Joan Fontaine: Oscar-winner who became almost as well-known for a lifelong feud with her sister Olivia De Havilland

 

Tom Vallance
Tuesday 17 December 2013 01:00
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With her delicate features and high cheekbones, Joan Fontaine became famous when she played the withdrawn young lady who becomes the second Mrs De Winter in Alfred Hitchcock's masterly version of the Daphne Du Maurier novel, Rebecca (1940). The following year she won an Oscar for her portrayal of a devoted bride who begins to suspect that her husband is a murderer in Hitchcock's Suspicion (1941), though it was basically a retrospective award for her Rebecca performance.

She appeared in at least one other masterpiece, Max Ophuls' Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), and earned another Oscar nomination for her role of a love-struck 14-year-old in The Constant Nymph (1943). In all these she was a winsome leading lady, harbouring untold passions, but she could be wicked too, particularly as a husband poisoner in Sam Wood's Ivy (1947) and a home-wrecker in Nicholas Ray's Born to be Bad (1950) She was also frequently in the gossip columns due to her long-running feud with her equally famous sister, Olivia De Havilland. "From birth," she later wrote, "we were not encouraged to be anything but rivals. As achievers, our impetus may be the sibling rivalry that still exists."

She was born Joan de Beauvoir De Havilland in Tokyo 16 months after Olivia in 1917. Though both girls had high IQs, they were physically sickly and in 1919 their mother took them to California to benefit from the warmer climate. After divorcing her husband, she married a department store owner, George Fontaine, in 1925. Joan was educated both in San Jose and at the American School in Tokyo, then she returned to California and in 1934 joined a theatre group in San Jose.

Because Olivia was already becoming established, Joan adopted the surname of Burfield when she did a screen test for director George Cukor, who gave her a small role in the Joan Crawford vehicle, No More Ladies (1935). A stage appearance in Dodie Smith's Call It a Day (1936) resulted in an RKO contract and a small role (as Joan Fontaine) in Quality Street (1937) starring Katharine Hepburn. She was then given starring roles in three "B" movies before being cast as Fred Astaire's leading lady in Damsel in Distress (1937). She looked uneasy in the role, though skilful editing and use of long shots got her through a duet with Astaire. It was back to the "B"s until George Stevens gave her the role of Douglas Fairbanks' sweetheart in the spectacular Gunga Din (1939), though her role was subservient to the robust action and scenes of male camaraderie.

Dropped by RKO, she was hired by George Cukor to play a docile young wife about to divorce her husband in The Women (1939). Several actresses were considered for Rebecca, including Vivien Leigh, Loretta Young, Anne Baxter and the favourite, Margaret Sullavan. Leading man Laurence Olivier wanted his wife Leigh to play the role but her test was disastrous. Fontaine was superb, conveying all the apprehension and eagerness to please that her character (who is never named) feels. Frank S Nugent of the New York Times wrote, "Miss Du Maurier never really convinced me anyone could behave quite as the second Mrs de Winter behaved and still be sweet, modest, attractive and alive. But Miss Fontaine does…"

Though the film won the best picture Oscar, Fontaine lost to Ginger Rogers in Kitty Foyle, but won the following year for her performance as the trusting bride in Hitchcock's Suspicion, which co-starred Cary Grant. Her sister was nominated the same year for her performance in Hold Back the Dawn. "We were at the same table," Fontaine recalled, "When my name was called, I thought she was going to pull out my hair." Olivia stated: "I thought, 'Oh, my God, I've lost prestige with my own sister', and it was true. She was haughty to me after that."

Fontaine gave another impressive performance in This Above All (1942) as a surgeon's daughter in wartime England who joins the Women's Auxiliary Air Force and falls in love with a deserter (Tyrone Power). Her splendid portrayal was capped by an impassioned monologue at the film's climax promoting the need to defend England against oppressors. She herself was active in charity affairs, working for the Red Cross, selling bonds and joining her relative Sir Geoffrey de Havilland on a morale tour of his aircraft plant in Canada.

She next played the role she would later claim to be her favourite, that of Tessa in The Constant Nymph, the sickly 14-year-old with an unrequited passion for a composer (Charles Boyer), who realises he loves her shortly before she expires. Though her gauche abandon in the early sequences, in which she frolics with her sisters on an alpine backlot, is now hard to take, she gains conviction in later scenes, and was nominated for another Oscar, losing to Jennifer Jones in The Song of Bernadette. In 1944 she divorced her first husband, Brian Aherne, whose career had diminished as hers soared.

She was luminous (if too pretty) playing opposite Orson Welles in Jane Eyre (1944), and followed it with another Du Maurier heroine, a countess whose country retreat in Cornwall harbours a pirate with whom she falls in love and accompanies on an escapade. It marked the start of a barely perceptible decline in the stature of her vehicles, though she gave a splendidly resourceful performance in the comedy The Affairs of Susan (1945), presenting four varied personalities to suit the requirements of four suitors. An unusually drab Fontaine starred with Mark Stevens in From This Day Forward (1946), dealing with the Depression and postwar travails of a married couple.

In 1947 the sisters had one of their most memorable clashes when Olivia won an Oscar for To Each His Own. Fontaine was a presenter, and as Olivia left the rostrum Joan stepped forward to congratulate her but was brushed aside. Later that year she married the Universal producer William Dozier, who persuaded her to star in Ivy, a stylish Edwardian melodrama in which she climbs the social ladder with judicious use of poison. In The Emperor Waltz (1948) she was the love interest for Bing Crosby in one of the crooner's weaker vehicles, but it was followed by Max Ophuls' moving account of a devouring lifelong love, Letter From an Unknown Woman, which contains one of her greatest performances: the New York Times stated, "she virtually wrings herself dry."

Neither Kiss the Blood Off My Hands (1948) nor the comedy You Gotta Stay Happy (1948) were successful, and Born To Be Bad was a disappointing saga of a femme fatale. The last really fine film in which she was top-billed, William Dieterle's September Song (1950), teamed her with Joseph Cotton as a couple who meet on an aeroplane, and when they are listed as having been killed in a crash, start a new life together. With exquisite location work and the haunting title song, it was a popular drama.

In 1951 Fontaine divorced Dozier, who was given custody of their daughter, and the following year married producer Collier Young. Her best roles subsequently included Rowena in Ivanhoe (1952), one of Edmond O'Brien's two wives in The Bigamist (1953) and mentor to handsome young talents in Serenade (1956) with Mario Lanza. She made a successful Broadway debut in 1954 when she replaced Deborah Kerr in the hit drama Tea and Sympathy. The New York Post stated, "She has the virtue of being without the slight air of self-conscious nobility that occasionally crept into her predecessor's characterisation."

In Island in the Sun (1957), the kiss she shared with Harry Belafonte made headlines. Her last film was The Witches (1967). Confessing to a competitive streak, she was a pilot, champion balloonist, expert golfer, interior decorator and Cordon Bleu cook. Her memoir, No Bed of Roses, was published in 1978.

Joan de Beauvoir de Havilland, actress:born Tokyo 22 October 1917; married 1939 Brian Aherne (divorced 1945), 1946 William Dozier (divorced 1951; one daughter), 1952 Collier Young (divorced 1961; one daughter), 1964 Alfred Wright, Jr (divorced 1969); died Carmel, California 15 December 2013.

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