Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine were born 15 months apart and both found success as actresses in Hollywood's Golden Age. But instead of bringing them together, these similarities exacerbated a rivalry that sprang up in childhood and lasted a lifetime. Yet even though they were rivals who became estranged, Olivia and Joan managed to respect and even admire each other — in a feud, you always care what the other is up to, of course.
Olivia and Joan were childhood rivals
Olivia and Joan didn't get along as children — younger sister Joan felt Olivia was favored by their mother. Olivia once said, "Our biggest problem was that we had to share a room." Though they did occasionally play together, their clashes were frequent, featuring slaps (Joan) and hair-pulling (Olivia). Joan also accused Olivia of tearing up her outgrown clothes because she didn't want them to go to her younger sister, and also of breaking Fontaine's collarbone when she tried to pull her older sister into a swimming pool.
A profile of the two in LIFE magazine in 1942 revealed one low point in the relationship: "At the age of 9, Joan decided she would kill her sister. She thought it all out carefully: she would let Olivia hit her once, and then again, in silence. But after the third blow, she would plug Olivia between the eyes." Joan's plan was to plead self-defense, but fortunately for American cinema, she didn't go through with it. Instead, the rancor between the two sisters would simply take different forms as they grew older.
Joan initially lived in Olivia's shadow in Hollywood
When Joan returned home from spending a couple of years with their ex-pat father in Japan, she found her sister on the verge of a career in Hollywood and decided she wanted the same thing. Olivia instead tried to send Joan to finishing school. Olivia later admitted to Vanity Fair, "I suppose the way I saw it then was that I wanted Hollywood as my domain, and I wanted San Francisco society to be hers." But Joan insisted to her older sibling, "I want to do what you're doing."
So Joan came to live with Olivia and their mother in Hollywood. But Olivia, who was under contract with Warner Brothers, didn't want Joan to work at the same studio as her. And as she believed there was room for only one de Havilland in Hollywood, she encouraged her sister to use a different last name. Joan didn't like this, but when a fortune teller advised her that she needed a stage name ending in "e" to achieve success, she began using Fontaine, her stepfather's name.
Yet the name change remained a source of bitterness for Joan, who later said, "Joan Fontaine. I don't know who she is." She also hated having to be her sister's chauffeur, driving her to and from the studio, even though Olivia had given Joan somewhere to live in Los Angeles as she tried to launch an acting career.
The sisters became Hollywood rivals
While Olivia found success co-starring with Errol Flynn in Captain Blood (1935) and The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Joan flopped with Fred Astaire in A Damsel in Distress (1937). Joan did manage to marry one of her sister's old boyfriends, tying the knot with Brian Aherne in 1939. At the time a woman getting married was seen as a way of completing her life, so marrying before her older sister was a coup.
Olivia's career reached new heights when she played Melanie in Gone With the Wind (1939), and Joan's took off when she starred in Rebecca (1940). Still, the sisters didn't let the other taste success without claiming some credit. Joan said that when she'd been turned down for Melanie for being "too stylish," she'd suggested her sister for the part. And when Olivia's Warner Brothers contract kept her from starring in Rebecca, she agreed Joan would be perfect for the role because her sister was blonde and co-star Laurence Olivier had dark hair.
The sisters' rivalry played out in front of the world at the Academy Awards ceremony in 1942. Olivia and Joan were both nominated for Best Actress, Olivia for Hold Back The Dawn and Joan for Suspicion. Olivia was expected to win, but Joan received the Oscar instead. She then seemed to ignore her sister's congratulations when she went to collect her statuette.
When Olivia was triumphant herself on Oscar night in 1947, winning the Best Actress Academy Award for To Each His Own, she, in turn, snubbed her sister. But this wasn't exactly payback for Joan's earlier snubbing — instead, it was payback for Joan's sniping. After Olivia had married novelist Marcus Goodrich, Joan had said, "All I know about him is that he’s had four wives and written one book. Too bad it’s not the other way around."
Olivia and Joan were estranged when Joan died
Olivia and Joan had some closer moments in the years to come, such as when they attended a party for Marlene Dietrich in 1967. But when their mother became ill with terminal cancer, Olivia went to take care of her while Joan was on tour with a play. After their mother died in 1975, Joan accused her sister of not helping her see their mother, and of not inviting her to the memorial service (though she did attend).
In Joan's 1978 memoir, No Bed of Roses (which Olivia dubbed "No Shred of Truth"), she didn't hold back from sharing her resentments toward her sister, such as the "paralysis" that overcame her when she won her Oscar, giving her flashbacks to their childhood animosity. In an interview with People to promote the book, Joan said, "You can divorce your sister as well as your husbands. I don’t see her at all and I don’t intend to." She also declared, "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!"
At an Oscars reunion in 1979, the two were placed on separate ends of the stage. Ten years later, Joan changed hotel rooms when she found out she was booked next to Olivia's. But, contrary to what Joan had expected, Olivia expressed her sadness after her sister's death in 2013.
In an interview for her 100th birthday in 2016, Olivia addressed her relationship with Joan, saying, "A feud implies continuing hostile conduct between two parties. I cannot think of a single instance wherein I initiated hostile behavior." Olivia also stated she had sometimes been "defensive," and added, "On my part, it was always loving, but sometimes estranged and, in the later years, severed."