Whenever I am asked during the course of a conversation I am having on film, who is my favorite director or directors, inevitably, the name Alfred Hitchcock will be the first one I speak. Hitchcock, along with Quentin Tarantino, Steven Speilberg, Ken Russell, and Martin Scorsese, have consistently remained my favorite filmmakers. Amazingly, even though he was nominated five times for best director – for the films “Rebecca,” (1940) “Lifeboat,” (1944), “Spellbound,” (1945) “Rear Window,” (1954) and “Psycho,” (1960) – Hitchcock never won the Oscar. He did, however, receive the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award in 1968. Furthermore, despite working with the likes of Cary Grant, Kim Novak, Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda, Gregory Peck, and a host of other talented actors and actresses, Joan Fontaine was the only person who won an Academy Award working as a cast member in a Hitchcock film. Sadly, this past Sunday, December 15th, Fontaine, passed away at the age of 96. According to her assistant, Susan Pfeiffer, she died from natural causes at her estate, Villa Fontana, in Carmel, California.
Joan Fontaine was born Joan de Beauvoir de Havilland on October 22, 1917, in Tokyo, Japan. Her parents, Walter de Havilland, a patent attorney, and Lillian Ruse, an actress, separated, when Joan and, as it would turn out, her equally famous sister, Olivia, were just toddlers. After the separation, Lillian, left Japan, with her two daughters and moved to America. Their mother eventually met and married, George Fontaine, and the girls spent their early childhood growing up in Saratoga, California.
As a teenager, Joan moved back to Japan, to be with her father and his second wife, but when things didn’t go smoothly, she returned to the States. Afterward, she wouldn’t see her father again for almost two decades. Joan moved to Los Angeles to begin pursuing her dreams of becoming an actress, something her sister, Olivia was already doing, having landed a contract with Warner Brothers. Joan wasn’t able to use the name de Havilland because of her sister’s rising stardom; at first she used the last names Burfield and St. John, before she took on her step-father’s last name.
After appearing in the role of Caroline in the 1935 film “No More Ladies,” which starred Academy Award winning actress Joan Crawford, (What Ever Happened to Baby Jane) Fontaine was put under contract with RKO. She would not, however, receive her big break until she auditioned for, and lost out to her sister, Olivia, for the role of Melanie Hamilton, in the 1939 epic “Gone with the Wind.” Losing, of course, is not normally associated with career advancement or good fortune, but because she didn’t get the part, she took to bed, and was enthralled by the book she was reading. The novel that commanded her attention was “Rebecca,” which was written by best selling English author Daphne Du Maurier. Fortuitously, she found her self seated next to film producer David O. Selznick, (Spellbound) at a dinner party. Selznick, who happened to own the rights to the novel “Rebecca,” was so impressed by Fontaine’s understanding of the story and its characters that he offered her the opportunity to audition for a role in the film.
Fontaine not only auditioned for the movie, but was cast in the part of Mrs. de Winter, a woman who was made to feel unworthy of her husband’s love, and was tempted to commit suicide. Her husband, as it turned out, was a murderer. The casting of Fontaine was done over the strong objections of her multi-award winning co-star, Laurence Olivier. He had wanted Hitchcock to cast his then fiancée, Vivien Leigh, in the role. Initially, making matters worse was that Fontaine had to go through a lengthy auditioning process. Not only was she up against Leigh for the part, but Margaret Sullivan and Loretta Young, among many others; all of this did nothing to quell Fontaine’s feelings that perhaps she wouldn’t secure the role. Hitchcock actually thought keeping Fontaine worried about her job would be a help to the film as opposed to a hindrance. The character she played had to project vulnerability, and that certainly shines through during Fontaine’s performance in the finished product. Fontaine would receive the first of her three Oscar nominations for her work on the film, however, she would lose that year to Ginger Rogers for the movie “Kitty Foyle.” (As an aside, not only was “Rebecca” the first film Hitchcock made for Hollywood, but it was, inconceivably, the only one of his films that won the Academy Award for Best Picture.)
The following year, at the age of 24, Fontaine did win the Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role, in Hitchcock’s “Suspicion.” At the time, she became the youngest Best Actress winner in the history of cinema. Fontaine portrayed the quiet, young Lina, a wife who feels her life is in danger from her charismatic, and outwardly charming husband, Johnnie, portrayed by Cary Grant (North by Northwest). That very same year, her sister, Olivia de Havilland, was nominated for her role as Emmy Brown, in the movie “Hold Back the Dawn.” (To digress for just a moment, I would like to point out here, that Fontaine would be nominated one more time for an Oscar for “Best Actress in a Leading Role” in the 1943 film “The Constant Nymph.” In addition, she was also nominated in 1980 for a Daytime Emmy for Outstanding Guest / Cameo Appearance in a Daytime Drama Series for the role of Paige Williams on the soap opera “Ryan’s Hope.”)
Joan’s victory at the awards ceremony seemed to drive a deep wedge between the two competitive sisters, a relationship that, even in childhood, had apparently not been a close one. In her 1978 autobiography, “No Bed of Roses,” Fontaine talks about her troubled relationship with Olivia. Even though de Havilland, would be nominated a total of five times, winning two Oscars for Best Actress in the 1947 and 1950 films “To Each His Own,” and “The Heiress,” respectively, as well as winning two “Golden Globes” and both a National Board of Review, USA, Award, as well as two, New York Film Critics Circle Awards, the animosity between the sisters didn’t deteriorate. In fact, when Fontaine went to congratulate her sister, after she won her 1947 Oscar, as she was leaving the stage, Olivia ignored her. The two wouldn’t spend time in each other’s company again until 1962. (As an aside, when de Havilland won the first of her two Oscars, she and Fontaine became the first sisters to ever win Oscars. They had already made cinematic history prior to that by becoming the first siblings to be nominated for the Oscar in the same year.)
In her personal life, Fontaine’s interests extended to a great many things beyond film. She was a licensed pilot who flew her own planes. She competed in an international hot air balloon race; played golf; enjoyed both fishing and riding horses; and she also was an interior decorator. During the Second World War, she worked as a nurse’s aide, and made personal appearances in support of American troops.
Unfortunately Fontaine was not so lucky in love, having been married and divorced on four separate occasions: On August 20, 1939, she married British born, Brian Aherne, a stage and screen actor; the couple divorced on June 14, 1945. Next, on May 2, 1946, she wed film producer William Dozier, with whom she had a daughter, Deborah. The couple ended their marriage on January 25, 1951. Film and television writer and producer Collier Young was Fontaine’s third husband, to whom she was married the longest of the four, almost nine years, from November 12, 1952 through January 3, 1961. She and her last husband, Sports Illustrated editor, Alfred Wright, Jr. were married on January 27, 1964 and stayed together for five years before divorcing. In addition to the daughter she had with William Dozier, Fontaine took in Martita Pareja Calderon, a five year old Peruvian girl in 1952. Sadly, the United States courts didn’t recognize the Peruvian adoption, and Joan was kept from speaking to or seeing her adopted daughter. Martita maintained a close relationship with her sister Deborah, but apparently never saw nor spoke to Joan again.
For the remainder of the 1940s and throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Fontaine had a busy professional life. She starred opposite Academy Award winner Orson Welles in the film Jane Eyre, the title role. In 1948, she portrayed the character of the passionate Lisa Berndle, in love with Louis Jourdan’s (Octopussy) character of the concert pianist Stefan Brand, in director Max Ophul’s (La Ronde) “Letter from an Unknown Woman.” That same year she starred opposite Academy Award winner Bing Crosby, (Going My Way) in Academy Award, BAFTA, and Golden Globe winning director, Billy Wilder’s “The Emperor Waltz.” Other films of note include the 1950 film “Born to Be Bad” directed by Nicholas Ray, (Johnny Guitar) the 1952 film “Ivanhoe,” and 1957’s “Island in the Sun.” Her last leading film role was in 1966 in the movie “The Witches.”
During the 1950s and 1960s, Fontaine also appeared on Broadway. First in the 1953 drama “Tea and Sympathy,” where she replaced “Golden Globe” winning actress Deborah Kerr, (The King and I) and in 1968 she stepped in for Primetime Emmy Award winner Julie Harris, (East of Eden) in the comedy “Forty Carats.” In the 1970s and 1980s she appeared on television shows; the most notable among them was “The Love Boat,” and her guest turn on the previously mentioned “Ryan’s Hope.” Her final film role was in the 1994, television movie, “Good King Wenceslas,” in the role of Queen Ludmilla. Joan Fontaine, the blonde, vanilla skinned, expressive actress, who lived life to the fullest, and demonstrated a multitude of talents along her journey, is survived by her sister Olivia de Havilland, her daughter Deborah and a grandson.