Joan Fontaine dies at 96; star of ‘Suspicion’ and ‘Rebecca’
Joan Fontaine, the coolly beautiful 1940s actress who won an Academy Award 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, died Sunday. She was 96.
Fontaine died of natural causes at her home in Carmel, said her assistant, Susan Pfeiffer.
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.”
She gave her Oscar-winning performance as the threatened wife in “Suspicion,” opposite Cary Grant, in 1941, the same year for which De Havilland was nominated for “Hold Back the Dawn” — a head-to-head sibling competition that had the Hollywood press buzzing.
“Now what had I done!” Fontaine wrote in her 1978 autobiography, “No Bed of Roses,” of her reaction at the awards ceremony when Fontaine’s name was announced. “All the animus we’d felt toward each other as children, the hair-pullings, the savage wrestling matches, the time Olivia tried to fracture my collarbone, all came rushing back in kaleidoscopic imagery.”
Career totals for the sisters would be: Fontaine, three Oscar nominations and one win; De Havilland, five nominations and two wins. De Havilland, partly because of her role as Melanie in 1939’s classic “Gone With the Wind,” would be the one with the more enduring film legacy.
Although she continued to make films into the 1960s and appeared on Broadway and on television, Fontaine’s brief stardom peaked in the early 1940s.
Joan de Beauvoir de Havilland was born Oct. 22, 1917, in Tokyo to Walter de Havilland, a British patent attorney, and Lillian Ruse, an actress.
Joan’s parents separated when she was a small child, and she moved to the United States with her mother and sister Olivia, who was 15 months older. After their mother remarried to George Fontaine, the De Havilland girls grew up in Saratoga in Northern California, where they acted in school plays.
But family life was chaotic, and by age 15 Joan was back in Japan with her father and his second wife. When that did not go well, Walter de Havilland put Joan on a ship to the U.S. with $50. She didn’t see him again for 16 years.
When Fontaine landed in San Francisco, Olivia was already touring as Hermia in Max Reinhardt’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” which would lead to a contract at Warner Bros.
For a time, Joan lived with her sister and mother in Hollywood, but the sisters’ rivalry deepened as Olivia’s acting career met with early success.
“You see, in our family Olivia was always the breadwinner, and I the no-talent, no-future little sister not good for much more than paying her share of the rent,” Fontaine told columnist Hedda Hopper in 1949.
It was an oft-repeated theme. In 1992, Fontaine told journalist Angela Fox Dunn that, as the younger child, she was “the usurper,” while de Havilland was “the berator.”
“My sister was born a lion, and I a tiger, and in the laws of the jungle, they were never friends.”
On another occasion in 1978, she told The Times: “As my older sibling, Olivia could have looked after me. But au contraire, her desire my whole life has been to get me off-balance.” At the time of that interview, the sisters had not spoken since their mother’s death several years earlier.
During the years when Olivia was becoming a star, Joan, who had been sickly as a child, had blossomed into a beautiful young woman, and soon she was embarking on a Hollywood career of her own.
She began in films with a role in “No More Ladies,” starring Joan Crawford, and soon was under contract at RKO. Not able to use the family name because of her sister, she first became Joan Burfield and for a brief time Joan St. John, and finally took the name of her stepfather, Fontaine. She became a naturalized citizen in 1943.
Fontaine spent several years doing B movies and minor roles before one night, sitting at dinner next to producer David O. Selznick, she conversed with him about the book she had just read, Daphne du Maurier’s romance “Rebecca.”
Selznick eyed the young actress and said, “I bought it today. Will you test for it?”
“Would I!” Fontaine replied.
Fontaine was pitted against such stars of the era as Vivien Leigh, Susan Hayward, Virginia Mayo, Margaret Sullavan, Anne Baxter and Loretta Young. But the casting process was so protracted that by the time Fontaine got the part, she was thoroughly demoralized. This suited Hitchcock in preparing her for her role as “the second Mrs. de Winter.”
“Hitchcock built up his power over Fontaine while keeping her nervous and vulnerable enough to enhance the nervous, vulnerable character she was playing,” Patrick McGilligan wrote of Hitchcock in his 2003 biography of the director.
Fontaine was further humiliated when her costar, Laurence Olivier, treated her with disdain, in part because he was angry that Leigh, his then-fiancee and later wife, had not gotten the role.
“Hitch said that Larry had just come to him, saying Fontaine was awful and that Vivien was the only one who should play opposite him,” Fontaine wrote in “No Bed of Roses.” “I could hardly be friends with [him] after that.”
These problems aside, Fontaine was rewarded with an Oscar nomination for her first major role.
Her next role was also for Hitchcock, in “Suspicion,” playing the frightened wife of Cary Grant whom she suspects of trying to kill her. The film was given a Hollywood ending — her suspicions turn out to be a misunderstanding — because the filmmakers believed that Grant’s fans would not accept him as a murderer, as originally written. But Grant was quoted as saying that the casting was perfect because “anyone who knows me realizes that I couldn’t be married to Joan Fontaine for more than 24 hours without wanting to wring her neck.’'
In the 1940s, Fontaine also starred in “This Above All,” “The Constant Nymph,” “Jane Eyre,” “Frenchman’s Creek,” “The Affairs of Susan,” “From This Day Forward,” “Ivy,” “Letter From an Unknown Woman,” “The Emperor Waltz,” “You Gotta Stay Happy” and “Kiss the Blood Off My Hands.”
Her favorite film of her career was “The Constant Nymph,” directed by Goulding, whom she called “an actor’s dream,” and costarring Charles Boyer, “my favorite leading man.” She received her third Oscar nomination for her role as Tessa Sanger, who falls in love with an older man (Boyer).
“Touching, intelligent and beautifully realized,” critic Leonard Maltin later wrote of the film.
But despite these triumphs, Fontaine’s career faltered, and she never got the kind of roles that would build on her successes.
Film historian David Thomson wrote that after her Oscar, Fontaine “went after stately, romantic parts, lacking the real emotional sophistication of a Lombard or a Loy, and entered into weepies without the conviction of a Joan Crawford.”
In Hitchcock’s movies and later in Max Ophuls’ “Letter From an Unknown Woman,” Thomson said, she “was so good as to leave us baffled by her general indifference.”
Her last lead film performance was in “The Devil’s Own” (1966), in which the actress, who was nearing 50, became the latest aging star consigned to making a horror movie, joining contemporaries such as her sister and Bette Davis.
Fontaine’s roles after that consisted of films for television and an occasional appearance in a TV series. In the 1950s and ‘60s, she also appeared on Broadway in “Tea and Sympathy” and “Forty Carats.” She continued to act in dinner theaters and for many years hosted a cable television show. She appeared regularly on the American Movie Classics cable TV station telling tales about Hollywood.
In 1986, Fontaine was recruited to replace Loretta Young in a TV pilot for the gothic soap opera “Dark Mansions.” Fontaine liked her matriarch character, whom she called “a bossy lady who has a spine of steel but the manners of the old school” — some would say a fair description of herself. But ABC did not go ahead with the series.
Her final role in film was Queen Ludmilla in 1994’s “Good King Wenceslas,” a Christmas movie for television.
Fontaine was an avid sportswoman who rode horses, became a licensed pilot, was a good golfer (she made two holes-in-one), fished and flew in a hot-air balloon.
She disclosed in interviews that in later years she was estranged not only from her sister but from Deborah, her daughter from her marriage to producer William Dozier, and Martita, her adopted daughter born to impoverished Peruvians, whom she brought home with her in 1951 after a trip to view the Incan ruins at Machu Picchu.
She once quipped about children at a lecture in Laguna Beach: “You can acquire enemies. Why give birth to them?”
Fontaine’s home in Brentwood burned down during a wildfire in 1961. After living for many years in New York City, she moved in 1984 to Villa Fontana, her estate in Carmel.
Besides Dozier, whom she divorced in 1951, Fontaine was married to and divorced from actor Brian Aherne, producer-screenwriter Collier Young and journalist Alfred Wright Jr.
In addition to her sister, she is survived by her daughters and grandchildren.
Luther is a former Times staff writer.
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