The Oscar Feud That Spans Seven Decades /

Two sisters competed against each other for Best Actress in the 1940s. All these years later, they're still feuding.

You don’t have to be a movie buff to know that Olivia de Havilland played the iconic Melanie Hamilton Wilkes in Gone with the Wind. But unless you’re familiar with the golden age of the silver screen, you might not know that Joan Fontaine, her sister, was a star and Oscar winner in her own right. The sisters were never exactly the best of friends; in a school magazine in which students were invited to “bequeath” things to other students, Olivia wrote, “I bequeath to my sister the ability to win boys’ hearts, which she does not have at present.”

It only got worse when they both started acting and competing for the same roles. It was Fontaine, in fact, who initially went after the Melanie Wilkes role—but she was told she was too chic for the part. “Melanie must be a plain Southern girl,” she was told, and so Fontaine suggested her sister.

In 1942, they were both up for Best Actress Oscars. Joan ended up winning for her role opposite Cary Grant in Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion. When her name was announced as winner, Joan said, “I felt Olivia would spring across the table and grab me by the hair.” Olivia got her revenge in 1946, when she won the Best Actress Oscar for To Each His Own and shunned her sister’s outstretched hand as she tried to congratulate her on winning the statuette.

They continued to speak—though icily—until 1975, when their mother died. “Olivia sent me a telegram. I was on tour, so it got mailed to me two weeks later at my next stop. She didn’t bother to find out where I could be reached on a telephone.” Olivia claims she did invite Joan to the service, but that Joan said she was too busy to attend. In her memoir, No Bed of Roses (in which she referred to herself in the third person), Joan recalled that "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.’’ Whatever actually happened, that was the final straw, and as of a few years ago, they still had not spoken. They’re both still alive—Olivia is 96 and Joan is 95—so there’s hope for them yet.

But it probably won’t be at the Oscars: When they were both invited to the 60th Annual Academy Awards in 1988, someone made the grievous error of putting them in hotel rooms right next to each other. Because of that and a few other flubs, Fontaine declared that she would never attend the Oscars again.