When screen legend Joan Fontaine died Sunday, she was remembered primarily for two things: her Academy Award and her decades-long feud with her sister, fellow Oscar winner Olivia de Havilland. Every obituary referenced the leading ladies’ rivalry and eventual estrangement. Countless articles recalled a lifetime of traded grievances. But one culprit for Hollywood’s most notorious case of sibling rivalry was mentioned in each report: their mother.
But are parents really to blame when sibling rivalry turns toxic? Or in the case of Fontaine and de Havilland, does competing against each other professionally simply bring out the worst in siblings?
Fontaine claimed throughout her life that her mother favored de Havilland. Indeed, the origins of such rivalries are “usually based on one child getting or wanting more attention than the other from the parent(s),” said family therapist Dr. Jeff Gardere in an email to The Daily Beast. It is imperative that parents nip sibling rivalry in the bud, he said, by addressing the problem and striving to give children equal attention.
“Many parents have a favorite,” said Dr. Gail Saltz, clinical associate professor of psychiatry at New York Presbyterian Hospital. “This is a prime cause of rivalry.” She advises parents to “work hard to try to keep the playing field even. There is plenty of love and appreciation to go around.” She also tells parents who don’t want to raise future Fontaines or de Havillands to “avoid comparing your children to each other.” Criticizing one child to another is particularly unhealthy, she noted, as is trying to put one child in one box and the other child in another. (How often have we seen one sibling labeled the smart one while another is labeled the pretty one?)
Fontaine claimed that as de Havilland’s career took off and Fontaine struggled to make it in her sister’s shadow, she was essentially treated like the family loser. “In our family Olivia was always the breadwinner, and I the no-talent, no-future little sister not good for much more than paying her share of the rent,” she said in 1949.
Perhaps one of the most powerful pieces of advice Saltz offered is that parents should ensure their children’s relationships with each other are respectful and healthy, not just that the their relationships with their parents are respectful and healthy.
That does not appear to have been the priority in the Fontaine-de Havilland household growing up. According to Fontaine’s 1978 memoir, No Bed of Roses, her sister was physically abusive as a child, fracturing Fontaine’s collarbone.
“Think about what it is from growing up that you haven’t let go of and ask yourself, ‘Is it worth hanging on to?’”
As a testament to just how intense their mutual resentment remained in adulthood, after both sisters were nominated for the Best Actress Academy Award in 1941 and Fontaine won, she allegedly ignored her sister’s attempts to congratulate her backstage. De Havilland would return the favor when she won her first of two Best Actress Academy Awards in 1946 and ignored Fontaine’s efforts to congratulate her. According to reports, after their mother’s death in 1975, the sisters’ feud was so intense that they were kept in separate rooms during a 1979 Oscar winners’ reunion.
While Fontaine and de Havilland generated headlines for their legendary, unhealthy rivalry, plenty of siblings have managed to compete in the public eye and maintain apparently healthy relationships. Emilio Estevez and Charlie Sheen, Beyoncé and Solange Knowles, Bryant and Greg Gumbel, and Venus and Serena Williams are all siblings who have pursued similar professional goals in the public eye, but have managed to do so without becoming publicly estranged. So what’s the secret?
Sisters Lola Ogunnaike, an entertainment anchor for Arise TV, and Nikki Ogunnaike, the online style editor for Glamour magazine, both work in the same competitive field and often speak twice a day. “I can’t imagine not speaking to my sister for 30 hours, let alone 30 years,” said Lola Ogunnaike when asked about Joan Fontaine and Olivia de Havilland’s estrangement. “People have taken to calling us the ‘Venus and Serena of media,’ which I think is hysterical.”
Interviewed separately, the sisters cited the same two reasons for their lack of sibling rivalry: their parents and the fact that they have both managed to carve out distinct and separate niches for themselves despite being in the same field. “I think my sister and I have carved out our very distinct lanes in journalism,” said Lola Ogunnaike. “She’s definitely more a fashion girl than I am, and I am very much a pop-culture girl. And I think we respect each other’s lanes and we play in our lanes, and that’s it. We don’t cross over.” Explained Nikki Ogunnaike: “I think having two separate parts of the same industry has been really helpful and not having to necessarily compete.” She added, “My parents really value family and really value being there for family, and they never wanted to pit us against each other.” Lola Ogunnaike echoed her sister: “Our parents never pit us against one another at all. In fact, they have instilled in us that all you have is your family, so rather than undermining one another, we are hell-bent on helping each other succeed.”
Nikki Ogunnaike explained that her sister helped her land her first internship with a major magazine but warned, “Don’t embarrass me.”
“I swore I wouldn’t,” she added.
“She never has,” Lola Ogunnaike said later. “She is the hardest-working person I know. She has made me incredibly proud. It has been astounding to watch her career blossom, and she does not have a bigger cheerleader than me.”
Perhaps the larger question the Fontaine and de Havilland feud raises is not what causes a sibling relationship to end but whether that is always a bad thing. When anyone is contemplating severing a sibling relationship, Dr. Michelle Golland, clinical psychologist, said she advises asking an important question: “Think about what it is from growing up that you haven’t let go of and ask yourself, ‘Is it worth hanging on to?’ Sometimes the answer may be, ‘No I don’t want to let go of it. It’s too toxic.’” For instance, “if there was physical, sexual abuse, or emotional abuse at some point, that sibling may choose not to have that person in her life.”
Dr. Gardere echoed Dr. Golland’s advice: “I think they should stop speaking if it gets destructive and hostile.” But he said an attempt at therapy is important for the parties involved, concluding: “It is sad when siblings stop talking permanently.”
Plenty of families mean well but often lack the skills to communicate properly and solve conflict, said Dr. Golland. Speaking of her own family, she said, “My mother would often say to my sisters and I, ‘Just love one another!’ I sometimes wish she had said, ‘Please just try to understand each other.’”