de Havilland, Olivia and Joan Fontaine

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de Havilland, Olivia and Joan Fontaine

English actresses and sisters who took on the Hollywood brass and shared eight Academy Award nominations between them.

Olivia de Havilland (1916—). Born Olivia Mary de Havilland on July 1, 1916, in Tokyo, Japan; daughter of Walter (a patent attorney) and Lillian (Ruse) de Havilland; sister of actress Joan Fontaine (1917—); attended public schools and Notre Dame Convent, Belmont, California; married Marcus Goodrich (a novelist), in 1946 (divorced); married Pierre Galante (editor of Paris-Match), in 1955 (separated); children: (first marriage) one son, Benjamin; (second marriage) one daughter, Gisele.

Selected films:

A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935); Alibi Ike (1935); The Irish in Us (1935); Captain Blood (1935); Anthony Adverse (1936); The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936); Call It a Day (1937); The Great Garrick (1937); It's Love I'm After (1937); Gold Is Where You Find It (1938); The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938); Four's a Crowd (1938); Hard to Get (1938); Wings of the Navy (1939); Dodge City (1939); The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939); Gone with the Wind (1939); Raffles (1940); My Love Came Back (1940); Santa Fe Trail (1940); Strawberry Blonde (1941); Hold Back the Dawn (1941); They Died with Their Boots On (1941); The Male Animal (1942); In This Our Life (1942); Princess O'Rourke (1943); Government Girl (1943); Devotion (1946); The Well-Groomed Bride (1946); To Each His Own (1946); The Dark Mirror (1946); The Snake Pit (1948); The Heiress (1949); My Cousin Rachel (1953); That Lady (1955); Not As a Stranger (1955); The Ambassador's Daughter (1956); The Proud Rebel (1958); Libel (UK, 1959); The Light in the Piazza (1962); Lady in a Cage (1964); Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte (1965); The Adventurers (1970); Pope Joan (UK, 1972); The Fifth Musketeer (Behind the Iron Mask, 1977); Airport '77 (1977); The Swarm (1978).

Joan Fontaine (1917—). Name variations: acted under the name Joan Burfield and Joan St. John. Born Joan de Beauvoire de Havilland on October 22, 1917, in Tokyo, Japan; daughter of Walter (a patent attorney) and Lillian (Ruse) de Havilland; sister of actress Olivia de Havilland (1916—); married Brian Aherne (an actor), in 1939 (divorced 1944); married William Dozier (a producer), in 1946 (divorced 1951); married Collier Young (a producer-screenwriter), in 1952 (divorced 1961); married Alfred Wright, Jr. (golf editor of Sports Illustrated and former correspondent for Life), in 1964 (divorced); children: (second marriage) Deborah; (third marriage) adopted daughter Marita from Peru.

Selected films:

No More Ladies (1935, her only credit as Joan Burfield); Quality Street (1937); The Man Who Found Himself (1937); You Can't Beat Love (1937); Music for Madame (1937); A Damsel in Distress (1937); A Million to One (1937); Maid's Night Out (1938); Blonde Cheat (1938); Sky Giant (1938); The Duke of West Point (1938); Gunga Din (1939); Man of Conquest (1939); The Women (1939); Rebecca (1940); Suspicion (1941); This Above All (1942); The Constant Nymph (1943); Jane Eyre (1944); Frenchman's Creek (1944); The Affairs of Susan (1945); From This Day Forward (1946); Ivy (1947); The Emperor Waltz (1948); Kiss the Blood Off My Hands (1948); Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948); You Gotta Stay Happy (1948); Born to be Bad (1950); September Affair (1951); Darling How Could You! (1951); Something to Live For (1952); Ivanhoe (UK-US, 1952); Decameron Nights (UK, 1953); Flight to Tangier (1953); The Bigamist (1953); Casanova's Big Night (1954); Serenade (1956); Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956); Island in the Sun (1957); Until They Sail (1957); A Certain Smile (1958); Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961); Tender Is the Night (1961); The Witches (The Devil's Own, UK, 1966).

Beginning in the mid-1930s, Hollywood fell under the spell of the de Havilland sisters, Olivia ("Livvy") and Joan (who would later borrow the name Fontaine from her mother's second husband). Remarkably beautiful and fiercely competitive, they were notorious for their sisterly feuds, both real and manufactured. Less remembered, but historically more important, were the wars they waged with their respective studio bosses for better roles and working conditions. While Joan battled a near hostage situation at Selznick International, Olivia's fight with Warner Bros. made it to the Supreme Court of California and resulted in a landmark decision that led to the demise of the antiquated and repressive studio system.

Born in Tokyo of British parents, the girls were sickly as babies. When Olivia was three and Joan two, the de Havillands separated (later to divorce), and the children sailed with their mother to America. There, they settled in Saratoga, California, located in the foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Olivia proved the more resilient of the two youngsters, recuperating well from a bout of pneumonia following a tonsil operation. Joan, however, survived an attack of measles and strep only to be stricken with anemia that left her almost an invalid. Ill health would plague Joan throughout her life, including a six-year bout with toxoplasmosis, a parasite of the blood. While Olivia led an active life, swimming and playing field hockey, her sister was left behind. "Livvy can, Joan can't" was a taunt that haunted the younger sibling through childhood and sapped her confidence. But what Joan lacked in stamina, she made up for in intelligence, scoring over genius level on intelligence tests. Excelling in school, the sisters also studied voice and diction from an early age and occasionally gave living-room performances of Shakespeare, which Joan later called "just awful." At 15, Joan went to Tokyo to live with her father, while Olivia finished high school and planned to become an English and speech teacher. When Joan returned two years later, Olivia, who had won a scholarship to Mills College, had been "discovered" in a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream with the Saratoga Community Players. Chosen to play Hermia in Max Reinhardt's stage and screen versions of the play, she was subsequently signed by Warner Bros. to a seven-year contract.

Olivia de Havilland's early roles encompassed a series of sweet, demure heroines in films dominated by the studio's top male stars, among them Errol Flynn, with whom she was cast in a number of romantic adventures. Considered one of the best of her early movies was Anthony Adverse (1936), which won critical acclaim for the 19-year-old and boosted her stature as one of Hollywood's most beautiful and promising stars. Mervyn Le Roy, who directed her in the film, called her a born actress: "Her diction is superb. She can deliver a line with any inflection the director wants, as accurately as if it were played on a piano—and she has the greatest of arts—the ability to act as if she weren't acting at all." De Havilland's next big break came when, over studio boss Jack Warner's protestations, she accepted the role of Melanie in David Selznick's ground-breaking epic, Gone with the Wind (1939), the most profitable movie of all time. (Reputedly, Joan was also considered for the role, but Selznick dismissed her as too chic.) De Havilland's skill in turning the sugary, too-good-to-be-true character of Melanie into a real and moving woman won her an Oscar nomination. Later, she would struggle to rid herself of the "sweet Melanie" image, which her sister Joan may have helped to promulgate.

While Olivia was taking Hollywood by storm, Joan's career had yet to take off. She started on the stage, accepting roles in a mystery drama called Kind Lady and in a West Coast production of Dodie Smith 's Call It a Day, for which she received good reviews. Joan was offered her first movie contract when delivering lunch to Olivia at the make-up department at Warner's. Although both her mother and sister were against her entering what was considered "Olivia's domain," Joan made her movie debut in MGM's No More Ladies (1935) with Joan Crawford . Forbidden by her family to use the name de Havilland, Joan acted briefly under the name Burfield (after a street in Hollywood) before finally settling on Fontaine. She was eventually contracted under RKO and made a series of forgettable pictures, including A Damsel in Distress (1937), which she would later recall as aptly named. Cast opposite Fred Astaire in a singing and dancing role (she could do neither), she was described by one critic as "the weak spot in the picture … a wooden woman." Fontaine was then loaned out for a variety of small parts before being dropped by RKO when her contract ran out. Considering herself a failure at 22, she thought seriously of giving up her career, but the prospect of playing the second Mrs. de Winter in the movie Rebecca, from Daphne du Maurier 's bestselling novel, improved her outlook. Selznick, who had asked her to test shortly after purchasing the rights, considered countless actresses for the role, and Fontaine waited six months while he made up his mind. She landed a small part in The Women (1939) before learning that she had been chosen for the coveted role. In the interim, she also married her first husband, the actor Brian Aherne. The marriage ended in divorce as did three subsequent marriages.

For her work in Rebecca, astutely directed by Alfred Hitchcock, Joan won her first Oscar nomination and gained stature as a superb actress in her own right. She received a long-term contract from Selznick, although her relationship with him, much like Olivia's with Jack Warner, got off to a bad start. While Selznick continued to cast her as a defenseless heroine, she considered herself capable of more gutsy roles. Disagreement aside, her second movie under the Selznick contract, Suspicion (1941), was made while on loan to RKO, and won her an Oscar as well the New York Film Critics' Award. The occasion was made more dramatic by the fact that de Havilland had also been nominated for her work in Hold Back the Dawn (1941). The sisterly rivalry that had fueled Hollywood's rumor mill now appeared full blown, and the press, misinterpreting Joan's shyness, was not particularly sympathetic to her. (In 1943, she was selected by the Hollywood Women's Press Club as the least cooperative actress of the year.) After Suspicion, Fontaine became

more selective about her films, turning down role after role until The Constant Nymph (1943), which Selznick allowed her to make only after she had agreed to do This Above All as well. Joan later described The Constant Nymph as the happiest assignment of her career. She remained friends with her co-star Charles Boyer, whom she called "a kind, gentle, helpful actor." The New York Times called her portrayal of Tessa, a delicate teenager, "a superb achievement," and she was once again nominated for an Academy Award.

In 1943, after de Havilland was cast in a series of remakes (Raffles and Saturday's Children) and in a supporting role in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (playing second fiddle to Bette Davis ' Elizabeth), she brought suit against Warner's for release from her contract, claiming that her seven-year agreement with them had ended. The studio countered by saying that she had six months more to run as the result of five suspensions when she had refused to play assigned roles. The prolonged suit against the studio, which was later backed by the Screen Actors Guild, went all the way to the California Supreme Court. A landmark decision, known as the "De Havilland Decision," was handed down on February 3, 1945, and forever changed the history of studio and player relationships by setting the outside limit of a studio-player contract at seven years, including periods of suspension. As a result of the litigation, de Havilland was absent from pictures for over a year, though she appeared frequently in radio dramas and took an active part in supporting Franklin Roosevelt's bid for the presidency. She returned to films in The Well-Groomed Bride (1946), followed by the drama To Each His Own (1946), for which she won her first Oscar, as Best Actress. That year, she married Marcus Goodrich, becoming the author's fifth wife. The union produced a son before ending in divorce.

De Havilland's career peaked with her portrayal of a mental patient in the landmark film The Snake Pit (1948), which is often considered her finest, most developed role. Though she won the New York Film Critics' Award and was nominated for another Academy Award, de Havilland lost the Oscar to Jane Wyman (Johnny Belinda). The following year, however, Olivia won her second Oscar and another Film Critics' Award for The Heiress (1949), even though many felt she was too pretty for the Ugly Ducking role. After an unsuccessful attempt to establish herself on the Broadway stage (playing Juliet and Candida), she returned to the screen in My Cousin Rachel (1953) and That Lady (1955), her last movies before she moved to Paris with her second husband Pierre Galante, the editor of Paris-Match. Maintaining that she was no longer interested in films, she nonetheless made several abroad. De Havilland returned to Hollywood to make two horror films, Lady in a Cage (1964), about an invalid trapped in an elevator, and Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte (1965), in which she reluctantly took over Joan Crawford's role when Crawford fell ill. Her later work included The Adventurers (1970), Airport 77 (1977), and The Swarm (1978). She also appeared in a number of television productions, among them the series "Roots: the Next Generation" and "Anastasia: The Mystery of Anna"; her portrayal of the Dowager Empress in the latter brought her a Golden Globe. In 1961, she published Every Frenchman Has One, recollecting her life in Paris.

Joan Fontaine followed her success in The Constant Nymph with Jane Eyre (1944), which also drew raves. She continued to star in numerous films, occasionally trading in her innocent heroines for more sophisticated roles. Her relationship with Selznick continued to degenerate, and, after being suspended for most of 1945, she moved to RKO, where she embarked on a series of costume dramas. (In her biography No Bed of Roses, Fontaine faults Selznick for making huge profits by loaning her, as well as other stars, to other studios and for using bullying tactics when she refused a role.) Notable at RKO was Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), a story of lost-remembered love co-starring Louis Jourdan that was considered by some to be one of her finest performances. During the 1950s, she made primarily conventional films, with the exception of her touching performance as a budding actress on the skids in Something to Live For (1952). In 1954, she replaced Deborah Kerr in the Broadway play Tea and Sympathy, which she regarded as a terrifying experience in spite of excellent reviews. Of her later films, most notable are the wartime drama Until They Sail (1957) and Tender Is the Night (1962), in which her performance was the only aspect of the film that critics praised.

After three failed marriages, in 1964 Fontaine married for the fourth time, taking up residence in New York. Vowing that she no longer needed to make pictures, she remained content to wait until the right part came along. Her interests beyond acting led to success as a licensed pilot, an expert golfer, and a Cordon Bleu cook. In 1978, she published her memoir, No Bed of Roses, and also appeared in Vienna in The Lion in Winter. Most of her later work has been on television, often guesting. Fontaine had a substantial role in the telemovies "The Users" (1979) and "Crossings" (1986). She also played the matriarch in "Dark Mansions," a Gothic melodrama and pilot for a possible series.


Fontaine, Joan. No Bed of Roses. NY: William Morrow, 1978.

Gray, Dorothy. "Olivia," in Palm Beach Life. June 1974.

"Joan Fontaine," in Current Biography. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1944.

Katz, Ephraim. The Film Encyclopedia. NY: HarperCollins, 1994.

Shipman, David. The Great Movie Stars: The Golden Years. Boston: Little Brown, 1995.


Higham, Charles. Sisters: The Story of Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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