Olivia de Havilland, Legendary for Films and Feud With Joan Fontaine, Dies at 104

Olivia de Havilland, Legendary for Films and Feud With Joan Fontaine, Dies at 104

Olivia de Havilland went to Hollywood in 1935 at the age of 18 and became a star.

It was almost that simple. Even the backstory reads like a script for one of those lighter-than-air ’30s movie comedies. She was there to understudy the understudy for actress Gloria Stuart in Max Reinhardt’s film of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (the one with Mickey Rooney as Puck, but don’t let that stop anyone). But before filming began, both Stuart and the understudy quit the production. De Havilland—who died Saturday at her home in Paris at the age of 104—stepped into the role of Hermia and never looked back.

She played Maid Marian in The Adventures of Robin Hood in 1938, and the next year she appeared as vanilla Melanie (but top drawer vanilla) in Gone With the Wind. She was nominated for five Oscars and won twice, as Best Actress, for To Each His Own and The Snake Pit. She was a big star in Hollywood’s golden era. Critics loved her, audiences admired her—she had spirit but she wasn’t hot: she was one of those actresses like Greer Garson and Loretta Young who seemed always inviolate.

Retiring even from small roles almost three decades ago, she outlived her own stardom, although Robin Hood and Gone With the Wind secure her place in movie memory forever. In her heyday, she was the Queen of Long-Suffering Heroines. Just ask grandmother. Or given how long de Havilland lived, maybe ask grandmother to ask her grandmother.

And for the really good stuff, ask about the legendary feud between De Havilland and her sister, Joan Fontaine.

On screen De Havilland was always a good to excellent actress (The Heiress). But only off-screen does she become truly interesting, for it was there that she scored her greatest role as one half of Hollywood’s most famous case of sibling rivalry.  

The feud began in childhood. Olivia and Joan were born in Japan to British parents and grew up in California, where the family broke up, the father remarried, and the girls soon found themselves under the thumb of a stepfather with strict ideas of parenting. Olivia, the eldest by 15 months, was beautiful, “bouncy, and plump,” according to a Life magazine profile of the sister in 1942. Joan was “a scrubby, scraggly haired little girl.” Olivia taunted her sister mercilessly: “I can but Joan can’t.” When they fought, hair got pulled, and sometimes it got pulled out.

The fighting abated once they were grown, at least for a while. When Olivia went to Hollywood, Joan followed a few years later and became her sister’s chauffeur before she too broke into the picture business. Thereafter, things were reasonably amicable, but by the late ’30s, both women were famous, and the feuding began again.

The Life story was pegged to the 1942 Academy Awards, when each sister was nominated for Best Actress—Joan for her role in Suspicion and Olivia for Hold Back the Dawn. It was a close race. They sat at the same table with the other nominees at the awards banquet, waiting to find out who would take home the statue.

When Joan won, the Hollywood elite gathered there that night waited for the dramatic outburst, the hair-pulling, a tantrum, tears. Their audience went home disappointed. When Joan’s name was called out, Olivia sweetly grabbed her sister’s hand and said, “We’ve got it.” The world was given a moment of solidarity among sisters. A shared moment. A “we,” not an “I” or a “you.”

Source link

Leave a comment

Do NOT follow this link or you will be banned from the site!