Essays · Features and Columns

Fade Out: Joan Fontaine (1917–2013)

By  · Published on December 16th, 2013

I was already in love with movies before someone showed me Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca at the tender age of nineteen, but something about it opened up a whole new world of cinema to me. You’d think it was the film’s acclaimed director or the mastery with which he brought Daphne Du Maurier’s gothic novel to the screen, but no, I can’t claim anything as respectable as that. Instead, it was the smiling woman pictured above who helped ease my way into black & white cinema.

Joan Fontaine earned an Academy Award nomination, the first of three, for her performance as the second Mrs. de Winter, and she went on to win the Best Actress Oscar for her very next film, Hitchcock’s Suspicion. (She’s the only actor, male or female, to have ever won an Academy Award for one of his films.) I watched both in rapid succession before devouring several more of her films including Jane Eyre, Letter From an Unknown Woman, Ivy, and Kiss the Blood Off My Hands.

More than simply her beauty and acting talent, I was enamored by the way she balanced timidness with a barely concealed inner wisdom and feistiness. The next several years saw me tracking down and checking off ever more obscure titles on her filmography until only a dozen or so remained. It wasn’t quite an obsession, but a friend did buy me a framed 8" x 10" b&w photo of the actress that I still have to this day.

Joan Fontaine passed away this weekend at her home in Carmel, CA.

She was alive for 96 years, and it was quite a life she led.

Born in Tokyo in 1917, she moved with her mother and older sister to California for health reasons at the age of two. She spent a few more years back in Japan with her father, but after graduating from Tokyo’s American School Joan returned to America and followed her sister, Olivia de Havilland, into acting. Using her step-father’s surname so as not to compete with Olivia (and reportedly because their mother forbade it), Joan paid her dues with supporting roles in fourteen films from 1935 to 1939 culminating in George Cukor’s wonderfully acerbic The Women. Just as she was ready to quit the business, a chance conversation with producer David O. Selznick led to her role in Hitchcock’s American feature debut.

The role was much sought after and required nearly six months of auditions alongside many of Hollywood’s leading ladies of the time. One of the competitors, Vivien Leigh, was married to the film’s already-cast male lead, Laurence Olivier, and when Fontaine got the role Olivier reportedly made her life on set as unpleasant as possible. Hitchcock being Hitchcock, the director used the iciness she was getting from the British cast and crew to help shape her performance as an outsider thrust into an unfamiliar and uneasy existence. But while Rebecca marked the beginning of her career as a Hollywood leading lady, it also marked the beginning of the end for her relationship with her sister.

While they were apparently never all that close (as evidenced by Olivia’s will written at the age of nine that stated “I bequeath all my beauty to my younger sister Joan, since she has none”), their relationship worsened when the two were both nominated for Oscars in the same year and Joan won. Their feud was no doubt fueled in part by the media, but Joan treated their distance as a matter-of-fact reality when discussing the topic.

“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!”

Joan kept busy throughout the ’40s and ’50s with a steady stream of romantic dramas and comedies that saw her paired with high-profile leading men including Cary Grant in Suspicion, Orson Welles in Jane Eyre, Bing Crosby in The Emperor’s Waltz, Joseph Cotten in September Affair, Bob Hope in Casanova’s Big Night, and others. Never one to back away from controversy, she endured hate mail and threats after starring opposite and sharing a screen kiss with Harry Belafonte in Island In the Sun.

Joan’s last feature film was 1966’s The Witches, but she worked steadily on stage and television for several more years with her final appearance being the TV movie Good King Wenceslas in 1994. Quality roles dried up, but she kept busy with work and play. Her four marriages (and subsequent divorces) probably counted as a little bit of both. While acting was her career, her interests ranged far and wide over the years leading to her becoming a licensed pilot and champion balloonist, a Cordon Bleu chef, an accomplished sportswoman in both fishing and golf, a supporter of the A.S.P.C.A., and head of the jury for 1982’s Berlin International Film Festival.

It’s not a simple or little thing to help introduce someone to something as magical as the movies, but my seemingly odd (according to my friends, family, and girlfriend at the time) affection for Miss Fontaine led to interest in other films and filmmakers beyond the blockbuster norm that continues to grow today. She never knew it, but she’s partially responsible for the love of movies that brought me here to FSR. This of course means that she’s at least somewhat to blame for the unpopular review grades I give to mediocre summer blockbusters and Hobbit movies.

I lived in San Francisco for several years and would frequently visit the gorgeous beach-side town of Carmel, and while I never actively sought her out I’d be lying if I said I didn’t secretly hope to pass her on the sidewalk or maybe share tongs with her at the Whole Foods salad bar. Back when I still watched the Oscar telecast I would keep an eye out for her name during the roll call of those who died that year, and while I was frequently saddened by talents we lost, I always shared a silent smile that she was still alive and kicking.

She took part in Vanity Fair magazine’s Proust Questionnaire in 2008, and even at 90 years old she still showed the wit, wisdom, and sense of self that marked her life to that point. A few of the highlights include:

“What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Working in my garden while my five A.S.P.C.A. dogs smell the roses … or water them.”

“What do you consider the most overrated virtue?

“What or who is the greatest love of your life?
The English language.”

“Who is your favorite hero of fiction?
D’Artagnan, from The Three Musketeers, who taught me some things were going on in Milady’s boudoir. My mother, when I questioned her at 10 years old, said, “You’ll have to ask someone else.””

“What is it that you most dislike?

“How would you like to die?
In bed – alone.”

Joan Fontaine died suddenly at home on Sunday. She is survived by her daughter, Deborah… and her hopefully not too livid sister, Olivia.

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Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.