Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Joan Fontaine: A Personal Remembrance

In the annals of fierce sibling rivalry, NOTHING will match the eternal grudge match between Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine.  While they are considered grande dames, the last of a long-ago vanished Hollywood, their bitter nearly-century running hatred one towards the other is a permanent stain on both their reputations.  Both Fontaine and de Havilland are Academy Award-winners, both highly respected actresses whose public behavior has been above reproach. 

In regards to each other, both in public and private, they have behaved like two alley cats, making a spectacle out of their inability to mend their relationship and maintaining a feud that lasted over ninety years. 

The word 'feud' is actually too mild, too gentle a word for how the sisters have behaved towards each other.  "Cold War" is likewise too soft.  The best way to describe how they held on to their hatred is "total warfare".

I actually have theorized that the reason they stayed alive for so long was the final mark of their bitter hatred toward each other, a last contest to see who would drop dead first and have the privilege of dancing on the other's grave.  In short, Fontaine and de Havilland were determined to outlast each other. 

Now one of the last true links to 'The Golden Age of Hollywood' has passed on with the death of Joan Fontaine at 96.  Let us focus on Fontaine's career.

She came to attention as the second Mrs. de Winter in Rebecca.  Her performance was excellent: the frightened, timid woman who comes close to collapsing under the phantom of Rebecca and the machinations of Mrs. Danvers to eventually struggle to strength.  She lost the Best Actress Oscar to Ginger Rogers in Kitty Foyle, and I've always thought that when she did win the Best Actress Oscar the following year for Suspicion, it was kind of a payback for having lost for a better performance.

These Golden Gods can devour us...

I'm not a fan of Suspicion, thinking it one of Alfred Hitchcock's weaker entries.  Still, Fontaine became the only actor/actress to win for one of his films.  It's an astonishing fact, given some of the great performances in Hitchcock films: Cary Grant, James Mason, and Eva Marie Saint in North By Northwest, James Stewart and Kim Novak in Vertigo, Janet Leigh and Anthony Perkins in Psycho

After her win, Fontaine specialized in demure, respectable women, particularly the long-suffering ones like Jane Eyre (though I shall always love Mia Wasikowska's interpretation in the most recent version of the Bronte novel).  As times and tastes changed, Fontaine seemed perfectly willing to let her career slip into genteel retirement, but not her long-lasting antagonism towards Olivia.

Here is where our story takes the ugliest turn.  Despite the successes of Fontaine and de Havilland, despite their great careers and legendary performances, it is their undying hatred towards each other that may remain their most depressing legacy. 

Sisters who last spoke to each other in 1975.
For most of us, that's over a lifetime.

They maintained a long list of grievances; some of the accusations were large (such as Fontaine's allegation that her sister had not invited her to their mother's memorial service versus de Havilland's contention that she did tell Fontaine but that the latter was not interested in attending).  Some were shockingly petty; de Havilland stated that Fontaine rebuffed Olivia's congratulations for beating her for the Best Actress Oscar, the former having lost for Hold Back the Dawn.  When de Havilland won for To Each His Own, she 'returned the favor' by rejecting Joan's outstretched hand. 

This very public display of two grown women, sisters, fighting over something like Oscars and mutual careers should have embarrassed them both. 

However, if it is to be believed, the rivalry started almost from birth.  De Havilland, the older of the two, apparently ripped the hand-me-downs Joan was given to stop her from wearing them.  In an interview, Fontaine mentioned something about a 'broken collarbone' as a child, and frankly I don't want to imagine Melanie Wilkes trying to murder anyone, let alone a young girl who is her own sister. 

The thought is simply too gruesome. 

Get away from me, you BITCH!

Now that Fontaine is gone, I hope that for the de Havilland, it was worth all the trouble, all the bitterness, all the antagonism, all the hatred.  Regardless of all their great work in film, television, and stage, their reputations will not recover from their near-century long rivalry.  I, for my part, if given the chance, would have told these two old ladies, "Grow up and get over it".

The more cynical side of me imagines that upon hearing the news, the 97-year-old de Havilland kicked up her heels, opened a bottle of champagne and shouted, "She's DEAD!  She's DEAD!  I WON!"  Knowing the bitterness that can coarse through the veins of anyone who has let simmering hatred seep to the surface, even at my most generous I cannot imagine Olivia de Havilland mourning the death of her younger sister, let alone attending the funeral.  Away in Paris, Olivia de Havilland has nothing more but to wait for her TCM Remembers montage, and the knowledge that her obituary will carry at least four things: Gone With the Wind, her two Oscars, her onscreen coupling with Errol Flynn...and her bitter nearly century-old rivalry with her sister, Joan Fontaine. 

One last note.  De Havilland commented that after seeing The Adventures of Robin Hood once, she started writing to Flynn to say that she thought he was wonderful in the role.  However, she opted against sending the letter, and Flynn died shortly afterwards.  De Havilland said she always regretted not sending the letter.  She couldn't have done the same with her own sister?

What kind of women were they?

Taking the 'I'll hate you till I die' thing too far...
Art thou not happy, Olivia?
Was it worth it, Olivia?


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