While John Huston and Errol Flynn were throwing punches over her sister, Joan Fontaine was making a mostly forgotten but clever comedy called The Affairs of Susan. Richard Aiken (Walter Abel) impulsively proposes to Susan Darell (Fontaine), a woman he barely knows. Though she has told him little about herself, he believes she is the woman he has been searching for, a “perfect lady” and “born aristocrat.”
After she accepts his proposal, Richard discovers photographs of three men in her apartment—an ex-husband, an ex-fiancé, and one to whom Susan answers “I was and I wasn’t” when Richard asks if she was married to him.
Alarmed, Richard belatedly decides to vet the woman he’s set to marry the next day. He meets each of her previous suitors and hears the story of how they met and fell in love with Susan. But their wildly conflicting stories only leave him more confused.
Roger Berton (George Brent) describes Susan as a young woman who is honest to a fault. Berton, a play producer, convinced the young Susan to leave her rural home in Rhode Island, marry him and become a reluctant actress.
But Mike Ward describes falling head over heels in love with a cosmopolitan party girl, frivolous, happy, always dancing and always extravagantly dressed (by legendary costume designer Edith Head, no less). Despite his fervent wish to marry her, Susan’s constant lying broke them up.
And finally, writer Bill Anthony insists Susan is a progressive intellectual, and an unconventional revolutionary.
Richard is baffled—is he marrying a naïve country girl, a lying socialite, or a communist?
Just who is Susan Darell?
We could ask the same question of the film’s leading lady, for there are few actresses with a wider gulf between their onscreen and offscreen personalities than Joan Fontaine.
Up until 1945, Fontaine nearly always played roles where she was, as Maxim de Winter called her character in Rebecca, a “little fool.” In Rebecca, Suspicion, and Jane Eyre, she essentially played the same character—a young, insecure woman trapped in a big house and wringing her hands while wondering if the man she loves is going to kill her. She played a silly girl who doesn’t want to divorce her husband in The Women, a fifteen-year-old girl in The Constant Nymph, and a literal Damsel in Distress.
Sweet. Naïve. Innocent.
Words often used to describe her characters, but never to describe Joan Fontaine.
By all accounts, she was haughty, sophisticated, and cynical.
Queen of the cutting remark, she would’ve been a master on Twitter, shelling out pithy barbs and endlessly needling her sister in public 280 characters at a time.
It’s well documented that she was disliked on the set of Rebecca, and that the gallant Cary Grant who had warm relations with nearly all his leading ladies called her a bitch.1
She left four husbands in her wake, casting them off like last year’s sweaters. At her death in 2013, she was not on speaking terms with either of her daughters.
And then, of course, was her feud with sister Olivia de Havilland.
In digging through every scrap I could find about the sisters and the origins of their feud, it’s clear that despite being a couple of actresses, there was no cinematic inciting event to their rivalry. No one slept with the other’s husband or stole a coveted role through underhanded means.
There was no dramatic betrayal.
What is extraordinary about their rivalry is just how ordinary it was.
They fought and reconciled throughout their lives, and only had an irrevocable break after their mother’s death.
The stars are just like you and me after all.
The press knew of the intensity of their feud, and yet had little concrete to print. This is why they made mountains out of their head-to-head Oscar competition in 1941, and later when Olivia turned away from Joan’s congratulations when she finally won her own Oscar (more on that later.) Both women convincingly denied that these two incidents fanned the flames, and when asked about their feud nearly always gave examples from their childhood.
As Olivia told Hedda Hopper, “Our house in Saratoga…was homey and cozy but quite small. So that we had to share the same room whether we liked it or not. And we didn’t like it at all.”2
Olivia went on to say that Joan was a sickly child, and that Olivia resented the pampering that Joan received, and Joan envied Olivia for being well. “And so, you see the seeds which were to develop…were already planted and growing.”3
No one from the outside can truly portion out the blame for their constant quarrelling. Olivia no doubt had her faults and provoked Joan. But in public, Olivia adhered much more to the old adage “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all” on the subject.
And if you want a lesson in the wisdom of this advice, look no further than Joan’s 1978 autobiography No Bed of Roses, a masterclass in how to unintentionally make yourself into the villain when you believe you are the hero. This nasty tome is full of hubris, blame shifting, grievances, and untruths so obvious you barely need to fact check them.
Reader, it’s a delicious document and I praise Joan for leaving it to us in all its petty glory.
I present to you a few excerpts that cannot be left on the cutting room floor:
On learning to cook as children: “Olivia was smarter. She just wouldn’t learn.”
“Brown-eyed, olive-skinned Olivia, Mother told me, never toddled near the crib of her tow-haired, hazel-eyed baby sister. Her horoscope suggests that Olivia would have fared better as an only child.”
Again, on Olivia: “I regret that I remember not one ounce of kindness from her all through my childhood.”
On Olivia’s first husband, author Marcus Goodrich: “All I know about him, is that he has had four wives and written one book. Too bad it’s not the other way around.” This remark, also made to the press at the time of Olivia’s wedding, was the catalyst for one of their longer estrangements.
On winning the Oscar over Olivia: “Actually, Olivia took the situation very graciously. I am sure it was not a pleasant moment for her, as she’d lost the previous year for Melanie in Gone With the Wind.” (See what I mean? Not nearly as big a deal to the Sisters de Havilland as having to share a crib.)
If I had three wishes from a genie, I would use one to wish into existence an Audible recording of Bed of Roses narrated by Joan herself, reading out all those zingers in her haughty, patrician voice. (Her “real” voice in interviews was much different than the breathless rambling she often used onscreen.)
Despite how much I love the dueling de Havillands, below is my favorite picture of them. For all their spitting and fighting, when Olivia had appendicitis while on the road promoting her film Santa Fe Trial and had to be flown back to Los Angeles for emergency surgery, Joan was waiting to meet her at the airport.4
And in 1974, when Joan had a nervous breakdown after a bad breakup, Olivia was at her side, and Joan writes in Roses that, “Olivia undressed me, put me to bed, held me in her arms as she sang a Japanese lullaby from our childhood.”
It seems that no matter how much you may hate your sister, it doesn’t mean you don’t love her.
So what really was the relationship between the sisters?
Like a marriage, only the two of them can know for sure.
And who was the real Joan Fontaine?
A difficult woman, no doubt. Vastly more complicated than most of the characters she played on screen.
And to get back to our main point, who, dear reader, was the real Susan in The Affairs of Susan?
You’ll have to find that one out for yourself. And as this film is available for free on You Tube and is a delightful watch, you have absolutely no reason not to.
- Eyman, Scott. Cary Grant: A Brilliant Disguise.
- Matzen, Robert. Errol & Olivia: Ego & Obsession in Golden Era Hollywood.
- Amburn, Ellis. Olivia de Havilland and the Golden Age of Hollywood
- Eyman, Scott. Cary Grant: A Brilliant Disguise.
- Fontaine, Joan. Bed of Roses.
- Higham, Charles. Sisters: The Story of Olivia DeHavilland and Joan Fontaine
- Matzen, Robert. Errol & Olivia: Ego & Obsession in Golden Era Hollywood
Want more? Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.