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Top Ten: The Best Sister Acts in Hollywood History

Today's top ten list was inspired by the passing of the great Joan Fontaine, half of Hollywood's most embittered AND most successful sibling rivalry, all-female division. Usually when a movie star has a sibling, one is considerably less successful than the other which is why the Fontaine & de Havilland business was so enduringly fascinating. (If we're talking mixed gender siblings only Warren Beatty & Shirley Maclaine are truly comparable in terms of parallel mega-careers). I'm dedicating this list to the Talmadge sisters, silent screen stars (though most of their work did not survive) as well as the one and only Catherine Deneuve and Françoise Dorleac (her gorgeous elder sister who died way too young)... those Young Girls of Rochefort. But Rochefort is a long way from Hollywood.


The Sisters Mara: Kate & Rooney

14 Kate Mara (1983-) & Rooney Mara (1985-)
Rooney, currently playing Joaquin's ex-wife in Her, became a very big deal two years ago with The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and Kate is currently working the Netflix original House of Cards. If Hollywood futures are kind they'll climb this informal list.

13 more actressy-sibling sets after the jump

Phyllica & DebbieGilbert Sisters - Sara & Melissa

13 [TIE] Melissa Gilbert (1964-) & Sara Gilbert (1975-)
             Phyllicia Rashad (1948-) & Debbie Allen (1950-)
Melissa doesn't act much anymore and Sara is only doing recurring TV parts (recently Web Therapy and The Big Bang Theory) but since they're both crucial elements of two indisputably iconic television series - Little House on the Prairie (74-83) and Roseanne (88-97), respectively -- it would be dumb to leave them off the list. The same goes for Claire Huxtable and Lydia Grant (aka Rashad on the Cosby Show & Allen on Fame) and their many post TV fame accomplishments

The Sisters Richardson - Natasha & Joely (with mama Vanessa Redgrave)

12 Natasha Richardson (1963-2009) & Joely Richardson (1965-)
Were it not for that awful tragedy of a skiing accident we could still be enjoying Natasha's work today. In the last ten years of her career she did arguably her finest work on Broadway in the much heralded revival of Cabaret and also had a hit with the remake of The Parent Trap (1998). Meanwhile Joely found television fame and Golden Globe nominations with Nip/Tuck (2003-2010). She'll next be seen in the remake of Endless Love (2014). Neither of them could have ever hoped to surpass their mother, one of the greatest actors who ever lived (and still with us, huzzah), but they both took up the family calling anyway. 

The Bennett Sisters - Joan & Constance

11 Constance Bennett (1904-1965) & Joan Bennett (1910-1990)
Constance was a star of the early talkies with roles in Common Clay, What Price Hollywood, Merrily We Live and the Topper franchise. Her last film role was in the Lana Turner film Madame X (1966).  Her youngest sister Joan was more famous, oft employed through the 30s and 40s in films like Disraeli, and the Woman in the Window. And she later found cult horror fame headlining  television’s Dark Shadows (in the role Michelle Pfeiffer just played for Tim Burton) and the Italian horror classic Suspiria (1977) which was her final movie role. Their middle sister Barbara acted in some silents, too. 


The Sisters Mills - Hayley & Juliet

10 Juliet Mills (1941-) & Hayley Mills (1946-) 
Hayley is everyone's favorite splitscreen twin from the family classic The Parent Trap (1961) and was a child star of considerable fame and popularity in the 60s from Polyanna (1960, Juvenile Oscar) through to That Darn Cat (1965)-- she was even referenced on Mad Men recently. Juliet, her older sister, is less famous but was familiar to anyone who watched popular 70s series for her frequent guest starring gigs. She gained some notoriety in the early 80s for marrying the much younger hunk Maxwell Caulfield (Grease 2) -- they're still together! -- and starring in the insane daytime soap Passions

The Sisters Cartwright - Angela & Veronica

09 Veronica Cartwright (1949-) & Angela Cartwright (1952-)
Possibly the least famous of the ten sets selected here, nevertheless the Cartwrights careers deserve a spot and their careers are hilariously wide-reaching snapshots of showbiz history. Angela, as a child star, was Brigitta Von Trapp in The Sound of Music (1965) and the charismatic scene-stealing daughter of Lost in Space (1965-1968) and Make Room for Daddy (1957-1964)... so that covers sitcoms, sci-fi camp classics, and musical blockbusters right there! Meanwhile Veronica, who was older but came to fame later, worked in a wide variety of films and found her greatest successes in huge horror hits: The Birds (1963),  Alien (1979, she was originally slated for the Ripley role!) and The Witches of Eastwick (1987). After Angela retired from acting in the 80s, Veronica picked up her TV slack with numerous guest gigs. So basically, between the two of them, everything. (If Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk aren't considering Veronica for American Horror Story, they belong in an asylum.)

The Sisters Wood - Lana & NatalieJudy Garland's Daughters: Liza & wee Lorna

[TIE] 08 Natalie Wood (1938-1981) & Lana Wood (1946-)
              Liza Minnelli (1946-) & Lorna Luft (1952-)
I almost didn't include them because their fame was so imbalanced...

but then I remembered that Lana, whose original claim to fame was being Natalie's sister and co-starring on the Peyton Place TV series, will always have Bond Girl status from "Plenty O'Toole" and Lorna will always have Grease 2 so we'll let their relative obscurity slide. Oh, and Natalie & Liza with a Z... LEGENDS. They need no explanation.

Tillys, Jennifer & Meg share a trivia note with Olivia & Joan!

07 Jennifer Tilly (1958-) & Meg Tilly (1960-)
They're the only sister actresses in history, apart from Olivia & Joan and Vanessa & Lynn higher in the list, to have both won Oscar's favor. Younger Meg got started first as a dancer in the hit movie Fame (1980) and was nominated as that stigmata-plagued nun in Agnes of God (1985). Jennifer's career was slower to start but had longer legs once she got going, peaking with that remarkable comedic bullseye in Bullets Over Broadway (1994). "Charmed. Charmed." They're both still acting and Jennifer, at least, is well funded from voice work on the Chucky films and The Family Guy; she was already a living cartoon so why not also voice them?

The Sisters Arquette: Alexis, Rosanna, and Patricia

06 Rosanna Arquette (1959-), Patricia Arquette (1968-), and Alexis Arquette (1969-)
Rosanna's career started on TV in the 70s and she was famous by the early 80s, with #1 hit songs about her ("Rosanna" by Toto) and starring roles in scrappy small films (Baby It's YouDesperately Seeking Susan). Another reason to love Rosanna? She directed the Actressexual™ documentary classic Searching For Debra Winger. But what hath she wrought? Virtually ALL of her younger siblings from a gigantic brood followed her into showbiz. Every movie and television show must feature at least one Arquette somewhere in its scrolling credits. It's the law. Patricia was briefly in demand in the movies in the mid-90s and made a number of interesting ones (True Romance, Lost Highway, Flirting With Disaster) but found more regular success on television winning the Emmy for Medium and recently appearing on Boardwalk Empire. Alexis's film debut was as "Georgette" in Last Exit to Brooklyn (1989) but her best known film role is the effeminate band member in The Wedding Singer (1998). I fell hardest for her in Wigstock: The Movie (1995) which is a must for any younger readers for whom RuPaul's Drag Race was the introduction to all things genderbending.

05 Dakota Fanning (1994-) & Elle Fanning (1998-)
We're still 10 (?) years away from knowing if these are careers that will go down in history but for now they seem like the Most Likely child/teen stars to become full fledged celebrated regular ol' movie stars some day. Dakota hasn't yet been able to truly recapture the intense media interest / sensation of her  wiser than her years breakout in I Am Sam (2001) but she probably came closest with her risque Cherry-bombing in The Runaways (2010) which probably bodes well for her next few pictures. Elle, meanwhile, is capturing the attention of the fashionistas and occassionally the moviegoers most notably for her strong work in Sofia Coppola's Somewhere (2010). Pity that no one saw her best performance yet in Ginger and Rosa (2012). They Fannings are undoubtedly famous which is enough for now. But will they build filmographies that justify all the attention?

The Gabor Sisters - Zsa Zsa, Magda & Eva

04 Magda Gabor (1915-1997), Zsa Zsa Gabor (1917-) & Eva Gabor (1919-1995) 
If the Gabor sisters, Magda, Zsa Zsa, and Eva had lived in this era of 24/7 celebrity-fueled media circuses with insatiable paparazzi and reality television, they would have been even more spectacularly famous. The wealthy Hungarian immigrants married often and well (19 husbands between the three of them... with George Sanders of All About Eve married to two of them at different times!) while occassionally acting in movies or television (Eva had the biggest hits with the sitcom Green Acres and Disney voicework). But mostly they were famous for just being their entitled glamorous selves. 

03 Lillian Gish (1893-1993) & Dorothy Gish (1898-1968)
We just wrote about them here.

Vanessa & Lynn Redgrav

02  Vanessa Redgrave (1937-) &  Lynn Redgrave, (1943-2010)
I typed up this whole list and somehow skipped them. Other than Joan & Olivia they're the only sister actresses to receive multiple Oscar nominations (and a win in Vanessa's case) and they competed head to head too. But unlike Joan & Olivia, they were close.


The Sisters de Havilland (Joan Fontaine & Olivia)

01 Olivia de Havilland (1916-) & Joan Fontaine (1917-2013)
They fought over everything: boyfriends, their parents, the family name as stage name, and the Oscars. Along with #1 runners up Vanessa & Lynn, they're the only siblings to ever compete head-to-head in an Oscar competition - Joan won that round, though Olivia later won two statues). Eventually they refused to speak at all which seems incongruously petty from the outside especially for two actresses with such classy comportment and so much talent. But for all the gossipy fun of speculating about their feud, it must never be forgotten that they were magnificent onscreen in classic films like Gone With the Wind, The Heiress, The Adventures of Robin Hood (Olivia) and Rebecca, Letter from an Unknown Woman, and Suspicion (Joan). No other sister act has ever been able to touch them. 


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Reader Comments (52)

Fun post. I love me some Veronica Cartwright. She's my favorite scream queen.

December 18, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTy

Very funny post! But... ok for Natasha and Joely Richardson, but where are Vanessa and Lynn Redgrave?!?

December 18, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLorenzo

You forgot Lynn & Vanessa! They went head to head at the Oscars in 1966 - Elizabeth Taylor won. I would put them at No 2 on your list

December 18, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoe (uk)

How did you forget Vanessa and Lynn Redgrave! They competed against each other in 1966.

December 18, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoe

there's also the farmigas (though taissa hasn't done much really).

December 18, 2013 | Unregistered Commentermarcelo

Another couple of sisters: Hayley and Juliet Mills. Juliet did well on TV and starred opposite Jack Lemmon in a Billy Wilder film. Also I think you should include Lorna and Liza, don't forget Lorna's appearance in Grease 2!

December 18, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoe (uk)

Surely the fiirst and best of the film star sisters are the Gishes? Lillian is the one we all remember now, but Dorothy had a pretty good run during the silent era.The silents also gave us the Talmadges (Constance & Norma), who both had stellar if not particularly long-lasting careers. And what about the Bennetts (Constance & Joan)? Joan is the one with all the well-known films (lots of Lang, an Ophuls, even Suspiria late in life), but Constance was no slouch either.

December 18, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterestienne64

Yeah-I think an amendment needs to be added for the Redgraves-both were nominated not only for Oscars, but also for the EGOT (Lynn being the only person to have lost all four awards and never won any).

December 18, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJohn T

The Arquette Sisters are awesome.

December 18, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

I guess they may not have proven much in the ways of talent, but the trio of Olsens probably belong on this list as well. The twins are gazillionaires and Elizabeth has been doing good work since her breakout in Magda Murphy May Marlena.

I'm not surprised Tia and Tamara Mowery were forgotten though...

December 18, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterphil

What about the Gummer girls? No one but their famous mama can tell them apart!

Emma Thompson and her sister, Sophie, although Emma is more Hollywood, while Sophie does quite well on British TV.

December 18, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPam

Also, at least one mixed gender sibling pair rivals Warren and Shirley: surely Lionel, Ethel, and John Barrymore can compete with that claim, if not equal it.

December 18, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJohn T

The Deschanel sisters would likely be in the 'runner-up' list although I guess they are more famous for their TV work now :)

December 18, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRami

I met Kate Mara last year while she was filming "House of Cards," and she seemed nice, though she was preoccupied with walking her dogs. I find her and her sister a shade too bland for my taste, but I always think of her brief yet effective work in "Brokeback Mountain" fondly.

I'm always pulling for the Fannings, who come off as more well-adjusted than most young people in the business. Elle is terrific in "Ginger and Rosa;" however, that movies is all over the place.

December 18, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTroy H.

Hello, where are the acting dyanasty of Redgraves.

December 18, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMusa

I am deeply ashamed that i forgot Vanessa & Lynn. Post corrected!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

December 18, 2013 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Methinks a Redgrave centric post would wash away all that shame.

December 18, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMusa

Flagellate yourself!

December 18, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

I still think it's a pity that Elle (who did her best, but was way too young for that role) was cast in Ginger & Rosa instead of Dakota, who would've been exactly the right age.

December 18, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJan

Good, enjoyable post but best? The Gilberts, Arquettes & Tillys all minor players over the Gishes or Bennetts or Talmadges all top box office attractions in their day, let along Liza & Lorna.

December 18, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

A fun list. I had no idea Lana Wood was "Plenty O'Toole"!

Take out "Green Acres" though, and the Gabor sisters were really the Kardashians of their day, weren't they?

December 18, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterforever1267

joel 6 the post has been edited.

December 18, 2013 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

estienne64 -- i'm adding them now but then i really have to quit. lol. but great suggestion

December 18, 2013 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

The Talmadges, Bennetts and Olsens would be more essential in my book than the Tillys and the Gilberts (I didn't even know they were related).

And then there's the "unbalanced" Liza/Lorna and Barbra/Roslyn...

December 18, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

I read in the Hollywood Reporter earlier this year that Sofia Coppola wants to do a movie with the Fannings. That has potential to be amazing!

December 18, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterEric C.

Shoot, if we're going TV, Debbie Allen & Phylicia Rashad are at least equal to the Gilberts and Maras in my (80s world) opinion.

And I second the Mills sisters - The Parent Trap and Nanny and the Professor live on in my mind at least. :-)

December 18, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDave in Alamitos Beach

frankly i don't see how the Olsens qualify. who besides little kids ever watched their terrible direct-to-video filmgoraphy? yes they're rich but so are the kardashians!

December 18, 2013 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I might also include the Ephron sisters, though not as actors, but more like a part of Hollywood history (esp. Nora and Delia; not sure about Hallie and Amy).

December 18, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPam

Marisa Pavan & Pier Angeli?

December 18, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterhcu

LOL at Nathan's post about the Olsen Trilogy of Terror.

Great writeup, Nathan. I LOL'd a few times at your descriptions. ITA about the incongruity of the Joan/Olivia feud. The mysterious animus never lined up with their classy, kindly images. Just weird. Guess sibling rivalry has an irrational dynamic that is difficult to charter.

Your girl Mia completely eclipsed Tisa, but the latter appeared in Fingers and Manhattan. She then gave up acting and reportedly went into nursing.

December 18, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

We need a post about the Dorleac sisters

December 18, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMagicub

Fair enough! I wasn't trying to be critical (and its your list! if it didn't have your authorial vision, it probably wouldn't be good enough for this site) BUT - I do think Elizabeth has been pretty great. I like MMM and am probably the only person that liked Silent House. I'm also pretty darn excited for Godzilla.

As far as the Twins - they were in Full House which was (as maudlin and potentially terrible as it was) a pretty influential show for my generation along with Family Matters. And along with the direct to tv movies, they were in at least two feature films that I can remember - New York Minute with Eugene Levy was one of them! One of them (Mary?) has also done some spots in other movies. I know she showed up in that Sienna Miller/Warhol pic and was actually pretty great on the show Weeds.

So, I don't think its unreasonable to think they would at least QUALIFY for the list, and just perhaps miss it. I guess I'd rank them above the Gilberts in my personal list. And while I think Patricia Arquette is talented, I think Elizabeth would raise them above the Arquettes as well for me. (Also personally I loved Natsha Richardson... saw her in Cabaret and liked her even in the dismal Maid in Manhattan, but cannot understand how Joely gets any work! And some people complain about Jennifer Jason Leigh being a case of nepotism...)

December 18, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterphil

Dave, The Nanny and the Professor! Watched and loved it as a kid, and even then thought "Who ever came up with pairing Juliet Mills and Richard Long? Pure GENIUS!"

December 18, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

I would've never related Little House on the Prairie and Roseanne, so different shows. No idea they were sisters.
I would also have included the Olsens, if only for their impact on popular culture and the irony of the "unknown" one being the prestigious one of the three.

Also where is Mónica and Penélope Cruz? :) Just kidding.

PS. Is this list only about women because it's an actressexual list or because there're very few cases of brother actors?

December 18, 2013 | Unregistered Commenteriggy

There are 3 sets of sisters who were not included but are all fabulously wealthy and successful - mainly on TV than film;-

1. The Kardashians of course - absolutely no talent whatsoever - but what they eat for breakfast makes front page news nowadays.

2. The Hiltons - well Paris has made some films and why shouldn't we include a couple of sisters who keep supporting the Republican Party.

3. And from down under - Danni and Kylie Minogue. Danni has made a couple of goddawful movies but is well known for her TV work - especially in the UK and now in Australia for 'The X Factor'.... and Kylie Minogue who became super famous in Australia and UK for her soap opera work on Neighbours, a super pop music career, tried and tried to become a film star - and hasn't (except for Holy Motors???) and is now going to be a judge on Australia's 'The Voice'. Yep Danni and Kylie are both going to be judges on Australian music talent shows for RIVAL networks. Talk about sibling rivalry!

OK OK - my tongue has been firmly in my cheek when I typed this - but if you are gonna talk about the Olsens - then these 3 listings are just as appropriate. Snicker.

December 18, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBette Streep

Bette -- i would sooner quit the blog than write about the Kardashians and the Hiltons . there's enough of them elsewhere!!!! (and i seriously don't understand why anyone is interested in such vapid celebrities... i mean there are surely vapid celebrities with some talents that we could obsess over instead!)

as for Kylie & Danni -- i did look them up but couldnt see any acting work to speak of / of note beyond Kylie's fun cameos (moulin rouge & holy motors -- two of the best cameos evah!)

December 18, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNathanielR

Kate Mara is so terrible though

December 18, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJessica

OKAY. I made my last adjustment to this list. enjoy. i must move on. has anyone sent it to their sister? if so thank you :)

December 18, 2013 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Was Kate Mara in Transsiberian? I think I liked her in that? I liked the movie enough, but I thought she was atrocious on House of Cards. Can't say I remember her in anything else. So maybe she is terrible!

I don't get the hate for the Olsen's here! Mary-Kate and Ashley certainly were innocuous enough and Full House is no more treacly than Little House on the Prairie. Elizabeth has a handful of critics awards and a growing filmography that I'd say rivals the cache of being a supporting actress on Roseanne. Is the backlash against her from Oldboy? And if we're letting the Olsen twin's personal life / public persona leak into a hatred of EO, I think being a talk-show harpy on THE TALK or THE CHAT or whatever its called should be enough to disqualify all the Gilberts from any list forever.

December 18, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJJ

No love for Dedee and ME?

December 18, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLa Pfeiffer

JJ -- but the list is about sisters. not about individuals. so far i have loved elizabeth olsen. but her sisters mean nothing to my film/tv life. as for "just being a supporting actress on roseanne" -- this sounds like you have not watched roseanne. That is an all time classic hit and subversive show and Gilbert was amazing on it for years.

December 18, 2013 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Deedee Pfeiffer was on Cybill Shepherd's terrific sitcom (well it was for 2 seasons)

December 18, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

Nathaniel, I did forward it to my sister.

I put an addendum about Haley & Juliet Mills and those Talmadge girls though. I can see why you had to stop editing the post, never thought about how many sister acts there were! Some obviously more significant than others. Thank you for not subjecting us to that Kardashian and Hilton trash.

December 18, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

PS. Is this list only about women because it's an actressexual list or because there're very few cases of brother actors?

There's actually a brother in one of the write-ups.

December 18, 2013 | Unregistered Commenter3rtful

/3rtful -- there actually isn't. Alexis is a trans woman. (if you're trying to point out that she once had a penis, than your job is done)

December 18, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNATHANIEL R


Debbie Allen and Phyllicia Rashad are sisters? Holy shit.

How did i not know that?

For shame.

December 18, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDerreck.

Loretta Young and her three sisters were a virtual consortium of beauty and charm. Loretta, of course, was always a vision - and enjoyed a long, illustrious career in film and television. Polly Ann Young and Sally Blane (the only one of the sisters who didn't use Young as her professional name) were both active, especially in the 30's - usually in B's and budget westerns. But always providing a lovely grace note, whatever the surroundings. Youngest sister Georgianna flirted with the idea of a film career, but her only real fling at it came when she joined her three siblings (playing sisters) in "The Story of Alexander Bell" in '39. Eventually, she became Mrs. Ricardo Montalban. Love the Redgraves, the Fannings, the Bennetts and the Talmadges. But the Youngs remain my fond favorites.

December 18, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterKen

Ken -- wow. i thought i knew about Loretta Young (my mom's favorite actress) but i literally never knew that she had sisters who acted!

Jessica -- maybe i shoulda go with Zooey & Emily instead. those were the other options for the last slot.

December 18, 2013 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Thought of another although their degree of fame was very unbalanced. Jeanette MacDonald and Marie Blake/Blossom Rock. Jeanette of course was madly successful in the 30's teamed with Nelson Eddy while Marie toiled away in supporting parts and changed her professional name sometime in the 50's but then had her big featured role as Grandmama in the Addams Family.

December 18, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

I actually really loved this. I had no idea about Phyllica & Debbie. The Fannings have a bright future (hopefully) and I'd love to see what else Kate can do to compete with Rooney, if at all. I get a good vibe that those Arquette sisters are all super supportive of each other, that pic is very endearing.

Here's a bit of sisterly trivia that you might've not heard. Apparently when Our Beloved Emma Thompson was writing Sense & Sensibility back in the early 90s and didn't think of herself in either of the roles, she was imagining Joely and Natasha Richardson as Marianne and Elinor and had lobbied to get them both in the film originally. I like the way she thinks. I mean, yeah, Winslet but still, that would've been pretty great.

December 19, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMark The First

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