Gone With the Wind star Olivia de Havilland, who died this week, saved her greatest grudge for her own sister, actress Joan Fontaine.
Olivia de Havilland was celebrated for her role in Gone With the Wind – but when it came to the relationship she had with her sister, actress Joan Fontaine, she was also gone with the kin.
See, the Hollywood icon who portrayed sweet, doomed Melanie was actually a fighter.
De Havilland, who died Sunday just weeks after turning 104, didn’t just hold a grudge against Fontaine because the latter won an Oscar for Best Actress in 1942 – in a category for which they were both nominated. Their sibling rivalry began many years earlier and was her greatest battle, aided by de Havilland’s notorious grudge-holding personality.
That fighting spirit sparked more recently when, at 102, she sued FX for an unauthorised use of her identity in the 2017 series Feud: Bette and Joan. The Supreme Court declined to hear her case in 2019. (She did, however, blaze trails for actresses via her litigious contract battles with movie studios circa the 1930s.)
But back to the fractured sister act: de Havilland and Fontaine, the latter of whom died at 96 in 2013, were born just a year apart, de Havilland being the elder sibling. Fontaine once reportedly said, “I remember not one act of kindness from Olivia all through my childhood. She so hated the idea of having a sibling she wouldn’t go near my crib.”
The apparent root of the issue: When their mother remarried after their father abandoned the family to return to his mistress, Fontaine quickly cozied up to their new stepfather, George Fontaine – whom de Havilland never liked. Unlike de Havilland, Fontaine became more open to discussing their rivalry – and in her 1978 autobiography No Bed of Roses, also credited the issue with de Havilland’s resentment to sharing parental attention with a sibling.
At nine, de Havilland received a school assignment to write a make-believe last will and testament. “I bequeath all my beauty to my younger sister, Joan, since she has none,” she allegedly wrote.
Later, it only worsened when Fontaine received an offer for the role of Melanie Hamilton Wilkes in the now-controversial Gone With the Wind, but she recommended de Havilland for it.
“I made a tremendous mistake and I have regretted it always,” Fontaine recalled in her memoir. “Because it was George Cukor (who initially directed the film), I wore some rather chic clothes. He said ‘Oh you’re much too stylish for the role that I want you to do.’ And I said, ‘Well, what about my sister?’ And he said, ‘Who’s your sister?’ I explained. And he said, ‘Thank you.’ And that’s how Olivia got that role.”
(De Havilland, for her part, told the Hollywood Reporter that Cukor called her and asked if she would be willing to read for the part of Melanie, though she was under contract with Warner Bros., to see if she would work for the role.)
In 1940, de Havilland was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for that portrayal, and never acknowledged her little sister for the boost.
The hatred even manifested physically. In 1933, for instance, a 17-year-old de Havilland broke one of Fontaine’s collarbones by pushing her over by a swimming pool and jumping on her. De Havilland, then an amateur actress who had landed roles in Shakespeare plays, would then go on to lose the 1942 Best Actress Oscar to Fontaine, who won for her role in the Alfred Hitchcock film Suspicion.
“Oh, my God,” de Havilland reportedly thought after Fontaine’s name was announced as the winner. “I’ve lost prestige with my own sister. And it was true – she was haughty to me after that.”
As for Fontaine, she revealed in her book, “My paralysis was total. I felt Olivia would spring across the table and grab me by the hair.”
But de Havilland would eventually have her moment in the sun, though an uncomfortable one that photographers famously captured. In 1946, she won an Oscar for To Each His Own — but when Fontaine offered a hand to shake in a congratulatory gesture, de Havilland refused to take it.
“I went over to congratulate her as I would have done to any winner,” Fontaine later wrote. “She took one look at me, ignored my hand, clutched her Oscar and wheeled away.”
“On my part, it was always loving, but sometimes estranged and, in the later years, severed,” de Havilland once said of their relationship. “Dragon Lady, as I eventually decided to call her, was a brilliant, multi-talented person, but with an astigmatism in her perception of people and events which often caused her to react in an unfair and even injurious way.”
De Havilland ditched Hollywood and moved to France in the 1950s, spending the rest of her life in Paris. In 1975, their mother died, and de Havilland tried blocking Fontaine from attending the memorial service.
Fontaine threatened to go to the media with this news – and then received an invitation to come, though they largely ignored each other during the service. The only contact they had that day: de Havilland passed their mother’s urn to Fontaine so she could gather and scatter a handful of her ashes.
By 1979, the relationship had seemingly grown worse. That year, they both attended the Oscars – and sat at opposite ends of the stage. In 1989, the two found out they were guests at the same time at the same Beverly Hills hotel, most of all in adjacent rooms. Fontaine checked out immediately.
However, despite years of these documented spats, Fontaine bizarrely told the Hollywood Reporter in 2013 that the two sisters had never had a rough patch.
“Let me just say, Olivia and I have never had a quarrel,” she told the publication. “We have never had any dissatisfaction. We have never had hard words. And all this is press.”