This week’s death of Oscar-winning actress Joan Fontaine at 96 brings to an end to conceivably Hollywood’s longest sibling feud, as her sister, Oscar-winning actress Olivia de Havilland, 97, expressed her grief from her home in Paris. It’s probably the kindest public statement either sister had expressed for decades, as their famous battle had raged for years.
Joan was born only 15 months after Olivia, sparking a sibling rivalry that began while both were still in cribs, then quickly escalated to all-out physical fights. (In her memoir, No Bed of Roses, Fontaine claimed that de Havilland once fractured her collarbone.) That rivalry intensified when both girls eventually became actresses, possibly to please their stage-struck mother. And by 1940, both women were not just actresses, but extremely prominent ones: de Havilland had started a long and popular screen pairing with swashbuckler Errol Flynn, and snagged the second female lead in the 1939 blockbuster Gone With The Wind, for which she received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Fontaine (who changed her last name twice) won the lead in Hitchcock’s first American picture, 1940’s Rebecca, receiving a Best Actress nomination. At the 1942 Oscars, both were nominated for Best Actress, Fontaine defeated her sister by winning for Hitchcock’s Suspicion, and the battle was on.
The most famous representation of their feud happened in 1947, when de Havilland received her own Oscar for To Each His Own (her first of two). Fontaine, having just presented the Best Actor award, went to congratulate her sister and was famously snubbed, with Olivia walking right by Joan’s outstretched hand. The sisters continued like this, battling over awards, parts, and men (including oil magnate Howard Hughes), but their final rift came when their mother died in 1975. Fontaine says that she wasn’t even informed of her mother’s death; de Havilland said that Fontaine didn’t want to attend the memorial. Their estrangement became permanent. When both were invited to commemorative Oscar ceremonies honoring past winners, they were kept to opposite sides of the stage; in 1989, given adjacent hotel rooms for another Oscar presentation, Fontaine switched rooms, and never attended the Oscars again.
The Hollywood Reporter‘s Scott Feinberg recently interviewed both nonagenarians, shedding some new light on the sisters’ rivalry. At the time, Fontaine told Feinberg that the famous feud with her sister was “nonexistent” and “had no basis.” Nevertheless, it certainly seemed to exist while Fontaine was promoting her autobiography in 1978, when she predicted, "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!" But de Havilland’s rare public statement this week seemed to contain only grief: "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." All it took to end their feud was death.