Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Sisters: "Caring, Sharing, Every Little Thing That We Are Wearing"

On December 18, Universal Pictures will be releasing what it hopes will be a big holiday smash: Tina Fey and Amy Poehler in a raunchy comedy called Sisters. It’s about two grown siblings who decide to throw the ultimate party before their parents sell the family home.

Forgive me, but when I hear the word “Sisters” in the context of a movie, I think about White Christmas, an amiable 1954 musical that’s something of a re-tread of the earlier Holiday Inn. Both films feature the best Christmas song ever written by a nice Jewish boy: Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas.” For the second film, which stars Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye as army buddies, Berlin also wrote a duet showcasing the two female leads, songstress Rosemary Clooney and dancer Vera-Ellen. They play sisters who are trying to launch a showbiz career via a song-and-dance act that has the guys going gaga. Their big number is “Sisters,” in which they croon about their affection for one another: “Two different faces/ But in tight places/ We think and we act as one.” At the same time, they assert their own independence:  Lord help the mister/ Who comes between me and my sister/ And Lord help the sister/ Who comes between me and my man.” Deathless lyrics, right?

Frankly, it’s a pretty silly song. But my sister and I learned it, and performed it a lot for beaming relatives. Needless to say, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, for all their longstanding friendship, are no more actual sisters than were Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen. But it occurs to me that there are a number of actual sisters who’ve made the grade in Hollywood.

Back in the early days, there were Norma and Constance Talmadge. And of course, Lillian and Dorothy Gish, who played on-screen sisters at least once, in a 1921 French Revolution melodrama, Orphans of the Storm. It isn’t surprising, really, that siblings became stars in the silent era. Many, like the sisters Gish and Talmadge, came from broken homes in which the financial need was great—and Hollywood was very much the land of opportunity.  

The most famous sister pair who scored big in Hollywood? Doubtless, Olivia de Havilland and her year-younger sister, Joan Fontaine. Both became stars and Oscar winners. Though de Havilland won twice, for To Each His Own and The Heiress, she was bested in 1942 by sister Joan, whose performance in Hitchcock’s Suspicion was adjudged superior to de Havilland’s in Hold Back the Dawn. (Bette Davis, Greer Garson, and Barbara Stanwyck were also in the running.) Going head to head for the Oscar irreparably strained a relationship that had never been affectionate. Though de Havilland is perhaps best known as the mild, saintly Melanie in Gone With the Wind, Fontaine was outspoken about the fact that her sister resented her from her birth onward. As she put it years later, “I married first, won the Oscar before Olivia did, and if I die first, she'll undoubtedly be livid because I beat her to it!” In fact, she did precede her sister in death, in 2013. De Havilland lives on in Paris, aged 99.  

Today’s best-known sisters are Rooney Mara and the slightly older Kate Mara. Although Kate entered showbiz first, it is Rooney who has gained the most attention, with an Oscar nomination for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and talk of another for this year’s Carol. Apparently they’re close—let’s hope their family feelings survive Hollywood.

This post is dedicated, with love, to my sister Judy, who leaves today for a new life overseas.


  1. I only have brothers - so I'm perhaps as ill-equipped as it's possible to be to speak on the subject of sisters. I doubt I'll see the Fey/Poehler movie. I do wish your sister Judy all the best in her new life overseas.

  2. Here's an interesting question, Mr. C -- do brothers have to be rivals? That's the focus of so many films. "Backdraft" immediately comes to mind, and of course "East of Eden," but there are loads of others. Does any film remind you of your own family dynamic?