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The Telegraph (16/Dec/2013) - Obituary: Joan Fontaine




Obituary: Joan Fontaine

Joan Fontaine was an Oscar-winning actress who shone playing vulnerable women and maintained a lifelong feud with her sister Olivia de Havilland

Joan Fontaine, who has died aged 96, was the younger sister of Olivia de Havilland – with whom she maintained a lifelong feud – and indelibly associated with the lead role in the film of Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca (1940).

It was not that film, however, for which she won her only Academy Award but another, lesser Alfred Hitchcock picture, Suspicion, made the following year. In 1940, she had been unexpectedly beaten to the Oscar by Ginger Rogers in a non-musical role in Kitty Foyle and it was thought that, in giving her the Oscar for Suspicion, Academy members were seeking primarily to make amends.

The award added fuel to the intense rivalry between Joan Fontaine and her sister. In 1941, one of Joan Fontaine's rival nominees as best actress (and seated at the same table) was Olivia de Havilland for her role in Hold Back the Dawn. When Fontaine was declared the winner, de Havilland recalled thinking: 'Oh, my God! I've lost prestige with my own sister. And it was true. She was haughty to me after that."

Five years later, when Olivia de Havilland won the first of her two Oscars for To Each His Own (1946), she paid her sister back in her own coin. As Olivia left the stage clutching her award, Joan Fontaine extended a hand in congratulation. Olivia swept past.

Much later, in 1961, Joan Fontaine attempted to mend bridges and invited her sister to stay for Christmas. The experiment was never repeated. 'There would be a slight problem of temperament," Joan explained. 'In fact, it would be bigger than Hiroshima."

To audiences, Joan Fontaine became so identified with Rebecca that many believed she played the title-role. Actually, Rebecca was Maxim de Winter's first wife and the Joan Fontaine character was never named. She had not been first choice for the part. Vivien Leigh, Margaret Sullavan, Anne Baxter and Loretta Young had already been tested for it and all had support within the Selznick studio. The boss, however, favoured Fontaine and backed his hunch, even in the face of director Alfred Hitchcock's misgivings.

Though by no means an inexperienced player, Fontaine was diffident and overawed on the set — traits on which Hitchcock capitalised. He bullied and belittled her, constantly reminding her that her co-star, Laurence Olivier, had wanted Vivien Leigh to play the role. The effect was to undermine what little self-confidence Joan Fontaine had at that stage, making her shy, reticent, mousy and hunch-shouldered. It was a characteristic, if sadistic Hitchcock technique that produced exactly the right performance. Vulnerable and timid, Joan Fontaine simply became the part.

Suspicion, in which Fontaine played a similar role as a newly-wed whose husband may be a murderer, again tapped those traits. She feared being typecast, however, and in a long career made only one more film that called for these qualities — Max Ophüls's Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948). Uncoincidentally, it was one of her best.

The main thrust of her career was governed by what she saw as her range and potential, of which she was seldom the best judge. She relished playing femmes fatales in such films as Ivy (1947) and Born to Be Bad (1950); she remained convinced, against the evidence of Decameron Nights (1953) and Casanova's Big Night (1954), of her comic gifts; and she unwisely accepted the role of Lady Rowena in Ivanhoe (1952) — the statuesque Anglo-Saxon beauty who gets her man but loses sympathy to her tragic rival, the dark and sultry Elizabeth Taylor (ironically called Rebecca in the film). In these productions she was at best wasted, at worst miscast. It was unfortunate that she encountered her shrewdest mentors — David O Selznick and Alfred Hitchcock — early in her career. Ophüls apart, their successors were less perceptive.

Joan de Beauvoir de Havilland was born in Tokyo on October 22 1917, a year after her sister Olivia. Her English father, Walter A de Havilland, a cousin of the aircraft manufacturer, was variously credited as a teacher and a patent lawyer. He seems, in any case, to have been something of a braggart, living the life of an expat, with copious tales of winning a rowing blue at Cambridge and being descended from Norman ancestors on the island of Guernsey.

Joan's parents divorced soon after she was born and her mother moved to Saratoga, California, where she remarried in 1925. For professional purposes, Joan Fontaine eventually adopted the name of her stepfather, George Fontaine, leaving sister Olivia, who had already made her début, to retain the family name.

Joan was a delicate and introspective child and at the age of 15 doctors recommended a sea voyage back to Tokyo in order that she could see her father and learn to mix with people. This proved partly successful. She engaged in amateur theatricals and discovered her vocation, but she could not abide her new Japanese stepmother and, in 1934, returned to California.

At first she experimented with a variety of stage names, including Joan St John and Joan Burfield. Her theatrical début was in 1935 in Kind Lady, followed by a production of Call It a Day. At this play, the movie mogul Jesse Lasky went backstage on opening night and instantly signed her to a contract.

Her early years in Hollywood, however, were not encouraging. Her first role (as Joan Burfield) was a bit part in the Joan Crawford vehicle No More Ladies (1935) and her contract was soon sold on to RKO. Between 1937 and 1939 she appeared in 12 largely forgotten films, beginning with a cameo in Quality Street (1937) opposite Katharine Hepburn. These included two musicals in 1937 — Music for Madame with Nino Manfredi and A Damsel in Distress with Fred Astaire, in which she played an English aristocrat. Her dancing was confined to a single number in order not to invite unfavourable comparison with Fred's regular partner, Ginger Rogers.

Along with half of Hollywood, Fontaine tested for the role of Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind (1939), when George Cukor was to have been the director. She did not get the part but was offered the supporting role of the goody-goody Melanie. Regarding this as an insult, she responded tartly: 'If it's a Melanie you want, call Olivia." Unintentionally she thus handed her sister one of her best loved roles.

After the audition and his own departure from the picture, Cukor remembered her and cast her in one of the few sympathetic roles in his film The Women (1939). That she held her own in this all-woman comedy against the combined talents of Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell, Norma Shearer and Paulette Goddard stood her in good stead and Cukor recommended her to David O Selznick when he was casting Rebecca.

Fontaine's rapid rise to fame in Rebecca and Suspicion was never fully consolidated. Well cast at first in follow-up roles in The Constant Nymph (1943) and Jane Eyre (1944), she allowed herself to be tempted by another, less suitable Daphne du Maurier role as the wilful Restoration aristocrat in Frenchman's Creek (1945) who brings buccaneer Arturo de Cordova to heel. It cost $4 million (profligate by standards of the time) but failed to find an audience.

She continued to work with top-flight directors such as Billy Wilder in the Viennese confection The Emperor Waltz (1948); George Stevens in Something to Live For (1951), a study of alcoholism; and Fritz Lang in the thriller Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956); but these were far from their best work. Her other films of the time are barely remembered.

Only Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948) broke the pattern. Adapted from a bittersweet Viennese story by Stefan Zweig, it had a pronounced European flavour and was the most elegant film Austrian director Max Ophüls made in Hollywood. The story of a young girl who spends one night of love with a young musician, bears his child and writes to him years later though he does not even remember her name, it drew on Joan Fontaine's best qualities as an actress and is now regarded as her finest performance.

Unhappily, it never received an adequate release. It was produced by Rampart Productions, a small company she had formed with her second husband, William Dozier, but distributors had no faith in it, relegating it to out-of-town slots as a second feature. It was thanks only to crusading work by the British magazine Sequence that the film was rescued from oblivion­­.

Unlike Letter from an Unknown Woman, which was the acme of romanticism but left the public cold, September Affair (1950) was a 10-hankie job that had shopgirls sobbing all the way to the last bus home. An artificial tale of lovers who seek a new life together after being presumed dead in an air crash, it owed much of its success to an astute use of the Walter Huston version of September Song as a theme tune.

Joan Fontaine's 1953 film The Bigamist possessed a certain piquancy by virtue of being almost a family affair. It was written by Collier Young, her third husband, who had formerly been married to Ida Lupino. In the film, Fontaine and Lupino play Edmond O'Brien's two wives and Lupino was the director. The material, alas, proved pedestrian.

One of Fontaine's meatier roles was in Serenade (1956), in which Mario Lanza was her toyboy. In James M Cain's novel the character was a man and the part had originally been offered to Tallulah Bankhead. Hints of daring in Fontaine's later films, however, were more apparent than real. The film of Alec Waugh's bestseller Island in the Sun (1957) was considered audacious at the time in casting Fontaine opposite Harry Belafonte, though these mixed-race lovers were strictly of the sweethearts variety. A Certain Smile (1958) was based on the sexually frank novel by the precocious French writer Françoise Sagan, but Fontaine was sidelined in the role of Latin lover Rossano Brazzi's understanding wife.

While shooting that film, she contracted a neurasthenic disease that interrupted her career for three years. She returned in Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961), a nuclear submarine adventure in which she suffers a lethal dose of gamma rays before passing it on to the sea monster that eats her. As a film star, time was running out. Only a cameo role (but star billing) followed in an ill-fated version of Tender is the Night (1961) and, five years later, a Hammer horror called The Witches (1966).

She toyed with returning to the stage. In 1954, she had replaced Deborah Kerr in the Broadway production of Tea and Sympathy, but a shoulder injury forced her to withdraw. Subsequently, she appeared in Dial M for Murder in summer stock and on tour in South Africa, The Lion in Winter in Vienna and Relative Values, the opening attraction at Chicago's Arlington Park Theatre. She also appeared intermittently on television and in 1978 wrote her autobiography, No Bed of Roses.

She married first, in 1939, the actor Brian Aherne. Four years into that marriage, she asked him how long they had been together and, on being told, exclaimed: 'My God! I never meant to stay married to you that long." In 1946 she married the producer William Dozier, with whom she had a daughter, Deborah, born in 1948. This marriage, too, was dissolved, in 1951. Her third and fourth husbands were Collier Young, whom she married in 1952, and, briefly, from 1964, the sports magazine editor Alfred Wright Jr.

In 1951, between husbands, Joan Fontaine adopted a five-year-old Peruvian girl, Martita Pareja, whom she had met on a tour of the Andes and whose father was caretaker of the ruins at Machu Picchu. Fontaine, however, seemed to regard the incident as a shopping expedition for exotic curios. 'I put this golden-skinned, green-eyed baby in a suitcase and took her home," she said. Unsurprisingly, the arrangement lasted only 10 years. They separated when Joan Fontaine moved to New York, while Martita remained on a farm in Maine. They never shared the same roof again. Joan Fontaine is survived by her sister.

Joan Fontaine, born October 22 1917, died December 15 2013