Movie Legends:Joan Fontaine & Olivia de Havilland
Who are the only sisters who have both won Academy Awards for Best Actress?
Joan Fontaine and Olivia de Havilland
Who is the only actor who ever won an Oscar for an Alfred Hitchcock movie?
Who is the last living lead cast member from Gone With the Wind?
Olivia de Havilland
Who are the oldest living Best Actress winners (other than Luise Rainer)?
Joan Fontaine (93) and Olivia de Havilland (94)
It was February 1942 and World War 2 was raging in the Pacific as the attack on Pearl Harbor had been just six weeks earlier. But there was another war raging at the 1942 Academy Awards: Sisters Joan Fontaine and Olivia de Havilland were both up for Best Actress of 1941. The Oscars were still having their fancy dinners then and the celebration was at the Biltmore Hotel in downtown Los Angeles.
Olivia de Havilland was nominated for her work in Hold Back the Down with a script by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett. Joan Fontaine was nominated for her performance in Hitchcock's Suspicion. The tension between the sisters had been building for years and that night forever cemented the beginning of the rivalry/feud that continues between these great actresses to this day. Plus, the 1941 Oscars were only the second time that the results were via secret ballot. They changed the policy in 1940 as the 1939 winners were leaked to the Los Angeles Times before the awards and everyone going in that night knew who had won.
The Best Actress Award was the last award given that night. As Ginger Rogers (who won the 1940 award) stepped to the microphone, all eyes were on the table where the sisters sat. As Ginger read out Joan Fontaine for Suspicion, the room erupted in applause while Joan just sat dumbstruck staring at her sister. Finally, Olivia told her to go up and accept the award. As Joan had already won the NY Film Critics Award, it was not a total surprise but never had the suspense been on such a personal level. The only other time two sisters were up for the Best Actress Award was in 1966 when Vanessa and Lynn Redgrave competed but both lost to Elizabeth Taylor for Virginia Wolf.
Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine were both born in Tokyo, Japan, the only daughters of British Lilian Ruse and Walter de Havilland. Their mother divorced de Havilland a few years later and brought both young girls to Saratoga, California where they grew up. Lilian later remarried and Joan took her stepfather's name Fontaine when she became an actress.
Joan was a sickly child and was mostly in Olivia's shadow during these formative years. Olivia became a star overnight when she appeared opposite Errol Flynn in the 1935 swashbuckler Captain Blood. She and Flynn became a wildly successful co-staring team for Warner Brothers, with their 1938 Robin Hood as the pinnacle of their films together. Olivia wanted more than being Flynn's on-screen love interest. (Off screen Flynn apparently wanted more too but Olivia was not about to be another conquest for the famed stud.) Finally Olivia got the part of Melanie in Gone With The Wind and both she and the film were smash hits. Back at Warner Brothers she expected good roles but still got only so so films as the beautiful co-star.
Joan Fontaine started later in films and did a number of B films for RKO, which led to nothing until she was cast opposite Fred Astaire as Ginger Rogers' replacement in Damsel in Distress. The film was a fiasco and Joan's lack of singing and dancing skills was duly noted by the reviews. It was back to lousy B movies until George Cukor selected her for the part of the young wife in The Women who accompanies Norma Shearer to Reno for a divorce. Among all the great pyrotechnics in The Women, Joan was sort of lost in the proceedings except for a great telephone scene with her ex-husband to be. Cukor later said she became a real actress with this scene and she is lovely in the film.
The following year Joan's big break came when she got the lead in Alfred Hitchcock's first American film - Rebecca - based on the great Daphne du Maurier best seller. David O. Selznick selected her over a number of famous stars and a great deal of opposition from everyone. Rebecca was smash hit, winning the 1940 Best Picture Oscar and Joan Fontaine became a star as the shy, lonely, tentative second wife opposite Laurence Olivier. Joan was so good that she was nominated for the 1940 Best Actress award but lost to Ginger Rogers.
So 1941 brought the two sisters on a collision course for the Oscar. Olivia had snuck off to Paramount to make Hold Back the Dawn and Olivia was in her follow-up Hithcock film, Suspicion. The fact that the film was a last-minute release to qualify for the '41 Awards makes the scenario even more fascinating.
In the next few years Joan Fontaine went on to star in a number of wonderful films: This Above All with Tyrone Power, The Constant Nymph (another Best Actress nomination) with Charles Boyer, and Jane Eyre with Orson Welles. My favorite film of this period is the lush costume drama Frenchman's Creek. Based on another Daphne du Maurier novel, the period drama of a bored English woman who falls in love with a pirate is one of the most gorgeous films made in the 1940s. Joan was beautiful in her lavish gowns and the cinematography rivals Black Narcissus as the most outstanding color lensing of its period.
In the meantime, poor Olivia suffered at Warner Brothers and when her contract was up she thought she could escape to a new studio. But Jack Warner tacked on all her suspensions and told her she could not leave. Olivia took Warner Brothers to court and did not work from 1943-1946 as no studio would touch her until the verdict. The California Supreme Court ruled in her favor, and the De Havilland Law meant that no studio could extend the time period beyond the normal 7 years.
In 1946 Olivia de Havilland went to Paramount and made the tearjerker To Each His Own. This soapy story of an unwed mother gave her a great role and let her age from a teenager to middle age. Olivia won the 1946 Best Actress Award more for her popularity than for the film itself. At the 1947 ceremony the feud with Joan Fontaine hit the front pages due to the infamous photo by Hymie Fink (I kid you not). It shows Olivia holding her Oscar and turning away from Joan Fontaine who had attempted to congratulate her. It was out in the open now.
What caused the final rift? Many people say that it was Joan's hilarious quip about Olivia's new husband, author Marcus Goodrich. When the press asked Joan about the marriage to Goodrich—who had three ex-wives and one book— she said it was too bad it wasn't three books and one wife.
Olivia de Havilland was at the zenith of her career. She made The Snake Pit in 1948 and this groundbreaking study of insanity brought her another Best Actress nomination as well as the NY Film Critics Award. (This was the only time that all the NY critics voted unanimously for a performer on the first ballot.) In 1949 Olivia gave a brilliant performance in The Heiress, which co-starred Montgomery Clifty. This brilliant William Wyler-directed film won Olivia her second Best Actress Oscar (Joan Fontaine stayed home that night!) and placed Olivia firmly on top of the Hollywood ladder. But she would not make another movie for three years.
Under the advice from her controlling husband she did two plays that were not well received and she turned down the part of Blanche in the film of A Streetcar Named Desire. When Olivia did return to films in 1952's My Cousin Rachel— also based on a Daphne du Maurier and co-starring Richard Burton in his American debut— it was pretty much over as a top star.
When her contract with Selznick expired Joan Fontaine made only a few good films including the great classic Letter From an Unknown Woman directed by the legendary Max Ophuls.
Olivia went to Paris in 1953 and married Pierre Galante, editor of Paris Match. They had a daughter, Giselle, and Olivia has lived in France ever since. She survived the death of her husband and her son from her previous marriage, and made a number of films and TV appearances. But nothing could compare with her white hot period of 1946-1949.
A few years ago the white haired Olivia made a memorable appearance at the Oscars, looking and sounding like the late queen mother of England. Last month the French government awarded her the Legion of Honor.
Joan Fontaine survived 4 divorces and one daughter, and today lives in Carmel, California. She rarely makes personal appearances.
Reportedly Joan and Olivia have not spoken since the 1975 death of their mother. Each of these gifted ladies has left a proud film legacy. Gone With the Wind and Rebecca are classics that will never date. I have a hunch that both Olivia and Joan are determined to outlive each other. Let's hope they both live to be 100!