Celebrating her 100th birthday Friday, indomitable actress Olivia de Havilland is finally breaking her silence on Hollywood’s most famous sibling rivalry.
In a rare interview with The Associated Press, one of the last living remnants of Hollywood’s Golden Age has disclosed her true feelings about her late sister Joan Fontaine, revealing that she calls her “Dragon Lady.”
Posing on a chaise longue in a demure black dress in her Saint James Paris residence, the still-glamorous two-time Oscar winner quipped that only “the pearls are fake,” before she agreed to answer more detailed questions via email — her preferred mode of communication because of her failing hearing and vision.
De Havilland said the “legend of a feud” with her sister was first created by an article entitled “Sister Act” in Life Magazine following the 1942 Oscars, where both sisters were nominated for an Academy Award. Fontaine, who was then the lesser known sister, won, for “Suspicion” while de Havilland had been nominated for “Hold Back the Dawn.”
“A feud implies continuing hostile conduct between two parties. I cannot think of a single instance wherein I initiated hostile behavior,” she said.
“But I can think of many occasions where my reaction to deliberately inconsiderate behavior was defensive,” she added.
It is unclear what Fontaine, who died in 2013, would make of the analysis. Describing the 1942 Oscars in her 1978 memoir, “No Bed of Roses,” she painted a somewhat different picture.
“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 in kaleidoscopic imagery,” she wrote.
“My paralysis was total. I felt Olivia would spring across the table and grab me by the hair. I felt age 4, being confronted by my older sister. Damn it, I’d incurred her wrath again!”
De Havilland went on to win two Oscars for “To Each His Own” in 1947 and for “The Heiress” in 1950, but that apparently didn’t warm her to her younger sibling. After her 1947 win, Fontaine came forward to congratulate de Havilland and was rebuffed. De Havilland’s publicist said at the time: “This goes back for years and years, ever since they were children.”
De Havilland has mainly kept her silence on her version of events, but in the AP interview called the memories of her sister “multi-faceted, varying from endearing to alienating.”
“On my part, it was always loving, but sometimes estranged and, in the later years, severed,” she said, succinctly.
“Dragon Lady, as I eventually decided to call her, was a brilliant, multi-talented person, but with an astigmatism in her perception of people and events which often caused her to react in an unfair and even injurious way,” she said.
What would she say to her if her sister were alive to celebrate her 100th birthday today?
“If Dragon Lady were alive today (for my birthday), out of self-protection I would maintain my silence!” she declared, revealing perhaps that not everything has been forgiven.
For her years, de Havilland is in surprisingly good health, and has a keen sense of humor — even calling her interviewer a “rascal” for one too probing question.
Though age-related macular degeneration has damaged her vision, the centenarian is still able to read black and white printed text clearly and answer written interview questions.
She climbs stairs regularly every day in her luxurious Paris residence, and linked the secret to her longevity to three L’s: “love, laughter, and learning.”
Revisiting one of her most famous roles, de Havilland explained why she went for the role of Melanie Hamilton from “Gone With The Wind,” and not Scarlett O’Hara that many top actresses were vying for.
“Scarlett did not interest me as she epitomized the “New Woman” who was self-sustaining, like myself. Melanie, on the other hand, was more traditional,” she explained.
“Most of all, I wanted to be part of “Gone With The Wind” as I sensed that the film would have a much longer life than others – perhaps as long as five years!” she quipped.
De Havilland has the City of Light to thank for happiness and calls Paris “a marvelous development in my life.”
Since moving here in 1953, “at the insistence” of her late husband, Frenchman Pierre Galante, she found no reason to return to the U.S. She has remained active with the American community here, centered around Paris’ American Cathedral, who she said is made up of “fascinating and worthwhile people.”
“By 1951, television had already made such inroads on the income garnered by motion picture companies that the Golden Era which had prevailed until then was beginning to disintegrate. And by 1953, it had come to an end. Hollywood was a dismal, tragic place,” she said.
“(Sexism) was a fact of life I simply had to accept. Men felt threatened and mistrustful of women who had good ideas, and one had to employ immense tact when dealing with directors and producers,” she said.
“As to remuneration for one’s work, women were resigned to receiving less financial compensation than a man for their work,” she said.
De Havilland was not resigned, however, to all the Hollywood ways of functioning.
The steely actress famously gave her name to a landmark legal ruling — the de Havilland law — after she took Warner Brothers to court in 1943 over a contract dispute and won, forever loosening the studios’ grip on their actors and actresses.
“As soon as my victory was legally confirmed and I was free to choose the films that I made, Paramount presented me with the script of “To Each His Own”… This was exactly the kind of challenge for which I fought that case,” she said with pride. De Havilland went on to win her first Academy Award for this role, a further vindication of her legal battle.
Looking back, de Havilland highlighted one of the main drawbacks of her unusual longevity.
“All the artists I had known during the Golden Era (live) elsewhere,” she said, “including the after world.”