Joan Fontaine, Academy Award-winning actress, dies at 96


Adam Bernstein (c) 2013, The Washington Post

Joan Fontaine, an Academy Award-winning actress whose delicate beauty made her a movie star in the 1940s and who excelled at portraying romantic vulnerability in such films as Alfred Hitchcock’s “Suspicion” and “Rebecca,” died Sunday at her home in Carmel, Calif. She was 96.

An assistant to Fontaine confirmed the death to the Hollywood Reporter.

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Fontaine was the younger sister of Oscar-winning actress Olivia de Havilland, with whom she endured one of the longest-running sibling feuds on record. Their rivalry began in childhood and was encouraged by their ambitious stage mother.

The rupture deepened over the decades, with spats over movie roles and the attention of powerful men such as oil magnate and film producer Howard Hughes. When de Havilland wed the five-time married novelist Marcus Goodrich in 1946, Fontaine reputedly quipped, “It’s too bad that Olivia’s husband has had so many wives and only one book.”

Fontaine, a teenager when she began her Hollywood career in 1935, was best remembered for playing elegant Englishwomen, fragile society ladies and wide-eyed innocents dominated by men. She could play chic and she could play demure.

Six years later, she earned her only Oscar, opposite Cary Grant in “Suspicion” as a rich bride uncertain whether her ne’er-do-well bridegroom is a murderer. That same year, she was pitted against her sister for the most prestigious honor in Hollywood. De Havilland was Oscar nominated for her dramatic leading role in “Hold Back the Dawn.”

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In her memoir, “No Bed of Roses,” Fontaine described the tension of the awards ceremony.

“I froze,” she wrote. “I stared across the table, where Olivia was sitting. ‘Get up there!’ she whispered commandingly. Now what had I done? All the animus we’d felt towards each other as children, the savage wrestling matches, the time Olivia fractured my collarbone, all came rushing back in kaleidoscopic imagery. My paralysis was total. I felt Olivia would spring across the table and grab me by the hair.”

The relationship grew more strained when de Havilland won the best actress Oscar for “To Each His Own” (1946). Fontaine recalled that when she walked over to congratulate her sister at the awards fete, “She took one look at me, ignored my hand, clutched her Oscar and wheeled away.”

Years passed before they spoke again, but the truce did not only hold. Fontaine said the break became permanent after their mothers’s death in 1975. When she was not invited to the memorial service, Fontaine said she threatened to leak the news to the press unless she were permitted to attend with members of her family.

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The two sisters had to be separated by an entire room during a 1979 Oscar winners’ reunion. A year earlier, she had told the Hollywood Reporter, “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 de Beauvoir de Havilland was born in Tokyo to English parents on Oct. 22, 1917. Her father, Walter, headed a patent firm, and her mother, Lilian, was an aspiring actress trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art who pushed her daughters toward acting careers.

The de Havillands divorced when their daughters were toddlers, and the father stayed in Japan while the mother took their daughters to California. The move was prompted partly for Joan’s health; she was a frail and sickly child.

Lilian de Havilland remarried, to department-store manager George Fontaine. In her autobiography, Joan Fontaine said her stepfather made sexual overtures to her and that she ran away from home. She was equally discontent living with her father in Japan for two years and moved back to the United States in 1934 to begin her acting career.

She confronted a dilemma: What would she be called? By the mid-1930s, Olivia had taken the de Havilland name.

In Fontaine’s earliest roles, she was billed as Joan St. John or Joan Burfield. She recounted in her memoir that she met a fortune teller who advised her to choose a stage name that would end with an “e.” With no great affection for her stepfather, Fontaine was the only name she could muster.

Unlike her sister — who early on starred in the hits “Captain Blood” (1935), “The Adventures of Robin Hood” (1938) and “Gone With the Wind” (1939) — Fontaine was initially unable to break out of low-budget films despite occasional opportunities. As Fred Astaire’s partner in “A Damsel in Distress” (1937), Fontaine called herself “terrible” and joked that the title was apt.

The critics agreed and in 1939, RKO Pictures dropped her. She later wrote in her memoir that she also was let go because she would not participate, as was expected of starlets, in cozy retreats with male guests of the studio.

She often fought for better parts and compromised by appearing in some of her best and worst films simultaneously.

Her first widespread good notices came in 1939 when she was cast in “The Women,” the all-woman catty comedy by Clare Boothe Luce and made at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios. She played the “good” girl in a film that included established players such as Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer, Paulette Goddard and Rosalind Russell.

Holding her own in “The Women” against a high-electricity cast earned her a seven-year contract with David O. Selznick, who produced “Gone With the Wind.”

After Fontaine was turned down for the role of the plain Southerner Melanie Hamilton Wilkes in that 1939 epic, she suggested her older sister for the part. De Havilland got it and was nominated for a supporting Oscar but was said to have resented the help from her younger, lesser-known sibling.

To win what she hoped would be her breakthrough role, Fontaine read the Daphne du Maurier story on which “Rebecca” was based — about the insecure wife of a brooding widower — and so identified with the part of “the second Mrs. de Winter” that she lobbied Hitchcock for the job.

“When I was a little girl unable to hold my own with those who should have been my friends, I knew the same quality of unhappiness the second Mrs. de Winter knew,” Fontaine said at the time. “I was fearful and timid. And I lived in constant horror of criticism.”

Cast opposite Laurence Olivier, she earned an Oscar nomination for “Rebecca” (1940) in a role that critics praised for her complex and expressive performance. Fontaine followed with some of her finest work: “Suspicion”; “The Constant Nymph” (1943) as a young girl in love with a mature composer (Charles Boyer); and “Jane Eyre” (1943), as the young bride opposite Orson Welles’s Rochester in a film based on the Charlotte Bronte novel.

The rest of her career was a long descent into supporting roles in mediocre fare. Her films included “Frenchman’s Creek” (1944), a 19th-century romance with Arturo de Cordova and based on a du Maurier novel; the comedy “The Affairs of Susan” (1945) with George Brent; and the drama “Letter From an Unknown Woman” (1948) as a woman desperately in love with a concert pianist (Louis Jourdan). She was a love interest in the swashbuckler “Ivanhoe” (1952) opposite Robert Taylor and Elizabeth Taylor.

Fontaine stepped out of type in several roles: a poisoner in the Victorian suspense drama “Ivy” (1947) with Richard Ney; a manipulative society woman in “Serenade” (1956), opposite opera singer Mario Lanza; and the chic Baby Warren in “Tender Is the Night,” a tepid 1962 version of the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel.

She said she received hate mail for playing opposite black entertainer Harry Belafonte in “Island in the Sun” (1957), a torrid drama that explored race relations.

In the mid-1960s, she received the Eleanor Roosevelt Humanitarian Award for her work with children at a New York school for the deaf. She periodically returned to acting, appearing in soap operas such as “Ryan’s Hope” and series including “The Love Boat” and “Hotel.”

Her marriages to actor Brian Aherne, producers William Dozier and Collier Young and Sports Illustrated golf editor Alfred Wright Jr. ended in divorce. She had a daughter from her second marriage and one from her third marriage, but a complete list of survivors could not be immediately confirmed.

Fontaine was the niece of British airplane manufacturing pioneer Sir Geoffrey de Havilland and was a skillful pilot and prize-winning balloonist in her own right. She also was reportedly a Cordon Bleu chef, a licensed interior decorator and an excellent tuna fisherman.