The Telegraph (16/Dec/2013) - Joan Fontaine: a classic blonde beauty who clearly wasn't as frail as she looked
- article: Joan Fontaine: a classic blonde beauty who clearly wasn't as frail as she looked
- author(s): Anne Billson
- newspaper: The Telegraph (16/Dec/2013)
- keywords: Academy Awards, Alfred Hitchcock, Cary Grant, David O. Selznick, Eva Marie Saint, François Truffaut, Grace Kelly, Hitchcock Blonde, Joan Fontaine, Laurence Olivier, Louis Jourdan, Rebecca (1940), Robert Stevenson, Suspicion (1941)
Joan Fontaine: a classic blonde beauty who clearly wasn't as frail as she looked
Joan Fontaine, who died today aged 96, created a new kind of heroine, a romantic obsessive in thrall to a difficult man, says Anne Billson
Joan Fontaine was the last surviving cast member of George Cukor's The Women (1939), and her death, at the age of 96, marks another severing of the few remaining flesh and blood ties to the First Great Golden Age of Hollywood. She and her older sister, Olivia de Havilland, are the only siblings ever to both win Oscars for leading performances, and Fontaine's, for Suspicion (1941), was the only one ever awarded to a performance directed by Alfred Hitchcock.
It's likely the Oscar for Suspicion was belated recognition for the break-out performance that one year earlier had made her a bona fide star after five years as a rising (but never quite risen) talent at RKO as the second Mrs De Winter in Hitchcock's Rebecca. "I could see her potential for restrained acting," the director told François Truffaut, "and I felt she could play the character in a quiet, shy manner."
Rebecca's producer, David O Selznick, continued to test actresses for the role even after Hitchcock had decided to cast her, and it's said her co-star, Laurence Olivier, was beastly to her on set, since he had wanted his wife, Vivien Leigh, to get the role. It's also said that Hitchcock did nothing to discourage Fontaine's insecurity, since it played so perfectly into the character of the nervous second wife who feels she can't possibly fill the shoes of her formidable predecessor.
It's generally considered that Suspicion was weakened by the studio obliging Hitchcock to change the ending, so Fontaine's suspicions that her husband (Cary Grant) is a murderer, who will kill her too, turn out to be unfounded, but it reinforces the idea of a heroine who is plagued as much by her own imagination as by real events, emphasising that it's her story rather than his. Oddly, though, Fontaine never really seemed to embody what we now think of as the Hitchcock Blonde, typified by Grace Kelly or Eva Marie Saint her characters in the two films she made for him seemed too insecure, not cool or sassy enough for that.
A classic blonde beauty who clearly wasn't as frail as she looked, Fontaine is best known as the anxious heroine who will allow nothing to stand between her and her idea of true romance even (or especially) if it means her suffering for it. Her signature roles cast her as a new kind of female character in Hollywood: a woman with low self-esteem, yet passionate and obsessive, a neurotic heroine in thrall to an homme fatale to an almost masochistic degree, yet very much at the centre of her own story. Thus she was ideally suited to play Jane Eyre opposite Orson Welles in Robert Stevenson's Gothic-styled 1944 version of the novel, albeit looking more glamorous than the self-described plain Jane of Charlotte Brontë's novel.
Fontaine's other great role was as Lisa Berndle in Letter from an Unknown Woman, Max Ophüls' sublime weepie about unrequited love in early 20th-century Vienna. For Fontaine it was another opportunity, after The Constant Nymph, to demonstrate an ability to appear credible as a lovestruck teenager at least ten years younger than her real age. In Ophüls' film, she wastes her life pining for a concert pianist (Louis Jourdan) who is barely aware of her existence. It's the sort of self-effacing character you might normally want to slap, but Fontaine, as usual, makes an artform out of romantic suffering. Her life might be all about him, but the film is all about her.
She was a peculiarly prim film noir heroine in cardigan and pearls opposite Burt Lancaster in Kiss the Blood off My Hands, but even when she played femme fatales, they were variations on obsessive romantics more anti-heroines in their own right than exotic temptation for male protagonists. In Ivy (in which she looks exquisite in the Edwardian costumes) she makes you believe she feels entirely within her rights in poisoning her husband, and framing her lover for the murder, so she can take up with another man. In Nicholas Ray's Born to be Bad she once again shows a chilling combination of wide-eyed ingenuousness and self-absorbed entitlement as the aptly named Christabel, a conniving minx who refuses to settle for one man when she can have them all.
Fontaine's last movie was The Witches, a 1966 Hammer horror film adapted by Nigel Kneale from Norah Lofts' novel The Devil's Own, to which the star herself had bought the rights. Here she plays an older variation on her neurotic heroine, a schoolteacher whose recovery from a breakdown triggered by a run-in with African witchdoctors is set back when the sleepy English village where she takes a teaching job turns out to be what are the odds? another hotbed of black magic. The film was part of the 1960s trend for casting veteran Hollywood actresses in horror movies or Gothic melodramas, but it flopped perhaps audiences weren't so interested in a neurotic heroine who was no longer a pretty young women, but middle-aged.
Fontaine played a few TV roles after that, but to all intents and purposes she had retired. After decades of sibling rivalry and well-documented estrangement from her sister, she is survived by De Havilland, now 97, but still managed to have the last word. "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." It's just a shame we never got to see them bitching at each other in one of those Gothic horror melodramas of the 1960s.