From Bette vs. Joan to the ultimate sibling rivalry, check out these legendary Hollywood battles.
Jerry Lewis & Dean Martin: From Boom to Bust
When one of the most successful teams in comedy history called it quits in 1956 after a 10-year run, their fans were shocked. Together, Martin and Lewis had made 16 films, starred in a highly-rated television variety program and amassed a fortune with their hugely popular live show.
So why split up the act? Well, for a lot of reasons, it turns out. Rumor has it that laid-back Dean (always happier hitting the golf course than heading to the office) had tired of Jerry’s ceaseless, workaholic routine. Chilly relations between Martin’s second wife, Jeanne, and the Lewises (close friends of his first wife) didn’t help matters much. And ego almost certainly played a part, as Lewis’ increasing popularity and recognition as the real talent in the duo left an irritated and resentful Martin more and more in his partner’s shadow.
By all accounts, Lewis was shattered by the breakup, while the more emotionally reserved Martin moved on. In the decades following the split, Martin’s star rose as part of the fabled “Rat Pack,” and Lewis continued to churn out popular films. Animosity between the two continued and they didn’t speak for 20 years, before briefly reuniting in 1976, when Martin made a surprise appearance (reportedly at the behest of Frank Sinatra) on Lewis’ long-running Labor Day telethon and then again for just a few moments during a Martin performance in Las Vegas in 1989—where Lewis lamented that they’d ever parted.
Olivia de Havilland & Joan Fontaine: Bad Blood is Thicker Than Water
It’s Hollywood’s ultimate sibling rivalry, and according to Joan, the fighting started soon after she’d left the womb, with 15-month-old Olivia less than thrilled with having to share their parents’ attention. Things only got worse from there, it would seem, as the pair spent their childhoods bullying, berating and even beating each other into submission.
Olivia may have thought she’d gotten a leg up on her little sis when she embarked on a career as an actress, making her big break in the Hollywood adaptation of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and a series of films with Errol Flynn. But Joan (after a brief stint working as Olivia’s chaffeur) soon followed suit, getting her own contract at a rival studio. Olivia did, however, get to hold on to the family name when Joan’s new bosses thought Tinseltown too tiny for two de Havillands.
Both sisters experienced meteoric screen success; both dated the same men; both were up for the iconic role of Melanie in “Gone With the Wind” (Olivia snagged it) and both found themselves nominated in the same category for the 1940 Academy Awards. Joan won. Olivia picked up her own Oscar a few years later, but famously snubbed her sister when she tried to congratulate her. Their rocky relationship never really recovered, though there would be periodic thaws, and Joan’s death in 2013 ended any chance of a true reconciliation.
Orson Welles & William Randolph Hearst: The “boy genius” battles the big tycoon.
Already an established theater and radio veteran at the ripe old age of 24 (thanks to his controversial adaptation of H.G. Wells “War of the Worlds), Orson Welles planned on taking Hollywood by storm when he scored a lucrative contract with RKO pictures in 1939. The brash wunderkind considered a series of subjects for his first film before teaming up with writer Herman Mankiewicz, who suggested basing it on the life of legendary newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst. Eager to avoid any conflict with the notoriously litigious Hearst, Welles and his creative team worked in secret on the project, which was only referred to as “RKO 281” on the Hollywood lot where it filmed.
But as work on the film neared completion, Hearst was tipped off on its content, and sent longtime employee and gossip columnist Louella Parsons on the attack. The all-powerful Parsons slammed the film’s depiction of her boss (an obvious Hearst-like character named Charles Foster Kane) as a tyrannical businessman. And though Hearst himself reportedly never actually watched the movie, he was equally enraged by its portrayal of his mistress, former actress Marion Davies, as an untalented alcoholic (although at least the fictional version of the long-suffering Davies, who later bailed out her beau when he went bankrupt, got to marry her lover in the film).
Hearst banned all mention—and advertising—of the film in any of his newspapers or newsreels, helping to ensure its box office failure. Having once owned a studio himself, Hearst now leaned on other studio moguls for their support. And, more than eager to teach an upstart like Welles a lesson, they rallied to the cause, offering to buy (and destroy) the film’s negative from RKO. Luckily for filmgoers, RKO refused. “Citizen Kane” was a financial flop, but was nominated for nine Oscars—it won just one, thanks in part to more lobbying by Hearst and Co.
Bette & Joan: Whatever Happened to the Sisterhood?
These forever-linked Hollywood icons took different roads to stardom. Joan (born Lucille LeSueur) escaped an impoverished, hardscrabble childhood by becoming a dancer, eventually making her way to MGM studio, where she specialized in roles that played up her new persona as the scrappy, yet glamorous star. Ruth Davis (nicknamed Betty as a kid), attended boarding school and worked on Broadway but initially struggled to break through in La La Land, due in part to her perceived lack of sex appeal and steadfast refusal to play by the rules of the Hollywood system (thought she would go on to win two Oscars and garner 10 nominations in all).
Bette was considered by most the better actress, while Joan was undoubtedly the bigger “star,” but the two found themselves pitted against each other throughout their careers. They also reportedly fought over the same men, with Crawford’s marriage to Davis’ former flame cited by many as the origin story of the bad blood. Things got even trickier when the two wound up working at the same studio, putting them in direct competition for roles. Davis and Crawford did little to dispel rumors of their ill feelings, offering up scathing comments on each other to an eager press, including classics such as Bette’s claim that Crawford had slept with every star on the MGM lot except Lassie, and Crawford’s oh-so-kind attack on her rival’s acting, “She’s a phony, but I guess the public likes that.”
And so it went for decades. And so it would likely have remained if Hollywood’s notorious penchant for ageism hadn’t gotten in the way. By the early 1960s both of their careers were on a steep decline as roles simply dried up. So when Joan offered Bette a part in a film adaptation of the novel “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane,” the once unthinkable happened, and the two agreed to co-star as sisters locked in their own macabre battle for control.
But rather than calming the waters between the two, production on the film kicked the feud into an insane overdrive. Tales of one-upmanship ran wild and there were accusations of physical and heavy psychological abuse on both sides. The film was a hit, though, and Bette (but not Joan) was nominated for an Academy Award. Yet it was Joan who stood on the Oscar stage that year, thanks to a deal she’d made with all of Bette’s competitors to accept their awards on their behalf if they won.
An attempt at another film pairing failed when Crawford quit. Years later, when asked for a comment following Joan’s 1977 death, Bette got in the last, brutal words. “You should never say bad things about the dead, you should only say good. Joan Crawford is dead. Good.” Ouch.