Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Sisters Get Under the Skin

With the passing of Joan Fontaine at 96, a record for sibling rivalry is finally set in stone. In Hollywood’s heyday, she and Olivia de Havilland were movie stars who won Academy Awards and openly despised one another.

At the 1941 Oscars, Fontaine beat out her sister, a year older, and later wrote in a memoir, "All the animus we'd felt toward each other as children, the hair-pullings, the savage wrestling matches, the time Olivia fractured my collarbone, all came rushing back...I felt Olivia would spring across the table and grab me by the hair.”

For an ancient movie-goer, there are multiple ironies here. De Havilland is best-known now as the saintly Melanie Wilkes in “Gone with the Wind,” an acting feat even more impressive in light of her unforgiving off-screen nature. At news of her sister’s death, she had her agent issue a statement that she was “shocked and saddened.”

Born in Tokyo of British parents who divorced when they were young, the sisters went their own ways in Hollywood, Fontaine taking her mother’s maiden name. She was less of an actress than her sister but lucky to have been chosen as a Hitchcock “blonde” in “Suspicion” for which she won the Oscar playing the dim-witted wife of rascally Cary Grant.

That followed Hitchcock’s far better “Rebecca,” in which she was the nameless second wife of Laurence Oliver. When TCM shows it in the inevitable retrospective, watch the first half hour for her work as a love-blinded innocent before it all spirals into a Gothic mess. Oscar or no, that was Fontaine’s best feat on film.

The sisters lived a world apart, Fontaine in California, de Havilland in France. She has always been a tough cookie.

In middle age, when de Havilland fell and injured her ankle at home, she didn’t yell for help. “I knew nobody would come,” she said, “so I yelled ‘Fire’ instead,”

Now that’s a survivor.

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