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Joan Fontaine 1917-2013

Hollywood lost one of its screen legends this past weekend when Joan Fontaine died at 96. The Academy Award-winning actress found stardom with roles in Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion and Rebecca and also worked with directors such as Billy Wilder, Fritz Lang, and Nicholas Ray. All told Fontaine appeared in more than 30 movies, including early roles in The Women and Gunga Din, the title part in Jane Eyre and in Max Ophuls’ historical drama Letter from an Unknown Woman. She was also in films directed by Wilder (The Emperor Waltz), Lang (Beyond a Reasonable Doubt) and, wised up and dangerous, in Ray’s Born to be Bad. She starred on Broadway in 1954 in Tea and Sympathy.

Fontaine was the younger sister of fellow screen siren, and Golden Globe-winner, Olivia De Havilland and the two divas were as renowned for their stardom as for their Baby Jane-like lifelong feud.

Longtime member and past HFPA president reflects on their story. Hollywood’s Most Bitter and Longest-Running Feud There has never been a running feud between two sisters, let alone two Academy Award-winning actresses, like the one between Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine, who didn’t speak to each other in over 70 years.

Joan celebrated her 96th birthday on October 22, 2013. Olivia will be 98 next July. When Rooney Mara was recently asked at a HFPA press conference if there was any sibling rivalry between her and her sister Kate, as there was between Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine, Rooney’s response was, Who are they?

In the 1940s they were the most famous sister act working in Hollywood. And they competed with each other not just for the same parts but in successive years for Best Actress accolades. In 1939 when Olivia was nominated for a best-supporting actress Oscar for Melanie in Gone With the Wind, which Hattie McDaniel ended up winning, Joan was busy filming her most famous role, Mrs. DeWinter in Hitchcock’s Rebecca. Joan was nominated the following year for that role but lost out to Ginger Rogers for Kitty Foyle who proved she could act as well as partner Fred Astaire. A year later in 1941 both Olivia (for Hold back the Dawn) and Joan (for Suspicion) were nominated, Joan emerging the victor. And thus began their celebrated feud.

In 1943 Joan was again nominated for The Constant Nymph but lost to Jennifer Jones who won both the Oscar and our first Golden Globe (for The Song of Bernadette). In 1946 Olivia finally won her Oscar for To Each His Own, but Rosalind Russell was our Golden Globe winner for Sister Kenny. Again in 1948 Olivia was nominated for The Snake Pit, but Jane Wyman (for Johnny Belinda) was both the Academy Award and Golden Globe winner. Finally in 1949, Olivia won both the Golden Globe and the Academy Award for The Heiress.

Four years later in l953 Olivia won her second Golden Globe nomination for My Cousin Rachel, but it was newcomer Audrey Hepburn who took home both the Golden Globe and the Oscar (for Roman Holiday.) Almost forty years later Olivia finally won a Best Supporting Actress Golden Globe award for a movie made for TV, Anastasia, The Mystery of Anna. That was in 1987, and neither have been nominated since. Surprisingly, Joan Fontaine never was nominated nor won a Golden Globe, but only because her period of greatest productivity was before the first Golden Globes were ever presented.

Lurking in the background for both actresses has always been legendary producer David O. Selznick, who gave Olivia her most beloved role in Gone with the Wind and had Joan under contract for seven years, during which time she made only one movie for him; the others were all on loan-out (mostly forgettable) to other studios. Why these two extraordinarily beautiful and remarkably talented young women remain estranged for over seventy years is a Hollywood mystery that has never been solved. The presumption was jealousy (sibling rivalry became a popular term decades later) and in fact, when Joan was signed by RKO, Olivia insisted she use a different surname. (Fontaine was her stepfather’s surname.) One reason given is that when they were both nominated in l943 and Joan won, as she walked to the podium, Olivia held out her hand to congratulate her only to be rebuffed.

They have never been seen together since. They were both born de Havillands to British subjects in Tokyo, Japan. In 1919 the family moved to California. Both began acting in 1935, Joan appearing on Broadway and Olivia being signed to her “infamous” seven-year contract by Warner Bros. Joan was later signed by RKO. Olivia was the more gutsy, initiating her landmark lawsuit against Warner Bros. challenging the duration of a contract. The studios’ practice at the time was to add intervals when contract players were suspended without pay for refusing roles. Olivia argued seven years was seven years. And she won triumphantly and changed the studios’ despotic control of contract players for all time. Joan was the more docile. She was dropped by RKO after playing colorless heroines in Damsel in Distress (opposite Fred Astaire) and Gunga Din (opposite Cary Grant) but a chance encounter with Selznick resulted in Rebecca and a long term contract.

Both actresses married numerous times, Olivia to novelist Marcus Goodrich and Paris Match Editor Pierre Galante, although the love of her life was always Errol Flynn. They made eight films together including the classic Adventures of Robin Hood. Joan married producers. William Dozier, her second husband, ran CBS and produced her last memorable film, Max Ophuls’ Letter from an Unknown Woman. Collier Young, her third husband, was responsible for most of Ida Lupino’s directorial efforts, during their stormy marriage. Her fourth husband was not in the business. Joan was married to Brian Aherne, also an RKO contract player, for six years during her RKO years. Olivia was the stronger actress. She clawed her way to gain roles in both Gone with the Wind and The Snake Pit, arguably her two best performances. When Joan won her Oscar for Suspicion it was a consolation for not winning the previous year for Rebecca. Bosley Crowther, the New York Times critic, famously wrote that Joan’s haunched shoulders won her that role. Ironically her Academy Award for Suspicion is the only acting award ever given to a Hitchcock film.