At the Oscars

One time I got into a feud with my sister Dorothy that lasted six months. When you’re in your twenties you get all full of yourself and feuding seems like a good idea. She said she didn’t think I would ever make money writing—because up to that point I’d made precious little—and I took umbrage and off we went, giving each other the silent treatment. Dorothy died of breast cancer last year, and I’m glad that I indulged in the luxury of a feud only once, only that time; otherwise we managed to spend the rest of our lives thick as thieves.

This story comes to mind as I look back to the Academy Awards of 73 years ago this Thursday, February 26, 1942, at the Biltmore Bowl in the Biltmore Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. What a night. The United States was 2.5 months past Pearl Harbor, and the assemblage of actors, directors, moguls, and technical craftspeople included many men in uniform. Second Lt. James Stewart of the Army Air Corps was one of them; Jim had come back—as was custom—to present the Best Actor Oscar since he was the incumbent. High above the giant room and deafening roar of the pre-dinner crowd hung a pall. Clark Gable, king of Hollywood, was not in attendance because 41 days earlier Carole Lombard, his wife, had died in a plane crash. Some at the Biltmore this evening had not gotten past the grief of it; some never would. The absence of mile-a-minute Lombard was deeply felt, because she was in the middle of seemingly everything, every huddle of gossip, every gag, every warm gesture.

Picture this: all the industry bigs pack into the Biltmore Bowl for what is, at this time, a banquet followed by the awards presentation. All the stars but Gable and Lombard are there for the kind of formal dinner we’ve all experienced: too many place settings at tables that are too small. Food in insufficient portions for human sustenance arrives at the table cold. You’re bumping elbows with your neighbors and the waiters are bumping you in turn. You are glad you used Dial and you wish everybody did because it’s hot in there, and between all the body heat and all the nerves, before long the air is overripe.

Among the 10 features up for Best Picture in the auspicious year of 1941 were Citizen Kane, The Maltese Falcon, Sergeant York, and two of special note, Suspicion starring Joan Fontaine and Hold Back the Dawn starring Joan’s sister, Olivia de Havilland. As cited chapter and verse in Errol & Olivia, Livvie was an interesting character, a wounded and closed-off soul who professed to have no close friends and who was now into year four of a bitter feud with her boss, Jack L. Warner of Warner Bros. Early in her career Livvie had portrayed Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In the play Hermia is described with, “Though she be but little, she is fierce,” and never was there a more perfect description of Miss de Havilland, all five foot three of her.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

Livvie makes nice with Joanie as Burgess Meredith looks on prior to the presentation of Oscars.

As problematic as everything was with Livvie, her relationship with sister Joan de Havilland, rebranded Joan Fontaine, was equally difficult beginning when they were sprouts in Saratoga, California. If you go to the house where they lived as children, you can still see in the concrete driveway their little handprints and carefully carved names beside them, almost as if they were practicing for Grauman’s Chinese. These two were stamped out of the same mold—independent, headstrong, and not afraid to use sex as a weapon. Livvie came first and blazed the trail and Joanie came after and used her sister’s connections and fame and even her dwellings in Hollywood to build a powerhouse career. Livvie spent a lot of her time seething about the encroachments of Joanie but was often shushed by their mother, who lived with and chaperoned the sisters in Hollywood into 1938.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

Why, they look so happy. Almost like … sisters.

On this night in February 1942, not only are the sisters’ films going head to head, but so are the actresses themselves, both nominated for Best Actress. Livvie figures she has the leg up because she had been nominated for Best Supporting Actress for Gone With the Wind but lost to co-star Hattie McDaniel. As one of GWTW’s also-rans, she would pick up the sentimental vote. But wait—Joanie is an also-ran as well, having lost last year’s Best Actress nomination for Rebecca to last year’s sentimental favorite, Ginger Rogers.

If you’re starting to think that nobody ever seemed to win an Oscar for the right picture, you’re starting to catch on to the politics of Hollywood.

Photos taken prior to the awards ceremony show the sisters cordial because nobody has yet lost anything. Then comes the big moment. And the winner is…………

Joan Fontaine, for Suspicion.

All Livvie’s seven years of hard work in big and little pictures, all her fighting the good fight for better scripts and her quest to be more than “Errol Flynn’s girl,” all of it crumbled like buildings in a California quake as little sister Joanie swept up to receive the Oscar. The situation would come to a head five years later at the Shrine Auditorium when Livvie finally won a Best Actress Oscar of her own. That year, 1946, Livvie was the true sentimental favorite for recently besting Jack Warner in court and winning the freedom of contract players across Hollywood. Livvie wasn’t up against Joanie that evening, and the field was much weaker, and when Joanie approached her sister to offer congratulations, Livvie spun on her heel and snubbed Joan. Said not a word. Stormed off, statuette in hand.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

The winners: Gary Cooper for Sergeant York, Joan Fontaine for Suspicion, Mary Astor for The Great Lie, and Army Reservist Donald Crisp for How Green Was My Valley.

They would apply some plaster to the fracture on and off over the years but split forever in the 1970s when their mother died. Joan refused to talk to me about Olivia when I was writing Errol & Olivia; Olivia refused to talk to me about anything of substance ever. My interactions with both were always pleasant, but the secret dark places in their souls remained locked away.

Finally, at the end of 2013, a little more than a year ago, Joan died at age 96 in California while Olivia, aged 97, remained resolute in Paris. I guess you could say the feud ended with Joan’s passing, but did it? The enmity of these two, which came to a head twice at the Academy Awards ceremony, was something for the ages. Me? I’m glad my own sibling feud was just once, and long ago.

3 comments

  1. As the daughter of a Mother who was, more often than not, not speaking to her sister, I have always been fascinated by these two. My Mother, Mae, and her sister, Ellen, were abandoned at the ages of 3 and 4, respectively by their Boston Irish, alcoholic parents and their scared childhood, bouncing from orphanage to foster homes, reverberated throughout the family and the generations. Whatever was at the heart of Joanie and Livvie’s feud, I doubt it was about who won the Oscar. It was something more fundamental than that, like who won their parents love.

    1. Livvie and Joanie were abandoned by their father at around the same time as your mother and aunt were abandoned. You make me wonder if it wasn’t a primal insecurity that was set into motion in both instances and it manifested as sister-hatred.

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