Joan Fontaine and Olivia de Havilland’s vicious sibling rivalry—‘savage wrestling matches’ | Films | Entertainment

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Joan Fontaine, who plays the lead in tonight’s thriller film Suspicion on BBC Two, was the younger sister of Olivia de Havilland by just 15 months. Like any sisters they found themselves feuding as children but their rivalry would span their entire careers and only truly ended when the pair died. 

The duo would climb to fame in the Golden age of Hollywood, breaking records as they did. 

Over half a century after they first made an appearance in Hollywood, and to this day, the pair still holds the record for being the only sisters to have both won lead acting awards. 

De Havilland won a total of two Oscars for Best Actress in a Leading Role while Fontaine won her only Oscar in 1942. 

The actresses grew up sharing a childhood bedroom where their rivalry would start as Fontaine felt de Havilland was unfairly favoured by their mother. 

In an interview with People in 1978, Fontaine shared that de Havilland used to terrify her when they were younger with dramatic readings of the Bible’s crucifixion story. 

Fontaine’s memoir would also describe physical confrontations between the two leading ladies, including “savage wrestling matches”. 

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De Havilland would be the first of the pair to enter the entertainment industry with her role in the 1935 film A Midsummer Night’s Dream. 

She was just 18 at the time and the younger Fontaine reportedly persuaded her to help her become an actress as well. 

De Havilland agreed to help, under the condition that Fontaine would change her surname in order to avoid any confusion in the industry. 

Fontaine happily complied, taking her stepfather’s surname, but the pair’s niceties were to be short-lived. 

According to Biography, after Fontaine changed her name, de Havilland was quoted as saying: “Joan Fontaine. I don’t know who she is.”

Any pair of siblings working in the same industry have some level of competitiveness, which often spurs them to greatness, but Fontaine and de Havilland’s relationship would suffer as a consequence. 

De Havilland had a contract with Warner Bros. and as a result, lost a role in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca to her sister. 

The role would get Fontaine an Oscar nomination, making her the first out of the duo to be nominated thus far. 

In 1942 tensions between the two would come to a head as they both got nominated in the same Oscar category. 

Fontaine was nominated for her role in Suspicion, while de Havilland was nominated for Hold Back the Dawn. 

Ultimately Fontaine won the Oscar, although the sisters were seated at the same table during the ceremony. 

Fontaine would later comment that the moment took her back to being four years old and at the mercy of her older sister. 

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She said: “I felt Olivia would spring across the table and grab me by the hair. Damn it, I’d incurred her wrath again!”

Five years later de Havilland won her own Oscar, and Fontaine’s congratulations were rejected according to USA Today. 

In 1975 the rivalry would reach a critical point after their mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer and would die soon after.  

Fontaine alleged that no one told her her mother was asking to see her and that she was not invited to the memorial service. 

De Havilland, who was by her mothers side when she died, claimed that Fontaine had said she was too busy to attend the service. 

The sister’s relationship completely broke down at this point, with Fontaine telling People: “You can divorce your sister as well as your husbands.”

Fontaine died in 2013 at the age of 96 while her sister would live until the ripe age of 104 in 2020. 

Tragically, Fontaine had predicted this outcome years earlier, telling People: “I got married first, got an Academy Award first, had a child first. If I die [first], she’ll be furious, because again I’ll have got there first!”

After her sister’s death, de Havilland spoke to USA Today noting there was not necessarily a feud between the two of them. 

She explained that a feud implied hostilities from both sides, saying: “I cannot think of a single instance wherein I initiated hostile behaviour. But I can think of many occasions where my reaction to deliberately inconsiderate behaviour was defensive.”

Suspicion airs this afternoon at 1pm on BBC Two. Fontaine’s memoir, No Bed of Roses, is published by William Morrow and is available for purchase HERE. 

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