When Olivia de Havilland celebrated her 96th birthday last month in Paris, it was a public event worthy of Hollywood royalty — after all, she’s not only a two-time winner of the Best Actress Oscar, but stars in two of the most beloved classic-age movies, “Gone With the Wind’’ and “The Adventures of Robin Hood.’’
Conspicuously absent from the festivities was de Havilland’s estranged younger sister, Joan Fontaine, 94, another Best Actress winner who by all accounts is as robustly healthy as her sibling, and lives an ocean and a continent away in Carmel, Calif.
The sisters have carried on Hollywood’s longest-running and most bitter feud, currently in its eighth decade — clashing over roles, Oscars and lovers, among other things. They have not spoken in 35 years.
Their rivalry goes back to their childhood in Japan, where Fontaine claims the 15-month-old de Havilland “was still too young to accept the arrival of a competitor for the affections of her parents and adoring staff.’’ Their British-born parents split in 1919, and their mother, Lillian, took them to California because of young Joan’s poor health.
After the family resettled near San Jose, Lillian married a department store owner named George Fontaine. Both sisters hated their stepfather and his authoritarian ways, but disliked each other even more. Olivia, the editor of a school magazine, published a mock will: “I bequeath to my sister the ability to win boys’ hearts, which she does not have at present.’’
When Joan was 15, in 1933, “Olivia threw me down on the poolside flagstone border, jumped on top of me and fractured my collarbone,’’ the younger sister recalled. “I regret I remember not one act of kindness all through my childhood.’’
Both elegant beauties, the sisters were soon professional stage actresses, with de Havilland quickly zooming to stardom when she was signed by Warner Bros. and teamed with Errol Flynn in “Captain Blood,’’ the first of their seven films together.
Fontaine, meanwhile, struggled in forgotten B-movies before landing bland romantic roles in more ambitious movies opposite stars like Fred Astaire and Cary Grant.
Fontaine was the first to marry — to one of de Havilland’s discarded boyfriends, actor Brian Aherne. The night before the wedding, de Havilland’s beau at the time, billionaire Howard Hughes, flirted with Fontaine — something her sister was none too happy about.
But that was nothing compared to their professional rivalry. When Fontaine tested for the role of Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone With the Wind,’’ producer David O. Selznick asked if she would be interested in playing the sweet Melanie Hamilton instead.
To her everlasting regret, Fontaine rejected what she considered an inferior role. Instead, she suggested her sister, who snagged an Oscar nomination, for Best Supporting Actress.
Fontaine beat out her sister for the much-sought lead in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rebecca’’ and received her first Best Actress nod, though she ended up losing to Ginger Rogers.
But at the 1942 Oscars, the sisters went head to head for Best Actress — the first time this ever happened — de Havilland for “Hold Back the Dawn,’’ and Fontaine for another Hitchcock film, “Suspicion.’’ Fontaine won, and things got really bad.
Fontaine recalled: “I froze. I stared across the table, where Olivia was sitting. ‘Get up there!’ she whispered commandingly. All the animus we’d felt toward each other as children . . . all came rushing back in kaleidoscopic imagery . . . I felt Olivia would spring across the table and grab me by the hair.’’
Things got worse when de Havilland finally won her own Best Actress Oscar, in 1946, for “To Each His Own.’’ “After Olivia delivered her speech and entered the wings, I went over to congratulate her as I would have done to any winner,’’ Fontaine recalled. “She took one look at me, ignored my hand, clutched her Oscar and wheeled away.’’
Sharp-tongued Fontaine gave as good as she got. When de Havilland wed the frequently married novelist Marcus Goodrich in 1946, Fontaine quipped, “It’s too bad that Olivia’s husband has had so many wives and only one book.’’ The sisters didn’t speak for six years after that, not even when de Havilland won her second Oscar for 1949’s “The Heiress.”
“This cut me to the quick,’’ de Havilland told Hollywood columnist Hedda Hopper in a never-aired radio interview unearthed by film historian Robert Matzen for his book “Errol and Olivia.’’ “I never got any kind of apology, and wasn’t going to say, ‘How do you do?’ to her until I did get it,’’ she added.
There were occasional truces between the sisters. But after their mother died in February 1975, the estrangement became permanent.
“I was not invited to the memorial service,’’ Fontaine wrote in her scathing memoir, “No Bed of Roses’’ (in which she refers to herself in the third person). “Only after . . . threatening to call the press and give them the whole story was the service postponed and Joan and her daughter Debbie permitted to attend.’’
Occasionally they crossed paths at Oscar ceremonies. In 1978, they were seated at opposite ends of the stage. A decade later, Joan learned they were booked into adjacent rooms — and had hers changed. London’s Daily Mail asked de Haviland about a possible reconciliation. She gritted her teeth and said, “Better not.’’
Even the long-feuding Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis managed to patch things up before Martin’s death in 1995. But Matzen thinks a better comparison may be founding fathers John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, enemies who died within hours of each other on the 50th anniversary of the ratification of the Declaration of Independence.
“Like Adams and Jefferson,” he says, “Olivia and Joan’s rivalry will probably go on to death, with each determined to outlive each other.”