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A Tale of Two Sisters: Hollywood's Longest Running Feud

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On the first of this month, actress Olivia de Havilland turned 94 in Paris. For some time, she has held the distinction of being the last surviving principal cast member of the storied film "Gone With The Wind".

Meanwhile, younger sister Joan Fontaine also survives at 93, living comfortably in Carmel, California.

What is exceedingly strange and more than a little sad is that the sisters have been estranged for many years, the result of an intense sibling rivalry which has never dissipated.

The rift was felt as recently as two years ago when both sisters were asked to a special Oscars party to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Bette Davis's birth. Fontaine only agreed to attend after she learned her sister had declined; when Olivia changed her mind, Joan promptly pulled out.

Though tensions between the siblings began in early childhood (reportedly, Olivia resented having a little sister, while their mother's preference for Olivia infuriated Joan), their parallel paths in the movie business only made things worse.

Olivia was the first of the sisters to gain fame, memorably appearing opposite Errol Flynn in a number of films beginning in the mid-thirties, but notably Joan was the first to win an Oscar.

It was 1942, and to exacerbate the tension, both sisters were nominated that year, an Academy first that would only be repeated twenty-five years later when Vanessa and Lynn Redgrave were both nominated (neither won).

When Joan got the nod for her performance in Hitchcock's "Suspicion" (a part Olivia had also coveted), her elder sister looked at her coldly and tersely commanded her to "get up there."

Five years later, when Olivia finally won her first of two Oscars, Joan offered her hand in congratulation backstage, and her older sister pointedly refused to shake it.

It's unlikely we will ever fully understand the source of the sisters' mutual antipathy or be able reasonably to take sides in this longest running of Hollywood feuds. We can however take solace in the impressive roster of classic films which both of these beautiful and talented ladies bequeathed to us.

In the end, even though Olivia and Joan could never enjoy each other, through these movies we get to enjoy them both.

Captain Blood (1935) -- In this lusty recounting of the Rafael Sabatini tale, Errol Flynn is Peter Blood, a doctor unjustly sentenced to servitude by the British Crown. Chafing against captivity, Blood escapes and becomes a pirate on the high seas. He makes as good a pirate as doctor, wielding a sword in a way they don't teach you in medical school. Beyond zesty sword fights, there are grand sea battles, and of course, romance, as Blood falls for Arabella Bishop (de Havilland), daughter of Colonel Bishop (Lionel Atwill), cruel master of the penal colony where Blood is initially sent. "Blood" made an overnight star of the Tasmanian Flynn, and no wonder. His combination of good looks, athleticism, and sheer personality brought back the swashbuckler in one fell swoop. Veteran helmer Michael Curtiz's direction is predictably assured, and both Atwill and pirate nemesis Basil Rathbone make truly despicable villains. Finally, young de Havilland is the perfect match for Flynn; it's easy to see why they'd be paired in seven more Warner pictures.

The Adventures Of Robin Hood (1938) -- Robin of Locksley, a noble Saxon (Flynn), sees the people of England exploited by the Normans and their leader, Prince John (Claude Rains), who's seized the throne in his brother Richard's absence. Robin and his followers work to undermine the corrupt regime until King Richard's return. With Maid Marion (Olivia De Havilland) as love interest and Sir Guy Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone) as nemesis, Robin is kept constantly occupied. This rousing, gorgeously photographed adventure movie exemplifies the magical heights Warner Brothers attained in the Golden Age of the studio system. Bolstered by a consistently clever script, with both humor and romance complementing the derring-do, Curtiz's "Robin Hood" is a milestone in Hollywood cinema- the first, and perhaps best, color swashbuckler.

Gone With The Wind (1939) -- At the outbreak of the Civil War, feisty, narcissistic Southern belle Scarlett O'Hara (Vivien Leigh) meets her match in roguish charmer Rhett Butler (Clark Gable), who woos her despite her love for another man, Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard). Ashley however has chosen the gentle Melanie Hamilton (de Havilland) for his bride. All this sets the stage for one of cinema's most turbulent romances, with plenty of historic, cathartic moments in the background, as the progress and aftermath of the war leaves the Old South in ashes. One of the world's most cherished and enduring pictures, "Wind" was birthed in the mind of novelist Margaret Mitchell and incubated by the brilliant, obsessive David O. Selznick, who spared no expense in bringing this powerful, affecting story to the big screen. The ultra-lavish production features ornate costumes and art design, jaw-dropping set pieces and historical sequences (especially the burning of Atlanta, for which a Hollywood set was torched), all wrapped around the story of a resourceful, if not likable, heroine. Leigh plays the self-absorbed Scarlett to perfection, while Gable's Rhett is devilishly suave and fiercely masculine. Grand studio filmmaking at its aristocratic best, Selznick's brainchild nabbed an armload of Oscars, including Best Picture.

Rebecca (1940) -- After meeting on the Riviera, a demure young woman (Fontaine) marries a wealthy widower, Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier), and returns to his sprawling English manor at Manderley. But Maxim's glacial housekeeper Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson) instantly regards her new mistress with undisguised hostility, referring reverentially to the deceased Rebecca de Winter, whose death is veiled in secrecy. Bit by bit, the new wife uncovers the truth about her predecessor's demise. Produced by the great David O. Selznick, Hitchcock's multiple Oscar-nominated domestic mystery, sort of a cross between Jane Austen and Daphne du Maurier (who penned the novel it's based on), was Hitch's maiden outing in Hollywood. And he couldn't have asked for a better cast: Fontaine is exquisite as the innocent new bride who narrates the film, and super thespian Olivier is masterful as ever playing the urbane tycoon with a secret. But Anderson has the choicest turn as the sadistic Mrs. Danvers, who has it in for the timid Fontaine. To top it all off, George Barnes's expressive black-and-white camerawork marries beautifully with the inimitable atmosphere of psychological menace that was this director's trademark. The only Hitchcock movie to win Best Picture at the Oscars, "Rebecca" endures as one of our finest suspense classics.

Suspicion (1941) -- The shy but wealthy Lina McLaidlaw (Fontaine) marries suave, penniless Johnnie Aysgarth (Cary Grant) despite warnings that he's a gold-digging playboy. Before long, Johnnie appears to show his true colors when he gets involved in an embezzlement scheme-and his partner Beaky (Nigel Bruce) turns up dead. Though lacking hard evidence, Lina begins to suspect her husband is a killer, and fears he may come for her next. Hitchcock's psychological thriller is as tightly plotted and crisply directed as any of the master's finest works. The tension builds slowly and inexorably, as the bookish, increasingly frightened Lina waits passively for her nightly glass of (poisoned?) milk, fearing the worst. As mentioned, Fontaine won her first and only Oscar for her role as the rattled wife, while Grant, in his first of four Hitchcock outings, is superb as the cynical charmer. "Suspicion" is sure to thrill anyone in the mood for subtle romantic intrigue.

Jane Eyre (1943) -- Sent to a girls' reformatory by a hateful aunt (Agnes Moorehead), young orphan Jane Eyre (Fontaine) endures ten years of harsh discipline and abuse at the hands of a sadistic headmaster. Ten years later, Jane finds work as a governess at the gloomy estate of gruff, imperious Edward Rochester (Orson Welles), where she cares for his coquettish, French-born daughter, Adele (Margaret O'Brien). Though Rochester is clearly fighting some inner demons, he's also increasingly fond of Jane, who becomes his most trusted confidante. Welles put his distinctive stamp on this haunting adaptation of Charlotte Bronte's canonical novel playing the brooding, ill-starred baron who falls for his humble governess, movingly played by the fresh-faced Fontaine. Director Robert Stevenson worked closely with author Aldous Huxley on the script, but apart from the excellent cast and writing, what makes this version so memorable is its oppressive, darkly romantic Gothic atmosphere: in particular, Jane and Rochester's first terrifying meeting on the fog-shrouded moors will surely etch into your mind. Look, too, for Liz Taylor early on as Jane's consumptive childhood friend.

The Snake Pit (1948) -- Confined to a mental institution after a nervous breakdown, newlywed Virginia Cunningham (de Havilland) finds herself isolated in a world of nightmarish confusion. Mistreated by hostile nurses and accosted by her deranged fellow patients, Virginia's only hope of unlocking the puzzle of her madness resides in the attention of kindly, capable Dr. Mark Kik (Leo Genn). Long before Freud was a household name, Anatole Litvak's "Pit" powerfully addressed the problem of mental illness-and the beneficent effects of the "talking cure"-in this absorbing, often harrowing drama. de Havilland delivers one of her finest (and decidedly least glamorous) performances as Virginia, a young woman whose irrational antipathy to her loving husband Robert (Mark Stevens) escalates into a disturbing psychotic break. Amid the fine supporting cast of loonies and lock-up staff, British actor Genn's Dr. Kik is an urbane, soothing presence. While Litvak's evocation of the hospital's abject milieu is disturbingly frank, there is light at the bottom of this "Pit."

The Heiress (1949) -- Socially awkward, plain-looking heiress Catherine Sloper (De Havilland) wants to marry dashing, penniless suitor Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift), but her tyrannical widower father, Dr. Austin Sloper (Ralph Richardson), smells a gold-digging rat, and threatens to cut off Catherine's inheritance if she elopes. Is Dr. Sloper coldly ruining his daughter's only chance for happiness, or is he protecting her from the get-rich scheme of a disingenuous lover? Widely hailed as a masterpiece, and boasting an Oscar-winning performance from de Havilland, William Wyler's powerful and haunting drama was adapted from Henry James's novel, "Washington Square." de Havilland's transformation from dutiful and docile daughter into a grown-up who thinks for herself is one of the great rewards of seeing this film; Richardson shines, too, as an overbearing man who nevertheless feels conflicted about blocking Catherine's right to decide her own future. With a splendid score by Aaron Copland, majestic costumes by Edith Head, and Wyler's mastery of psychological tension, "The Heiress" (like its star) remains a Hollywood treasure.

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