If you are not familiar with Fontaine, perhaps you remember her sister Olivia de Haviland, who is now 97.
de Havilland is best known as stoic and sweet Melanie in “Gone with the Wind”.
Olivia also starred in eight films with Errol Flynn–who was a swashbuckling seducer of the times. (The expression “in like Flynn” originated from the actor’s prowess. In his later years he tried to write a memoir called “In Like Me”…which was rejected by publishers. A hard drinking gentleman with a penchant for morphine and and heroin, his career crumbled after a pesky statutory rape charge from two women. The subsequent trial unraveled his heroic on-screen persona, and his popularity diminished. Flynn died at the age of 50 in a West End apartment in Vancouver).
Joan was born one year after Olivia. Both women were born in Tokyo, Japan, where their father Walter was a university professor. Their mother Lilian was a stage actress before following her husband to Japan. After discovering her husband’s infidelity with geishas, their marriage crumbled. Due to Joan’s ill health, Lilian moved with both sisters to California. Joan eventually returned to Tokyo to complete her schooling. Though both began appearing in films in 1935, it was arguably Olivia that was favored…in Hollywood and at home.
In her memoir “No Bed of Roses”, Fontaine claimed that she had no memories of Olivia’s kindness. She endured bullying, and suffered violent outbursts from her sister, which once led to a broken collarbone. Her mother was also dismissive, ripping Olivia’s outworn garments for Joan to repair and wear. Very Cinderella–the early years. Since Olivia had approached an acting career first, and that Joan tried to follow along, was a major upset to the de Havilland clan. Their mother, who clearly favored Olivia, supported Olivia’s argument that Joan should not be allowed to use the family name for professional purposes.
Undaunted, Fontaine made up a stage name and appeared in a dozen or so pictures. None of the films were hugely successful, and when her contract with RKO expired in 1939, it was not renewed. Of course, this is the same year that “Gone with the Wind” premiered. de Havilland was nominated for an Academy Award.
For de Havilland, being nominated for “just” the best supporting actress was a bitter pill to swallow. She thought her performance was comparable to Vivien Leigh‘s Scarlett O’Hara.
Vivien Leigh won the award. de Havilland, convinced that she would win in her category, was devastated when Hattie McDaniel won instead.
Bear in mind, this was a historical moment: the first African American to win an Oscar, but McDaniel and her escort were seated at a segregated table for two, far from her cast mates and other industry giants. While de Havilland’s loss reportedly caused her to doubt God’s existence, at least she got to rub elbows at the A-List table. One historian remarked: “Ms. McDaniel and her escort were seated alone at a small round table in a sea of long banquet tables end to end. They were in a corner [facing the stairs]”. That’s just about the saddest effing thing I’ve ever heard.
After McDaniel’s death, her Academy Award (not a statue, but a plaque) was displayed at Howard University in Washington DC. At a indeterminate date, the award vanished without a trace. Rumors swirled that it was stolen during the civil rights movement and hurled into the Potomac River by idealistic students who were angered by “Gone with the Wind’s” lamentation of slavery’s end; and McDaniel’s portrayal of a slave. In 2011 Professor W. B. Carter published her findings after a year and a half of investigation, and basically conclude that it was boxed up sometime between 1971 and 1972, and just got because it was a plaque and not the recognizable golden statue it presumably got lost in the shuffle. (Oh this picture? Apparently they’re just letting Hattie look at the Oscar, she doesn’t actually get to take one home).
Social injustice aside, I invite you to fast forward ahead one year. It’s 1941 and Joan Fontaine’s career is on the upswing. She had the good fortune to be sat next to David O. Selznick at a dinner party, who cast her opposite Laurence Olivier in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rebecca”.
The following year she had been nominated for best actress in Hitchcock’s “Suspicion” and Olivia de Havilland for “Hold Back the Dawn”. This competition was a major focal point in the media. In 1942, the moment of truth arrived and Fontaine’s name was called.
“I froze. I stared across the table, where Olivia was sitting. ‘Get up there!’ she whispered commandingly. Now what had I done? All the animosity we’d felt toward each other as children, the hair-pullings, the savage wrestling watches, the time Olivia fractured my collarbone, all came rushing back in kaleidoscopic imagery. My paralysis was total.”
‘Kaleidoscopic imagery?’ ‘My paralysis was total?’ Imagine that kind of pressure, while everyone is smiling and clapping, and you’re quietly having a stroke.
In 1947, after two losses, de Havilland won for “To Each His Own”. Joan Crawford was meant to present the award, but backed out at the last minute. The Academy replaced her with Fontaine, with the hope of de Havilland winning and a reconciliation of sorts to follow. That, or someone gets slapped, either way they’d get something for the front page of the newspaper. de Havilland refused to even shake her sister’s hand. Backstage, Olivia continued the snub, saying to her agent “I don’t know why she does that when she knows how I feel”.
By 1975, their mother–who had been the true source of their rivalry, had died. The sisters disagreed with how to care for Lilian (who went by Lillian Fontaine in her later years). At the time, Joan was touring with a play and Olivia sent a telegram to her next stop, which Joan did not get for two weeks. (Which was probably for the best as she wasn’t invited to the service anyhow). And from all accounts, never psoke again. Damn you de Havilland, why’d you have to be so cold?
Phew…Let’s just take a breather here, this is emotional for me too. It’s like going through an old trunk of letters and learning from pretty big truths about life and love. We’ve covered a lot of ground here. I didn’t know about Hattie McDaniel either…sitting alone at that little table. And these two sisters both lived well into their nineties, refusing to settle this vintage grudge match. Like…wouldn’t you want to call your sister and just marvel at your long, amazing lives?”
Apparently not. They last attended the 1987 Oscars at the same time, and then never again. In recent years, they were invited to events such as Bette Davis’s 100th birthday party. And one wouldn’t go if the other was going. Which is a shame, being that everyone else who knew Bette Davis was dead. They had decided, and declared in so many words to the press that it was just to late to mend any fences. Not even Bette Davis could bring them together. All this talk about Bette Davis and sibling rivalry means it’s just a hop, skip and a jump to the psychological thriller “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?”
The Hudson sisters are two old movie stars living in a dilapidated mansion. As children, Baby Jane (Bette Davis) was a vaudeville star, beloved by her parents. Blanche (Joan Crawford) was constantly overlooked. As they grew older the roles were reversed. Blanche was a huge success, while Baby Jane’s career was stalling. Baby Jane plunges into alcoholism and depression. A mysterious car accident occurs and Blanche is left paralyzed, leaving crazy old Baby Jane to be her deranged caretaker. I’m not going to get into it, but shit goes down in that house, and it is perfectly terrifying. In the end: the maid is dead, the bird is dead, they’re being hunted by police and Baby Jane has dragged Blanche down to the beach.
Blanche admits that the night of the fateful accident, she had deliberately try to hit her sister with the car. It was Blanche who tried to run over her drunken sister. Jane, however, moved out of the way in time and Blanche had slammed into the gate and snapped her spine, but managed to drag herself out of the car and up to the wrecked gate. Jane was too drunk to realize what happened, and has long believed that she was responsible for her sister’s condition. Baby Jane says: “You mean all this time we could have been friends?” Communication people, it’s essential.
It was no secret that Bette Davis and Joan Crawford absolutely loathed one another. Davis had once remarked to the both of them as “old broads”; Crawford rebuked her with an angry telegram. When the Academy Awards were announced, Davis was nominated, Crawford was not. Being the classy gal she was, Crawford actively campaigned against Davis and approached all the other nominees, offering to take their places in they were unavailable. And what do you know, Bette Davis was standing in the wings of the theatre when it was announced that Anne Bancroft had won Best Actress for “The Miracle Worker”. Bancroft was in New York and sent Crawford in her absence. Passing Davis, she said “Excuse me, I have an Oscar to accept”. Oh snap!
Really, this whole thing boils down to the existential dilemma in “Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion”. Who’s the Mary and who’s the Rhoda. Who’s the leading lady and who’s the best friend.
In a dream sequence, they explore the kind of grudge that not even the death bed can cure.
Does it ever get to a point in our lives when it doesn’t really matter who was the Mary or the Rhoda? Who did better, who achieved more? Was more pretty or popular? What does that matter in the end when all you have are your memories? When does the roar of jealousy quiet down long enough to reach out regardless; to check in, to congratulate each other for surviving, to remember those golden, glamorous days when you were a star and Errol was in like Flynn.