Hollywood star who insisted on playing strong women

Joan Fontaine - Born: October 22nd, 1917; Died: December 15th, 2013

Oscar-winning actress Joan Fontaine

Oscar-winning actress Joan Fontaine


Oscar-winning actor Joan Fontaine, who has died aged 96, was one of the last of the leading ladies from Hollywood’s golden age. Her life was marked by a storied and bitter rivalry with her older sister Olivia de Havilland.

Among Fontaine’s most memorable films in a Hollywood career spanning four decades and some four dozen films was the Alfred Hitchcock thriller Suspicion, co-starring Cary Grant, for which she won an Academy Award in 1942, beating her sister in the competition. The honour gave Fontaine the distinction of being the only actor, male or female, to win an Oscar for a lead role in a Hitchcock movie.

De Havilland, who was nominated that year for Hold Back the Dawn, went on to win two Oscars for roles in To Each His Own (1946) and The Heiress (1949). These established the feuding sisters as the only siblings to both win Academy Awards for lead acting roles. Now 97, de Havilland lives in Paris.

Fontaine also earned Oscar nominations for Hitchcock’s 1940 US debut, Rebecca, in which she starred opposite Laurence Olivier as a young bride haunted by the memory of her husband’s deceased first wife; and the 1943 romantic drama The Constant Nymph, falling for a dashing composer played by Charles Boyer.

Fontaine appeared mousy and innocent in her early movies but later carefully selected her roles and went on to play worldly, sophisticated women in such films as Born to be Bad and Tender is the Night.

Pillow dreams
She wrote in her 1978 autobiography, No Bed of Roses, that her sickly condition as a child helped develop her acting skills. In her sickbed fantasies – pillow dreams, she called them – Fontaine created “endless scenes of romance, passion, jealousy, rejection, death . . . I designed sets and costumes, cast roles and played them all myself.”

Her childhood marked the beginning of an enduring rivalry with de Havilland as they competed for parental attention. “I regret that I remember not one act of kindness from her all through my childhood,” Fontaine wrote. De Havilland reportedly saw her younger sister as a sneaky attention-getter, melodramatically playing sick and trying to outdo her.

The competition was more fierce in 1942 when both sisters were nominated for Oscars and Fontaine took home the statuette for Suspicion. “It was a bittersweet moment,” Fontaine later recalled. “I was appalled that I won over my sister.” When de Havilland won her own Oscar for To Each His Own, she snubbed Fontaine by ignoring her congratulatory gesture at the ceremony.

The sisters were said to have stopped speaking altogether in 1975 after their mother died of cancer.

Fontaine was born Joan de Beauvoir de Havilland to British parents in Tokyo on October 22nd, 1917. In Hollywood she took her stepfather’s surname to avoid being confused with the already-established Olivia.

Her first movie role was as Joan Crawford’s rival in No More Ladies in 1935. Following further roles in A Damsel in Distress opposite Fred Astaire and Gunga Din with Douglas Fairbanks jnr and Cary Grant, she was ready to quit movies until producer David O Selznick encouraged her to test for Hitchcock’s Rebecca. Her touching performance as Olivier’s shy second wife brought her enormous attention.

Fontaine often fought with studio executives who suspended her for rejecting assigned roles, but she was determined to play wilful women rather than waifs.

She found the roles she wanted in films such as Jane Eyre (1944) opposite Orson Welles and The Affairs of Susan (1945), one of her best roles, in which she plays a woman as seen through the eyes of four suitors.

In 1957, Fontaine caught the spotlight again as a white woman in love with a black man, played by Harry Belafonte, in Island in the Sun.

Critics praised her for Tender Is the Night, but by the mid-1960s her film career was over. Her last feature film was the 1966 horror The Witches.

She was married four times, to actor Brian Aherne, producer William Dozier, screenwriter Collier Young and sportswriter Alfred Wright jnr. She had two daughters.

In her memoirs, Fontaine maintained she repeatedly turned down marriage proposals from multimillionaire Howard Hughes, as well as offers to be the mistress of Joseph Kennedy and other political figures.

Fontaine was known for her graciousness to fans, answering letters and indulging autograph requests until shortly before her death. –(Reuters)