Oscar: De Havilland, Olivia and Joan Fontaine–Feuding Sisters

There was no amicable sportsmanship in 1941, when sisters Joan Fontaine (Suspicion) and Olivia de Havilland (Hold Back the Dawn) were nominated for Best Actress, thus competing against each other Rumors of the “feuding sisters,” who were close in age, circulated in the movie colony. De Havilland’s beginning was more auspicious than her sister’s, having made a number of popular films opposite Errol Flynn.

Fontaine’s life as De Havilland’s Cinderella sister was well covered by the press. Until 1939, life seemed to give Olivia all the good breaks and all the bad ones to Joan. Fontaine’s s stage debut was in an English comedy, Call It a Day, but when Warner bought the picture rights, the role she had played was given to her sister. Fontaine was then determined to make her way independent of the more famous Olivia. She tested for Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind, and lost to Vivien Leigh; Olivia was cast as Melanie in that picture. The childhood taunt, “Livva can, Joan can’t” continued to haunt Fontaine for years.

The Oscar rivalry of the two sisters was more than a routine Hollywood publicity story. In 1941, the New York Film Critics had cast five ballots before getting the majority necessary decision. During four of the ballots, De Havilland had vied with Fontaine for the Best Actress honor. It was one of the few times that the Academy and the New York Film Critics Circle selected the same actress for the award.

When Fontaine won Best Actress for Suspicion, De Havilland, nominated that year for Hold Back the Dawn, clapped the loudest of all, exclaiming, “We’ve won.” Fontaine told the press: “If Suspicion had been delayed just a little it wouldn’t have got under the wire for this year’s award. I’ve been runnerup so often it isn’t funny anymore. If it happens again, I’m likely to break something.” Fontaine recalled in her memoirs that when she won Best Actress for Suspicion, “Olivia took the situation very graciously. I am sure it was not a pleasant moment for her, as she’d lost the previous year for Melanie in Gone With the Wind in the supporting actress category.”

In privacy, however, De Havilland was devastated, telling her friends that if the release of Suspicion had been delayed–originally it was intended to open in 1942–she would have won the 1941 Oscar. Magazines of the time tell in great detail how De Havilland backed off and gave Fontaine the cold shoulder when she tried to shake her hand upon winning an Oscar for To Each His Own. Recalled Fontaine: “In later years, Olivia made it up with two Oscars, for To Each His Own and for The Heiress, so the evening of Suspicion was only a temporary setback.”