On a sad weekend for the film world, the news of the death of Lawrence of Arabia star Peter O'Toole was swiftly followed by that of the passing away of a leading light of an earlier generation: Joan Fontaine.
Fontaine, perhaps best remembered as the prototype of the “Hitchcock blonde” – attractive, malleable, neurotic – died only a few hours after O’Toole, at the age of 96 on Sunday morning at home in Carmel, California.
Fontaine's most notable role was arguably that of the "second Mrs de Winter" in Rebecca, the 1940 adaptation of Daphne du Maurier's gothic novel that marked Alfred Hitchcock's Hollywood debut. She would go on to gain an Oscar nomination for the role in 1940 – and actually win the best actress award a year later for a second Hitchcock film, Suspicion.
At the latter academy award ceremony, Fontaine defeated her sister, Olivia de Havilland (who had been nominated for Hold Back the Dawn); the rivalry focused attention on a feud between the pair that had smouldered since childhood. Most notoriously, Olivia supposedly refused Joan's congratulations backstage when she won her own Oscar for To Each His Own in 1946.
In 1949, Fontaine was reported by Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper as telling her: "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 would later enlarge on their fractious relationship in her 1978 autobiography No Bed of Roses. Of the moment of Oscar success, she wrote, "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." Though they apparently did not speak at their mother's funeral in 1975, insiders have claimed they were in communication in Fontaine's last years.
Born in 1917 as Joan de Beauvoir de Havilland, Fontaine followed her elder sister into acting in the mid-30s, with small parts in a string of studio films. She impressed producer David O Selznick after sitting next to him at a banquet, and although she went up for Scarlett O'Hara's best friend Melanie Hamilton in Selznick's Gone With the Wind (a role that eventually went to Olivia) Selznick cast her in Rebecca, which began her association with Hitchcock.
Although Fontaine subsequently worked with a string of big-name directors in the late 40s and 50s, including Billy Wilder, Max Ophuls, Fritz Lang, Nicholas Ray and Anthony Mann, another big hit eluded her and her Hollywood career was over by the beginning of the 60s. (Her last significant role being Baby in the 1962 adaptation of Tender Is the Night.) – (Guardian service)