|Fontaine in Rebecca|
Her performances were controlled and sensitive, her heroines sympathetic. She could express a change in a character with the simple move of her eyelids. In an era dominated by Bette Davis, Katherine Hepburn and Joan Crawford she held her own. One person was the main rival in her career. Her sister—Olivia de Havilland.
Born Joan de Beauvoir de Havilland in Japan in 1917, she was the daughter of Walter Augustus de Havilland, an attorney, and actress Lillian Augusta Ruse who used the stage name “Lillian Fontaine.” Joan suffered many ailments during her childhood and her mother moved Joan and her older sister, Olivia, to the United States in search of medical care. Joan became a U.S. citizen in 1943.
As her career was on the upswing, she was fortunate enough to be seated next to David O. Selznick at a dinner party. Selznick shared with young Fontaine that he had recently imported a director from England—some fellow named Alfred Hitchcock who would be making a film for Selznick International based on Daphne du Maurier’s novel, Rebecca. Selznick needed a sympathetic actress to portray the film’s name-less heroine. He asked Joan to audition. And, audition she did—for six months. Finally, at the age of 23, she earned the role which placed her in the pantheon of Hollywood greats. Her performance as Max Dewinter’s unnamed wife is breathtaking. Hitchcock was insufferable, and Joan felt isolated and uneasy on the set. Those feelings only made her performance more astonishing. The was nominated in the category of Best Actress at the 1940 Academy Awards for the part.
Jane Eyre, Ivy, Letters from an Unknown Woman, and The Emperor Waltz, among many others. In 1941, she once again teamed with Alfred Hitchcock, co-starring with Cary Grant in Suspicion. For her subtle portrayal of a wife who suspects her husband is trying to kill her, she won the Academy Award in 1941.
As her film career flourished, she also starred in Tea and Sympathy on Broadway opposite a young Anthony Perkins. Well into the 1980’s she also made many television appearances—even winning a Daytime Emmy Award for her work on the dearly-departed drama Ryan’s Hope.
Today, Joan Fontaine lives in relative seclusion in Carmel, California. Her passions are spending time with her dogs and working in her garden. I’d say that’s a well-deserved rest for one of the magnificent women who helped shape the world of entertainment as we know it. For her contributions to film and the art of acting, Joan Fontaine is this week’s “Person of the Week.”