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Why de Havillands' relationship was no bed of roses

As Forties Hollywood starlet Olivia de Havilland turns 100, the feud with her deceased sister overshadowed both their careers, writes Paul Whitington

Published 25/06/2016

Olivia de Havilland (AP/Kevork Djansezian)
Olivia de Havilland (AP/Kevork Djansezian)

All things being equal, Olivia de Havilland will turn 100 next Friday. During a glittering career, Ms De Havilland co-starred with everyone from Clark Gable and Errol Flynn to James Cagney, Bette Davis, David Niven and Robert Mitchum, and is among the very last survivors of Hollywood's golden age.

She turned her back on Tinseltown 60-odd years ago to begin a life of splendid exile in Paris and retired from acting altogether in the late-Eighties. She's remembered fondly in Hollywood as a talented and exceptionally professional performer, and is one of just 13 actresses to have won two Oscars.

But despite her starring roles in films like Gone With The Wind, The Heiress and The Adventures Of Robin Hood, the thing Ms De Havilland will always be best known for is her long-standing feud with her sister.

Joan de Havilland took her stepfather's surname, Fontaine, as a stage name when starting out in Hollywood, and quickly rivalled her elder sister's success. After breaking through playing Laurence Olivier's infuriatingly drippy wife in Alfred Hitchcock's 1941 classic Rebecca, Joan won an Oscar the following year in Hitchcock's Suspicion and remained a big star through the Forties and early Fifties.

But for some reason, neither sister seemed capable of enjoying the other's good fortune and a kind of simmering cold war began that would worsen as they aged. In later years, Olivia would chillingly refer to Joan as "my sibling" in interviews, and shots were exchanged in tell-all memoirs.

When Joan died in December, 2013, De Havilland issued a statement saying she was "shocked and saddened" by the news, but the grim truth was that the sisters hadn't spoken in years.

So where, one wonders, did it all go wrong? As usual, it depends whose version you believe. Olivia de Havilland was born in Tokyo in the summer of 1916: Joan arrived a year later. Their parents were English and their father worked for a time as a professor at the Imperial University, but it was their mother, Lillian, who'd prove the major influence on their lives.

She had been an actress in her youth and both girls inherited her talent. When Lillian left her husband in 1919 after discovering his enthusiasm for geishas, she and her two daughters moved to California.

Though they settled in Saratoga and the sisters attended the local high school, Lillian remained British to the core and was determined her children follow suit. For years, they took elocution lessons aimed at preserving their clipped upper-class accents and when Olivia asked her mother why she wanted her and Joan to sound British, Lillian replied tartly: "Because we are British." As a consequence, the two sisters had to put up with plenty of abuse in the playground, but their perfect elocution would come in very handy later.

At first, the two sisters seemed close. In a recent interview, Olivia remembered how Joan "would put her little head on my shoulder and ask me to tell her a story. She was so darling, with these adorable freckles on her nose and a duck-tail of blonde hair - cute as a button".

But, according to Joan, the rot set in after a prank turned sour at a neighbour's swimming pool. When the De Havillands were five and six respectively, Joan was swimming and tried to pull Olivia in: the elder girl resisted and Joan ended up chipping her collarbone. Both blamed the other and the girls became enemies, bound by a petty rivalry that would intensify after they found success.

"Our biggest problem," Olivia de Havilland claimed recently, "was that we had to share a room." They bickered constantly, Joan resented having to wear Olivia's hand-me-downs and took to slapping her older sister in the face in an attempt to provoke her. These sound like the kind of childish squabbles that are set aside in adulthood, but that's not how it panned out for the De Havillands.

Olivia seemed to have left Joan far in her wake when solid performances in college plays led to her being cast by Max Reinhardt in a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Hollywood Bowl. And when Warner Brothers decided to make a film version of Shakespeare's comedy in 1934, Jack Warner chose the 18-year-old De Havilland to play the heroine, Hermia. By the late Thirties, she'd been cast opposite Errol Flynn in three hit films and was a big Hollywood star.

De Havilland would later say that she "wouldn't wish overnight success on anyone": she worked so hard she became anorexic and complained that "you have no real friends". But her younger sister begged to differ, and fumed quietly in the wings.

Joan was determined to follow in her sister's footsteps, but Olivia insisted she change her name if she wanted to work in Hollywood. And so Joan took the surname of her detested and bullying stepfather, George Fontaine, and began picking up small roles as a contract player at RKO.

According to Olivia, she played a part in her younger sister's breakthrough. De Havilland was filming Gone With the Wind when David O Selznick approached her about starring in his forthcoming adaptation of Daphne du Maurier's novel Rebecca. She was under contract and when Jack Warner refused to release her, Selznick asked "would you mind if I take your sister?". De Havilland told him that Joan would be perfect.

And so it proved, but Joan's success did little to ease tensions between the siblings. And when Fontaine won an Oscar in 1942 for her fine performance in Suspicion, the sisters' poisonous relationship became public. De Havilland had also been nominated for the Best Actress award that year for Hold Back The Dawn and the sisters were seated at the same table. When Joan's name was announced, Olivia reacted graciously, saying "we've got it", but Fontaine pointedly ignored her sister's attempts to congratulate her.

In her 1978 memoir, No Bed Of Roses, Fontaine would claim that, as Olivia turned to congratulate her, "all the animus we'd felt toward each other as children, the hair-pullings, the savage wrestling matches, the time Olivia fractured my collarbone, all came rushing back in kaleidoscopic imagery. My paralysis was total". But whatever about that, the damage had been done and Hollywood gossip columnists Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper had a field day, writing lurid pieces about the warring sisters.

Things got worse in 1946, when Fontaine made an unfortunate comment about her sister's new husband, the author and journalist Marcus Goodrich, during an interview. "All I know about him," she said, "is that he's had four wives and written one book. Too bad it's not the other way around."

De Havilland took note and got her own back a year later after winning her first Oscar for the romantic drama To Each His Own. This time it was Joan's turn to get the brush-off: when she approached Olivia backstage to congratulate her, De Havilland turned away.

They didn't speak for five years after that, but in the Fifties an uneasy truce was declared. After Joan left her second husband in 1952, Olivia rallied around and became a regular visitor at Fontaine's New York apartment. When De Havilland moved to Paris, Fontaine came on visits, and they were photographed laughing together at a party thrown for Marlene Dietrich in 1967.

But the sisters were chalk and cheese, Olivia the quiet one, Joan the flamboyant society girl, and it was only a matter of time before they came to blows again. Joan's animus seemed to stem from a belief, imagined or real, that Olivia had been their mother's unassailable favourite and the pair fell out for good around the time of Lillian's death, in 1975.

After disagreeing over their mother's cancer treatment, the sisters reacted very differently to her terminal diagnosis. While Olivia tended to Lillian, Joan went on tour with a play, and Fontaine would later allege that when their mother died, De Havilland did not bother to contact her and let her know.

They never spoke to one another again and the waters were further poisoned by Fontaine's 1978 incendiary autobiography No Bed of Roses, which De Havilland has always referred to as "No Shred Of Truth". It's a sad story of how a very ordinary sibling rivalry was fuelled and intensified by the bright lights of Hollywood. But Olivia de Havilland has always maintained a dignified silence on the matter - and no doubt will continue to do so.

Belfast Telegraph

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