John Curtin “Sibling Rivalry”

Written by  //  September 7, 2012  //  News about Wednesday Nighters  //  No comments

John Curtin Gazette photo
John Curtin, a former CBC newsman, with a picture of his brothers and sisters (he’s standing at left) and his mom and the family dog. His latest documentary, Sibling Rivalry, airs Thursday night on CBC.
 
Filmmaker John Curtin looks at Sibling Rivalry
By Bill Brownstein
MONTREAL – Montreal filmmaker John Curtin denies that his older brother Joseph was the genesis for his latest documentary, Sibling Rivalry: Near, Dear and Dangerous. Joseph Curtin, a violin-maker living in Michigan, was the recipient of the MacArthur Foundation’s $500,000 Genius Award for his innovative work in crafting instruments for some of the world’s greatest soloists, including the late Yehudi Menuhin.
“Absolutely not true,” insists Curtin, 57, holding court in his magnificent flat/studio overlooking Lafontaine Park.
“I never had any resentment toward him. But my sister just below me in the pecking order? That’s another matter,” cracks Curtin, in reference to one of his four sisters.
Regardless, Sibling Rivalry — which premieres Thursday at 9 p.m. on CBC-TV’s Doc Zone — doesn’t focus on any members of the Curtin family. The hour-long documentary —the 19th by the prolific, Gemini Award-winning Curtin — is an illuminating, fascinating probe of what brings siblings together and what rips them apart.
Curtin focuses on five disparate families: the four famed Staal hockey-playing brothers, Eric, Marc, Jordan and Jared; actresses Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine; business moguls Harrison and Wallace McCain; writers Christopher and Peter Hitchens; and Montreal students Matt and Rachel Buchanan.
Sibling rivalry is nothing new. It goes back to biblical times. Do the names Cain and Abel ring a bell? In fact, it’s prevalent in the animal world, too. If you think humans can be cutthroat, check out the black eagle species, where the first born makes certain the next sibling won’t see light of day for long.
Then again, few human or animal relationships were as toxic as that of de Havilland and Fontaine. “Hatred at first sight” is how it is accurately described. Older sis Olivia, the tougher of the two, was so nasty that she refused to let Joan use their de Havilland family name professionally. The situation was to deteriorate further as they both established successful careers, but it was the younger Joan who won the Oscar first in 1942, causing Olivia — who copped a statuette seven years later — to go postal, particularly since both had been nominated that year for best actress. Nor was Olivia amused to learn that her one-time beau Howard Hughes, while they were dating, was cozying up to Joan.
By contrast, the rough-and-tumble Staal brothers are positively cordial with one another, even though the older Eric, captain of the Carolina Hurricanes, did cause brother Marc, playing with the New York Rangers, to miss 37 games, the result of a hard hit and subsequent concussion. According to Eric, it was an accident. He was just finishing a check, and, besides, he didn’t even know it was Marc at first.
Then there’s Matt Buchanan, so enraged with his sister when they were younger that he once threatened her with a knife and also tried to smother her with a pillow.
But the Buchanans and Staals, unlike Olivia and Joan, are close broods at the core now. They just happen to be competitive.
As mental-health professional Jeffrey Kluger points out in this documentary, this competition can tear siblings apart, but can also drive them to excellence.
In the case of the Staals, the latter appears to hold true. In the case of the McCain brothers, it was the former.
After building their frozen french-fries biz into the world’s biggest, money and power got in the way and the once-close partners, Harrison and Wallace, split both professionally and familially. Harrison became a billionaire with McCain’s frozen fries, while Wallace bolted to Toronto and became a billionaire at the helm of Maple Leaf foods.
Also intriguing is the relationship between the late Christopher Hitchens and his lesser-known brother Peter. Great writers and grapplers, the two sparred most of their careers, often over religion. Christopher, the atheist, took on Peter, the Anglican, in one epic encounter at a U.S. church. The two made their peace at last following this debate and just before Christopher’s death.
As the psychologist Kluger notes: “Some sibling relationships are so toxic that it’s best to walk away from them.”
And says Curtin: “If they gave out Oscars for sibling rivalry, then both Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine would win.” Not that even a shared Oscar would ever get them talking to one another again.
Curtin came up with the documentary after “trolling through the pages of Der Spiegel” and spotting a story about sibling rivalry. “Documentary directors in Canada all read the same papers, but few read German ones,” jokes the trilingual Curtin, who was born in Oakville and moved to Montreal 25 years ago. “I had also been curious why so many brothers and sisters barely talk to one another.”
To his amazement, Curtin, formerly a reporter for CBC-TV here and freelancer for the New York Times, could find no related documentaries on sibling rivalry. “There has been abundant research, but the problem is that it’s not an exact science, and it’s too complicated a subject to make sweeping generalizations.”
Curtin’s 20th documentary is almost in the can. Serving the Royals, about the travails of the butlers and servants who wait upon the British Royal Family, will air in January on CBC and follows up on such similar themed Curtin documentaries as Chasing the Royals and After Elizabeth II: Monarchy in Peril.
“I get to make a documentary a year in a business here where there are only about a dozen made yearly in Canada,” Curtin says. “As Woody Allen once wrote: ‘Show business is worse than dog-eat-dog. It’s dog-doesn’t-return-other-dog’s-phone-calls.’ Clearly, I have been most fortunate.”
But you can’t underestimate talent, either.
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Buchanan siblings up close and personal on CBC last night

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