They remain the only sisters to have both won Best Actress Oscars. And it’s no wonder. Drama always played a huge part in the relationship of Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine. “I loved her so much as a child,” said Olivia of the younger sister she feuded with throughout her life and career.

In the 1930s and ’40s, the sisters, who were born 15 months apart, illuminated the screen in some of Hollywood’s most popular movies. Olivia was Maid Marian to Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood and played Melanie Wilkes in the epic Gone With the Wind. Joan starred in the classic suspense-romance Rebecca and with 1941’s Suspicion became the only Hitchcock star to ever win a Best Actress Oscar. The roots of their rivalry began in childhood as their mother, Lilian, favored Olivia, the older daughter. “She preferred Olivia because she had more in common with her,” Tommy Lightfoot Garrett, author of Letters From a Known Woman: Joan Fontaine, exclusively tells Closer. “She thought Olivia was born to be a star. I think that built this rivalry that Joan was always determined to beat Olivia.”

As girls, the sisters bickered and brawled — culminating in the time Olivia chipped Joan’s collarbone trying to stop her sister from pulling her into a swimming pool. “It took me completely unaware,” said Olivia, who recalled that they were 8 and 9 when the incident occurred. Joan, however, insisted they were teenagers at the time and that Olivia hurt her deliberately. “One July day in 1933 when I was 16, Olivia threw me down in a rage, jumped on top of me and fractured my collarbone,” she said.

Olivia began acting professionally first and offered to pay her sister’s way into a posh San Francisco prep school. “I wanted Hollywood as my domain, and I wanted San Francisco society to be hers,” admitted Olivia. Joan demurred and instead set her sights on an acting career, too.

Their mother, worried that two de Havilland sisters would confuse everyone, suggested that Joan use a stage name. “Everything was always for Olivia,” explains Garrett. Joan ended up choosing Fontaine, taken from their stepfather, after a fortune teller told her it would make her a success.


At the 1942 Academy Awards, Olivia and Joan, who were both nominated for Best Actress, were seated together. Joan won for Suspicion and appeared to snub Olivia when her sister tried to offer congratulations. “All the animus we’d felt toward each other as children…all came rushing back,” said Joan. “My paralysis was total.”

It wasn’t just acclaim the sisters competed for, they also fought over men. “When Olivia was interested in a man, Joan made sure she got the first date with him,” says Garrett. In fact, Joan’s first of four husbands, actor Brian Aherne, had previously dated Olivia.

The sisters stopped speaking entirely after the death of their mother Lilian. “Olivia didn’t even bother to tell Joan that she was dying. At that point, Lilian was nothing to Joan except for someone she resented,” says Garrett.

The sisters never reconciled. Joan died in California in 2013 at age 96. Olivia moved to Paris and passed away at age 104 in 2020. “Imagine what we could have done if we had gotten together,” Joan said. “We could have built our own empire!”

— Reporting by Fortune Benatar