The sisters were born in Tokyo in 1916 (Olivia) and 1917 (Joan) to an English Patent attorney and an English Stage Actress. Joan was sickly as a baby, developing anemia after being attacked by the measles and a streptococcal infection. On the advice of her physician, Mrs. De Havilland took her daughters to live in the US. The de Havillands divorced in 1919.
Joan’s health rapidly improved, and soon she soon joined her older sister taking diction lesson. But the sister’s relationship was never a warm one. There is a story that Olivia would tear apart the clothes that Joan was expected to wear as hand-me-downs, forcing Joan to mend them before they could be worn. It has also been alleged that Olivia was her mother’s very obvious favorite. At the age of 15 Joan returned to Japan for 2 years to live with her father.
When she returned to the US she began acting on the stage and film. As Olivia had already begun acting, her mother refused to let Joan use the family name. She would be billed as Joan Burfield in her first movie, later adopting the name Fontaine. Supposedly she was asked to appear in Gone With the Wind, but when she heard that she was being considered for Melanie and not Scarlett she flatly refused and quipped “Go ask my sister!” Olivia de Havilland was nominated for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her portrayal of Melanie.
At a dinner party she found herself seated with producer David O. Selznick with who invited her to audition for the upcoming project Rebecca. A grueling six months of readings and screen tests later she won the part, working with Alfred Hitchcock in his American debut. Joan was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress in 1941 for Rebecca, and again the following year for Hitchcock’s Suspicion. Olivia was also nominated in 1942 for Hold Back the Dawn. Joan became the only actor that Hitchcock would direct to an Oscar, but she felt guilty about winning, given her “lack of obsessive career drive”. At the award ceremony she rejected Olivia’s attempts at congratulations, embarrassing and offending the older sister.
The sisters have not spoken since the 1975 death of their mother. Joan claims she was never told about the Memorial arranged by Olivia. Olivia countered that she had informed Joan, but the younger sibling choose not to attend because she was busy. Joan further claims that the entire sibling rivalry was a hoax cooked up by studio publicity hounds.