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Family Feud

The Fondas, The Gishs and The Barrymores are famous film families. But would it surprise you to know that Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine are actually sisters?

Olivia, the oldest, and sister Joan were only a year apart in age, born to Walter de Havilland and stage actress Lillian Fontaine. But closeness in age did not make them close in their sibling relationship. Olivia never wanted a sister. She rather enjoyed the attention all to herself and remained the family “favorite.” In childhood, she developed an unnatural hatred for Joan, something Joan did not understand, and Olivia expressed it through fist fighting, ruining Joan’s clothing and humiliating her in the schoolyard. At just nine, Olivia made a fake will and sent it to Joan: “I bequeath all my beauty to my younger sister Joan, since she has none.”

The “family feud” took on another dimension when each found out about the other’s interest in acting. Olivia made the jumpstart, taking the “de Haviland” name with her. Joan, no longer wanting to live in her sister’s shadow, at first took the name “Burfield” then decided to take her mother’s name of “Fontaine.” Olivia’s career seemed to soar; Joan struggled through small roles – until “Suspicion” (1941).

Their competitive streak was not publicly known until the Academy Awards in 1941 when they were contenders in the Best Actress category: Olivia was nominated for “Hold Back For Dawn” (1941) and Joan for “Suspicion” (1941). They were seated at the same table during the honors. When Joan received the Oscar, she was not happy. Fontaine guiltily admitted, “I was appalled that I had won over my sister.”

In 1946, Olivia won her first Oscar for “To Each His Own” (1946), and Joan Crawford was to present it. However, when Crawford could not present, Fontaine became her replacement. Joan and Olivia had not spoken to each other for months, and when Olivia took the award from her sister, Fontaine tried to congratulate her with a handshake. Olivia abruptly, and noticeably, brushed past her sister to the podium.

Decades of animosity peaked when they “officially” stopped speaking to each other in 1975. During this estrangement, Joan discovered her own daughter, Deborah, still spoke to Olivia. Infuriated, Joan stopped speaking to her own daughter as well. “I married first, won the Oscar before Olivia did and if I die first, she’ll undoubtedly be livid because I beat her to it!”

With the gifts endowed on these sisters, it seems unfortunate that they could never be civil with or happy for the other’s successes. A supportive relationship, personally and professionally, may have had even greater impact than their individual achievements.

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