress, Joan Fontaine, were perhaps two of the most talented women to ever grace the silver screen during the Golden Age of Hollywood. Behind the façade, however, was a life-long history of sibling rivalry, rancor, and hatred.

In July, 1916, Walter Agustus de Havilland, a patent attorney and visiting English professor at the Imperial University of Tokyo, Japan, and his wife, former English stage actress, Lillian Agusta de Havilland, gave birth to a daughter, Olivia Mary de Havilland. Fifteen months later, in October, 1917, another daughter, Joan de Beauvoir de Havilland was born. From the beginning Olivia was unhappy with having to share a bedroom, as well as the affections of her parents, with her sister and began picking on Joan while she was still in the crib. Both girls were sickly and in 1919, Lillian persuaded Walter that the girls would be better off in England. During a stop in California, however, Olivia developed a bronchial condition and a high fever, and Joan developed pneumonia. Lillian then decided to stay in California. Walter returned to Japan and Lillian later filed for divorce. Although Lillian had left the acting profession to marry Walter, she had instilled a love of drama in her daughters. As adolescents, the girl’s animosity toward one another grew to open fighting, hair pulling and clothes tearing. One fight left Joan with a broken collarbone. In high school, Olivia excelled at oratory, joined the drama club, and made her first stage appearance with a local community theater. At 16, Joan decided to return to Japan and live with their father. After her high school graduation in 1934, Olivia was offered the role of Puck in a local theater production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where she came to the attention of director Max Reinhart. He persuaded the 18-year-old to give up her college plans and sign a seven-year contract with Warner Brothers. After Joan graduated from the American School in Tokyo in 1935, she returned to California, made her stage debut in a local play and was soon under contract to RKO Studios. Olivia offered to help Joan with her career on the condition that she would change her name so that the two of them wouldn’t be confused by the public. After Joan changed her name to Fontaine, Olivia then claimed that she “never heard of her”. After her first three film appearances met with mixed reviews and disappointing public response, Olivia was finally paired with an unknown Tasmanian actor, Errol Flynn in CAPTAIN BLOOD (1935). The public loved the film and the couple were paired in seven more films over the next few years. Joan’s life was changed when David O. Selznick hired her for the lead in REBECCA (1940), which resulted in her first Oscar nomination for Best Actress. The following year, Joan was nominated again, this time winning the Oscar, for SUSPICION (1941). Meanwhile, Olivia had received the serious role she longed for, that of Melanie in GONE WITH THE WIND (1939), which brought her an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress, the first of her five Oscar nominations. The following year, Olivia received her second nomination, this time for Best Actress in HOLD BACK THE DAWN (1941). She and Joan, both nominated for the sameaward, were seated at the same table during the Academy Award ceremony, barely speaking. When Joan’s name was announced as the Oscar winner, Olivia refused to congratulate her sister. Olivia went on to received Best Actress Oscar’s in 1946 and 1949, and a nomination in 1948. Olivia de Havilland made her final Hollywood film appearance in 1964. Joan Fontaine’s last Hollywood film role came in 1962, although both sisters had numerous roles in TV films.

When their mother died in 1975, Joan didn’t attend the funeral, claiming that Olivia hadn’t notified her of their mother’s death. Olivia claimed she had sent a telegram. When Joan died, at age 96, in December, 2013, Olivia was quoted as saying that she was “shocked and saddened” by the news of her sister’s death.



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