Was the Joan Fontaine-Olivia de Havilland Rivalry a Hoax? A Speculative Account


Joan Fontaine and Olivia de Havilland were sisters, and thus, by popular agreement, rivals. We’ve heard that repeated ad nauseam in the days since Fontaine’s death at 96. I think you can chalk that up to the press looking for a nice tragedian angle on what was by all other accounts a long and rich life, and there’s a little romance in a connection ruptured but never repaired. And so, every article has made mention of the fact that the Second Mrs. de Winter quit speaking to Melanie Wilkes in 1975. They add that even before that, Fontaine triumphed over de Havilland in 1941 to win an Oscar, pissing off her sister. They quote a passage from Fontaine’s memoirs in which she says that at the moment she won, “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.”

The other agreed truths point to a much longer, more complicated story. Fontaine was the ankle-biter, one year younger than de Havilland. But they came up at more or less the same time. Scarcely had de Havilland had her first string of successes, most of them swashbuckler movies with Errol Flynn, than the papers were covering her younger sister’s rise. And no one was fooled by the name change. Indeed, Fontaine’s attempts to distance herself from her sister — a very early article in the Washington Post has her denying the connection, and even says she had a clause in her early contract that forbade studios from “using her sister’s name for her benefit” — seems a bit underminery, in retrospect. After all, every sweet demurral gave the press occasion to repeat that, yes, in spite of the different last name, the two were sisters.

I would have been terribly annoyed in de Havilland’s place.

As the film critic Farran Smith Nehme notes, examining the relationship, it is dangerous to presume that one understands the relationship between stars on the authority of conjecture. After all, everything we “know” about these two sisters is based on press gossip, one ghostwritten autobiography, and the occasional scathing quote. Nonetheless, from all of that we know the following: according to Fontaine, the girls’ mother had them competing with each other from the time they were children. According to the gossip columns of the time — Sheilah Graham was particularly preoccupied by the de Havilland sisters — that extended to rivalry for roles and boyfriends in their adult lives.

And we also know that in the puff pieces and profiles of the time, Fontaine and de Havilland certainly seemed to be doing everything they could to fan the flame of the story. I dug up, for example, an August 1937 bit of fluff entitled “Temperament Schedule to Guide Stars; When Olivia de Havilland Is ‘Difficult’ Sister, Joan Fontaine, Must Be Pleasant, and Vice Versa,” wherein de Havilland explains their sisterly rapport thusly:

It gets to be automatic, almost… when I hear Joan slam-banking around in the shower I know it’s my cue to be cheerful and pleasant. When Joan sees me come down stairs looking as though I’d like to kick the cat, she has to turn on the good nature even if it nearly kills her. Temperament just can’t hold up long under such a system.

She continues:

We’ve practiced long enough now… to just about know how long one of us will be out of sorts and what the limit is to a streak of good nature in the other. We think that we change about every three days.

This bit of role-playing is said to be for the benefit of their mother, but it’s also, here, being deployed for the benefit of the press. The sisters are more or less saying: sometimes, my moods are artifice. Sometimes I’m making it up.

Then there are incidents like this one, from a 1940 profile:

Talking with their mother one day, [Joan] was asked by Mrs. Fontaine, who had been to the latest Bette Davis picture, “Have you seen ‘The Old Maid?'” “No, not for several days,” said Joan. “How is Olivia?”

I could offer you a dozen similar quotes from other press. Even if that sisterly aggression is genuine, it’s kind of funny how much of it they let the press see and document. It almost suggests a plan.

Which leads me to my little theory: I wonder if, however genuinely felt the rivalry, it wasn’t at least partly a self-conscious bit of theatre, playing to the rubes who loved the idea of two talented and beautiful women hating each other. People love it when women are irrational cat-fighters, after all. It satisfies their sense that women lack complicated emotional lives. Jealous bitches are easier to dismiss. And who knows if I’m right to suspect that Fontaine and de Havilland sensed this, and played to it? But it certainly would be great if they fooled everyone, wouldn’t it?

And perhaps they fooled themselves a little too much. As I was writing this, de Havilland came out with a statement mourning her sister. I guess all games of pretend do eventually come to an end.