Joan Fontaine and Olivia de Havilland.
  • Joan Fontaine and Olivia de Havilland.
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The mention of Melanie Hamilton in GWTW or the second Mrs. de Winter in Rebecca might be enough to jog a few memories, but seeing how it's been over 20 years since either Olivia de Havilland or Joan Fontaine stepped before the cameras, it's doubtful that many contemporary moviegoers will recognize the names.

Equally remote is the likelihood that many will remember the sisters' decades-long and headline grabbing knock-down drag-out feud that finally came to an end with Fontaine's death yesterday in her northern California home. She was 96.

Olivia Mary de Havilland and Joan de Beauvoir de Havilland were army brats, born in Tokyo, and separated by one year. (Olivia, the oldest of the two, debuted in 1916.) Both girls were sickly and for health reasons the family soon moved to Saratoga, California. It was during this time their parents divorced and dad returned to Tokyo.

According to Fontaine, the rivalry dated back to birth when older sister Olivia made clear her resentment over having a sister with whom to share parental affection. Name calling was never enough for the young de Havilland sisters who frequently put up their dukes to settle a score.

Olivia and Joan separated by Road warrior Dotty Lamour.

The simmering spat bubbled over at the Oscar ceremony on March 14, 1947, the night Olivia took home a well-deserved best actress golden doorstop for per performance in Mitchell Leisen's To Each His Own. She also managed to publicly snub Fontaine who, much to de Havilland's dismay, had previously picked up an Oscar in 1941 for her work on Hitchcock's Suspicion. At the time of her win, the humble (with reporters present) Fontaine admitted to being "appalled that I had won over my sister."

It would be de Havilland's third nomination and first win. Angelfire remembers, "This time around, she hired the same man that had helped the 1945 Best Actress winner, Joan Crawford, to glory, Henry Rogers. Three times proved to be the charm for Olivia, as she came up the winner in a very competitive year. "

According to a wire story in the pages of the March 15, 1947 edition of The Milwaukee Sentinel, after de Havilland's victory, Fontaine stood waiting in the wings to congratulate her sister.

Joan Fontaine holds her Best Actress Oscar for Alfred Hitchcock's Suspicion.

"I started to shake hands with her, but she seemed very occupied and busy," Fontaine recalled the following day. "Maybe she didn't see me, there were so many people around her, so I went and joined my husband." She added, "I am very proud of her."

Denying a radio report that both actresses embraced backstage, de Havilland was up front with a reporter when she said, "Our relations have been strained for some time — I couldn't change my attitude."

Acting as de Havilland's personal publicity rep, Rogers released the following statement to 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."

The one Fontaine not to miss: Max Ophüls's Letter From an Unknown Woman.

The grudge match continued for 9 decades. The actresses refused to speak to one another at their mother's funeral in 1975. Fontaine "told" The National Enquirer, 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 1987 the sisters were invited to attend Oscar's 60th Anniversary celebration. Upon learning that she and Fontaine shared adjoining suites at the Four Seasons, de Havilland insisted on having her room changed.

When French President Nicolas Sarkozy awarded de Havilland the Legion d'honneur in 2010, guess who was conspicuously absent from the dais?

Fontaine went to the altar four times. Her husbands were actor Brian Aherne, TV producer William 'Batman' Dozier, producer Collier Young, and journalist Alfred Wright Jr.

de Havilland, the only surviving GWTW cast member and, according to IMBD, "Good friend with rapper Snoop Dogg," lives in Paris.

In an interview with People Magazine, Fontaine spoke of how she wanted to die. "At age 108," she said, "flying around the stage in Peter Pan, as a result of my sister cutting the wires. 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!"

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Comments

jemsd Dec. 16, 2013 @ 6:53 p.m.

Although Joan Fontaine's moments of fame were 20 years or so before my time, I very much enjoyed learning a bit about her. What I'm really curious about however, is after reading the article, I'm wondering what the story is behind the photo. What circumstances brought them together in a moment that actually appears tender and somewhat relaxed ? The photo appears to be them in their middle years and I can't help but think something interesting must have happened to bring these two together for that particular photoshoot. So,,,,, what's the scoop Scott?

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Scott Marks Dec. 16, 2013 @ 10:23 p.m.

I read numerous pieces about the feud while digging this hole, Jem, and not one could explain how these two bitter rivals were able to sit still long enough to pose for a photo. From what I gather, whenever the two were forced to appear at a social gathering, they defrosted long enough to make nice for the cameras. All this changed in 1975 when Olivia failed to tell Joan about their mother's funeral until it was too late. After that, the two stopped speaking altogether.

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jemsd Dec. 16, 2013 @ 11:29 p.m.

Thanks Scott, still would sure like to know about that photo. Bitter feud that lasts a lifetime and yet there is this photo that exists showing one holding on to the other in a pensive embrace, seemingly quite ready to set the bad things onto a shelf, while the other is looking to the photographer to hurry things along. I would surely enjoy to know more about how these two came together on that day. Someone knows, it's just that nobody thinks anyone gives a shit I guess,,,,,, too bad,,,,

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monaghan Dec. 16, 2013 @ 8:33 p.m.

A truly hideous Hollywood family story. Thanks, Scott. I well remember both of these women as actresses, but I never knew they were sisters.

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Joaquin_de_la_Mesa Dec. 23, 2013 @ 2:27 p.m.

Is it possible these two clever dames were really pals and invented the whole thing to keep their names in the papers? Crazier things have happened in Hollywood.

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