“Joan Fontaine, the coolly beautiful 1940s actress who won an Oscar for her role in Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion and who became almost as well-known for her lifelong feud with her famous older sister, Olivia de Havilland, has died,” reports Claudia Luther in the Los Angeles Times. “In addition to winning an Academy Award as best actress for Suspicion, Fontaine was also nominated as best actress for her role in Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940) and, three years later, for Edmund Goulding’s The Constant Nymph.”
In the Hollywood Reporter, Mike Barnes notes that Fontaine, who was 96, was also “notable as Charlotte Bronte’s eponymous heroine in Jane Eyre (1944) opposite Orson Welles; in the romantic thriller September Affair (1950) with Joseph Cotten; in Ivanhoe (1952) with Robert Taylor; and in Island in the Sun (1957), where she plays a high-society woman in love with an up-and-coming politician (Harry Belafonte)…. Off the screen, Fontaine was a licensed pilot, an accomplished interior decorator and a Cordon Bleu-level chef who was married and divorced four times. In the ‘40s, she and William Dozier, the second of her four husbands, formed Rampart Productions, which oversaw her 1948 film Letter From an Unknown Woman, Billy Wilder’s The Emperor Waltz (1948) starring Bing Crosby and Kiss the Blood Off My Hands (1948) with Burt Lancaster.”
“Fontaine’s pale, soft features and frightened stare made her ideal for melodrama and she was a big star for much of the 1940s,” adds the AP. “For Hitchcock, she was a prototype of the uneasy blondes played by Kim Novak in Vertigo and Tippi Hedren in The Birds and Marnie. The director would later say he was most impressed by Fontaine’s restraint. Fontaine appeared in more than 30 movies, including early roles in The Women and Gunga Din” as well as Fritz Lang‘s Beyond a Reasonable Doubt and Nicholas Ray’s Born to Be Bad. “‘You know, I’ve had a helluva life,’ Fontaine once said. ‘Not just the acting part. I’ve flown in an international balloon race. I’ve piloted my own plane. I’ve ridden to the hounds. I’ve done a lot of exciting things.'”
Fontaine “continued acting well into her 70s,” notes Anita Gates in the New York Times. “She appeared in television movies, including The Users (1978) and Crossings (1986), based on a Danielle Steel novel…. ‘Looking back on Hollywood, looking at it even today,’ Ms. Fontaine wrote in No Bed of Roses (Morrow, 1978), her autobiography, ‘I realize that one outstanding quality it possesses is not the lavishness, the perpetual sunshine, the golden opportunities, but fear.’ Just as ‘careers often begin by chance there,’ she observed, ‘they can evaporate just as quickly.'”
In 2010, Farran Nehme posted a marvelous appreciation of Sam Wood’s Ivy (1947), featuring what she deems to be one of “Joan’s best performances.”
Updates: “The daughter of Lillian Ruse and Walter de Havilland, Fontaine was born in Tokyo (she was 18 months younger than Olivia),” writes Richard Natale for Variety. “Her parents divorced soon after, and her mother brought the two young girls to live in Saratoga, in Northern California, where she taught diction and voice control. Her mother’s marriage to George Fontaine drew both daughters to leave home while still in their teens. Fontaine was opposed to his wife’s theatrical designs for the girls. Ironically, Joan took her stepfather’s surname after working briefly as Joan St. John and Joan Burfield…. Fontaine is survived by two daughters.”
The Telegraph notes that Fontaine wrote in her autobiography “that her sickly condition as a child actually helped develop her acting skills. In her sickbed fantasies—pillow dreams, she called them—Fontaine created ‘endless scenes of romance, passion, jealousy, rejection, death. I built and decorated houses, steamships, ballrooms. I designed sets and costumes, cast roles and played them all myself,’ she wrote. Her childhood marked the beginning of an enduring rivalry with de Havilland as they competed for parental attention. ‘I regret that I remember not one act of kindness from her all through my childhood,’ Fontaine wrote. De Havilland reportedly saw her younger sister as a sneaky attention-getter, melodramatically playing sick and trying to outdo her…. ‘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.'” Olivia de Havilland is alive, of course, and hopefully well at 97.
Keith Phipps at the Dissolve: “In her two films for Hitchcock, Fontaine kept the tension grounded in her characters’ mounting fear, while helping create the template for the Hitchcock heroine: cooly beautiful, put together, and imperiled.”
Katey Rich notes that Fontaine answered Vanity Fair‘s Proust Questionnaire in 2008. A sample question: “Which historical figure do you most identify with?” And the answer: “Eleanor of Aquitaine, as she was my all-time favorite role, in The Lion in Winter, and which gave me the best reviews of my career.”
The Guardian collects clips.
“I have written many times about Joan Fontaine,” begins Farran Nehme, “but at the moment I’m sad about the movies I never wrote about while she was still with us. Such as The Constant Nymph, in which Fontaine plays a teenage girl, Tessa, who is deeply in love with the adult composer played by Charles Boyer. Fontaine’s performance walks a delicate line. Tessa’s feelings have all the force of an adult woman’s, perhaps even more because first love is always such a cataclysmic thing. At the same time, Tessa is only 14 when the action begins, and Fontaine (25 at the time) plays her innocence in a way that makes it natural that Boyer wouldn’t realize what is going on until quite late in the game. Without Fontaine’s acting, the entire movie loses its romantic glow.” Do read on. And wrapping this remarkable remembrance is a list of links to the Siren’s earlier pieces on Fontaine.
The Telegraph posts its obituary: “The main thrust of her career was governed by what she saw as her range and potential, of which she was seldom the best judge. She relished playing femmes fatales in such films as Ivy (1947) and Born to Be Bad (1950); she remained convinced, against the evidence of Decameron Nights (1953) and Casanova’s Big Night (1954), of her comic gifts… Along with half of Hollywood, Fontaine tested for the role of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind (1939), when George Cukor was to have been the director. She did not get the part but was offered the supporting role of the goody-goody Melanie. Regarding this as an insult, she responded tartly: ‘If it’s a Melanie you want, call Olivia.’ Unintentionally she thus handed her sister one of her best loved roles. After the audition and his own departure from the picture, Cukor remembered her and cast her in one of the few sympathetic roles in his film The Women (1939). That she held her own in this all-woman comedy against the combined talents of Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell, Norma Shearer and Paulette Goddard stood her in good stead and Cukor recommended her to David O Selznick when he was casting Rebecca.”
Veronica Horwell in the Guardian on Rebecca: “The prolonged casting process made Fontaine anxious. Vulnerability was central to the part, and you can see that vulnerability, that inability to trust her own judgment, in every frame of the film…. The period from the late 1930s to the end of the second world war is usually seen as an era of ever stronger movie women: career gals, swell dames and tough cookies. But there was a genre of threatened-women films, too: not the physical threat of modern stalker/slasher films, but something subtler, where a woman is destroyed by her fears and insecurities about men and her social competence.”
Max Ophüls’s Letter from an Unknown Woman is a “sublime weepie about unrequited love in early 20th-century Vienna,” writes Anne Billson in the Telegraph. “For Fontaine it was another opportunity, after The Constant Nymph, to demonstrate an ability to appear credible as a lovestruck teenager at least ten years younger than her real age. In Ophüls’ film, she wastes her life pining for a concert pianist (Louis Jourdan) who is barely aware of her existence. It’s the sort of self-effacing character you might normally want to slap, but Fontaine, as usual, makes an artform out of romantic suffering. Her life might be all about him, but the film is all about her.”
Updates, 12/22: “Both Fontaine’s characters for Hitchcock were English and although she never lived in the UK, her parents were British, which perhaps explains the reserve and contained passion of her screen performances,” writes Josephine Botting for the BFI. “She was a natural film actor and possessed a depth and thoughtful quality that suggested a welter of emotion behind her composed features.”
Aaron Cutler links to Ida Lupino’s “heartrending” The Bigamist (1953), wherein “Fontaine conveys sad wisdom as the older wife of a man who keeps and loves two families, giving the subtle, oft-unspoken sense that she would rather have him half the time than not have him at all.”
“In rare public remarks about her sister,” reports the AP, “Olivia de Havilland mourned the loss of Joan Fontaine.”
RITES OF PASSAGE from Catherine Grant.
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