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CHRISTOPHER STEVENS: Life long feud between Olivia De Havilland and her sister Joan


Fame is not a talent. It is not beauty or fame. It is a belief – and from her youth until her death on Saturday at the age of 104, Olivia de Havilland was convinced that she was the greatest star Hollywood has ever produced.

And who could argue with her? De Havilland's best performance came in the most glamorous film ever made, Gone With The Wind.

Her name was romantically associated with the greatest box office heroes, including Errol Flynn and James Stewart.

Her confidence was so colossal that she was the only actress who dared to risk her career by challenging the stranglehold that the studios had on her stars, marking the beginning of the end of the Hollywood system.

Nothing could discourage or derail them. On Oscar Night 1940, she was nominated for Best Supporting Actress and played the loving but failing Melanie Hamilton Wilkes in Gone with the Wind.

In 1942, Olivia De Havilland was nominated for Hold Back The Dawn – just to see how her younger sister Joan Fontaine won for the Alfred Hitchcock film Suspicion

She didn't win. The award went to Hattie McDaniel as a maid Mammy, the first African American to ever win an Oscar.

The 23-year-old De Havilland was devastated. "When I returned home on the night of the Oscars, I was convinced that there was no God," she said 75 years later. But her self-confidence soon became established again.

She hadn't won because Olivia de Havilland wasn't just a supporting actress. She was the real star of Gone with the Wind, and of course the judges had seen that. "These blessed voters were not misled for a minute," she said. "There is a god!"

She won two Oscars for Best Actress, 1946 in To Each His Own and three years later in The Heiress.

But the humiliation was harder to bear in 1942 when she was nominated for Hold Back The Dawn – just to see how her younger sister Joan Fontaine won for the Alfred Hitchcock film Suspicion.

Her first thought, she said when the winner's name was read, was, "Oh my god. I have lost the prestige of my own sister. And it was true – she was haughty to me afterwards. “Indeed, the sibling rivalry dates back to early childhood. Olivia was born in Tokyo on July 1, 1916, to a British patent attorney and actress.

Her parents brought her to California for medical treatment at the age of three: she was a sick and asthmatic child.

Within a year, Augustus de Havilland had returned to his Japanese lover and left his wife and children: Olivia's sister Joan was only a year younger than her.

Her mother remarried to a man named George Fontaine, but Olivia never liked him. She stayed away, but Joan did everything to make her stepfather love her and even adopted his last name.

It was the beginning of a lifelong divide that often led to open wars. Joan once said to a reporter, “I don't remember a single act of kindness from Olivia during my childhood. She hated the idea of ​​having a sibling so much that she wouldn't go near my crib. "

When her mother remarried, Olivia stayed away

but Joan did everything to make her stepfather love her and even adopted his last name

When her mother remarried, Olivia (left) stayed away, but Joan (right) did everything to make her stepfather love her and even adopted his last name

A frequently repeated story was that Olivia and her classmates were asked at the age of nine to write an imaginary "last will and testament" for a homework assignment. Olivia wrote: "I bequeath all my beauty to my younger sister Joan because she doesn't have one."

Enmity came to a head on a summer's day in 1933 when 17-year-old Olivia pushed her sister next to a swimming pool and jumped on her, breaking her collarbone. At that point, Olivia was an amateur actress who played Lewis Carroll's Alice and Puck from A Midsummer Night & # 39; s Dream with the Saratoga Community Theater.

This led to her first film role, again in the Shakespearean comedy, this time as disobedient and in love with Hermia.

Warner Brothers hired her and cast her alongside Jimmy Cagney in a film called The Irish In Us. She was afraid: "It was like jumping off a diving board at the Olympic competition without being able to swim or dive, and I just had to find my way."

She asked Cagney how she could learn to act and he said to her, "Whatever you say, be serious." This advice, she often insisted, was the basis of her career.

The film that made her a star was Captain Blood, a pirate adventure with the rakish Errol Flynn. From the moment she saw him, she was struck. "I was called to a test to see how we both would look together in the costume," she recalled.

"I went on the set and they said," Would you please stand next to Mr. Flynn? "and I saw him. Oh my! Oh my! Muted. I knew that's what the French call a Coup de Foudre."

The audience saw the sizzling chemistry between them and the film was a huge success.

It brought together eight other films, including two Smashes The Charge Of The Light Brigade and The Adventures Of Robin Hood. For months, gossip columnists suggested that the reserved, self-disciplined de Havilland and the dope-smoking Flynn soaked with whiskey would get married.

Olivia watches her receive the Legion of Honor in September 2010 at the Elysee Palace in France

Olivia watches her receive the Legion of Honor in September 2010 at the Elysee Palace in France

"Nothing came of it," said De Havilland. "I won't regret it. It could have ruined my life."

What many observers had predicted would both ruin their lives and end their careers was their decision to sue Warner Brothers in 1944 and break their contract.

She accused studio heads of holding back good parts and casting them in second-rate films – a common trick to prevent stars from becoming too headstrong.

De Havilland was tired of playing Melanie roles – the love interest that worships the hero and sacrifices himself when the action demands it.

She wanted to play stronger, more independent characters – not least because she saw that Joan got these roles in films like Rebecca and Suspicion on behalf of RKO Pictures.

Warners expected De Havilland to be a genius, a sweetheart. De Havilland has put a brave face on it for years. "Actually, I think playing bad girls is boring," she told a reporter.

"I've always been lucky with roles for good girls because they ask more from an actress."

But finally she struck, despite warnings that she would never work again, whether she won or lost. De Havilland won and won her Oscars in the more complex roles she longed for, but her love affair with Hollywood faded.

The only way to survive in Tinseltown is to imagine living in a strange city. "If you try to equate it to something else, you will perish."

Olivia holds two Oscars in her hand when she returns home after the Academy Awards

Olivia holds two Oscars in her hand when she returns home after the Academy Awards

At the 1953 Cannes Film Festival, she met Pierre Galante, a journalist for Paris Match magazine.

He became her second husband and they bought a house near the Bois de Boulogne in the capital, where they raised a daughter, Gisele, and De Havilland's son, Benjamin, from their marriage to screenwriter Marcus Goodrich.

The couple divorced in 1979, but De Havilland lived in Paris for the rest of their lives. Her relationship with Sister Joan froze, thawed, and froze again.

When her mother died in 1975, Olivia tried to exclude her siblings from the memorial service. Only when Joan threatened to go to the press and cause a scandal was an invitation extended.

During the service, the two women ignored each other until Olivia Joan handed the coffin so that she could scatter a handful of ashes.

That was more polite when they made it to the Oscars four years later when they had to sit on opposite sides of the stage – or ten years later when they were horrified to find that they had both been inducted into the Oscars the same Beverly Hills Hotel.

Joan – who died in 2013 at the age of 96 – immediately checked out. Maybe even she felt that her sister was the bigger star.

In any case, nobody would ever convince Olivia de Havilland differently.

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