Joan Fontaine: Elegy for an Oscar Winner

I began writing this article on Joan Fontaine before her death in December 2013 at the age of 96.  With her recent passing, I'm especially glad to have this opportunity to pay tribute to a remarkable actress.

Joan Fontaine was born Joan de Havilland on October 22, 1917, in Tokyo, Japan.  When Joan first entered the film business, the name de Havilland was already 'taken' by Joan's older sister, Olivia de Havilland.  Particularly given the sisters' competitive relationship, there could not be two de Havillands in Hollywood, so Joan tried out the name Joan Burfield for her first film, MGM's No More Ladies (1935).  She then changed her mind and decided to adopt her stepfather's last name, Fontaine.

Joan gained experience in a series of programmers for RKO, and by 1937, two years after her first small role in No More Ladies, she was cast as Fred Astaire's leading lady in A Damsel in Distress (1937).  It was simply a standard-issue 'English rose' romantic lead, but being the first actress other than Ginger Rogers to play opposite Astaire was a significant moment in Joan's career.

In 1940 Joan beat out tough competition and was cast as the Second Mrs. DeWinter in Rebecca (1940), directed by Alfred Hitchcock and produced by David O. Selznick.  Selznick won his second Best Picture Oscar in a row, with Rebecca following Gone with the Wind (1939) in receiving Hollywood's highest honor. Despite a difficult filmmaking experience – among other things, Laurence Olivier was unhappy Joan had been cast instead of Vivien Leigh – Joan received her first Academy Award nomination as Best Actress, playing the shy young bride who grows up.

That film was immediately followed by Joan winning Best Actress for another Hitchcock picture, Suspicion (1941), and she was permanently established as a star of the first magnitude.

Fontaine was a unique talent, a subtle actress requiring and deserving careful viewer attention, while at the same time she fully inhabited her characters, with her voice and body language noticeably changing from role to role.  She was so effective in a series of early 'mousy' roles that I once tended to think of her as bland, yet when I returned to those movies years later I discovered shadings and nuances I had somehow previously missed.  As I explored more of her work, I also discovered she played a greater variety of characters than I had once realized, believably portraying strong and even conniving women who were anything but shy.

Joan's personal life may have been rocky at times, with multiple marriages and tumultuous relationships with her daughters and her famous sister, but her film career was always interesting, if somewhat uneven.  Her screen career stretched for over three decades, with only sporadic appearances after the early '60s.

The years after her film career included causing a bit of a stir with a frank autobiography, NO BED OF ROSES (1978).  Joan's final years were spent enjoying life with a number of beloved dogs at her home in Carmel, California, where she passed away on December 15, 2013.

I eagerly await the DVD release of one of my favorite Fontaine films, RKO's From This Day Forward (1946), in which she plays the optimistic wife of struggling veteran Mark Stevens.  In the meantime, here are some notable Joan Fontaine films which are currently available on DVD:

A Damsel in Distress (1937) - Joan has an interesting footnote in film history as Fred Astaire's first leading lady aside from Ginger Rogers.  The movie is also particularly notable for the debut of the Gershwins' “A Foggy Day.” Directed by George Stevens.

Gunga Din (1939) - As Joan's star rose she was again directed by George Stevens when cast as the love interest in this adventure classic, although the film really belongs to the male characters, including Cary Grant and Douglas Fairbanks Jr.

The Women (1939) - Joan plays Peggy, who's gone to Reno but doesn't really want a divorce.  A moving telephone scene where Peggy speaks with her unseen and unheard husband helped Fontaine stand out amidst the all-star cast.  Directed by George Cukor.

Rebecca (1940) - Fontaine received her first Best Actress nomination for her role in this classic film, playing the young bride who seems to be competing with memories of her husband's late first wife. Fontaine more than holds her own in a cast which includes Laurence Olivier, George Sanders, and Judith Anderson.

Suspicion (1941) - Joan won the Oscar for playing a young woman who loves well but not wisely, marrying a handsome cad (Cary Grant).  The ending of the film will always be problematic, but Joan offers a superb performance.

(Cary Grant & Joan Fontaine in Suspicion)

The Constant Nymph (1943) - My favorite Fontaine film, she plays a frail young girl who falls in love with an older musician (Charles Boyer).  To watch Fontaine's opening scenes, skipping around while putting a ribbon in her hair and pulling it out again, is to watch a brilliant actress at work.  Though in her mid-20s, she's completely believable as a 15-year-old.  Directed by Edmund Goulding.

Jane Eyre (1944) - Joan plays the title role opposite Orson Welles in this excellent version of Charlotte Bronte's classic, directed by Robert Stevenson.

Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948) - I think I'm in the minority in that I didn't care for this film's plot, in which Joan plays a young woman who convinces herself she's in love with a musician (Louis Jourdan), only to find that he's a cad who impregnates her and disappears.  That said, Joan's performance is exquisite and the film should be seen if only for that reason.

Born to Be Bad (1950) - One of my favorite Fontaine films, she plays the manipulative Christabel, who steals her cousin's rich fiance while conducting a hot affair with another man.  Fontaine costars with Robert Ryan, Joan Leslie, and Zachary Scott, directed by Nicholas Ray.  Grand fun.

Ivanhoe (1952) - Joan played Rowena in MGM's version of the classic tale, with Robert Taylor in the title role and Elizabeth Taylor as Rebecca.  Directed by Richard Thorpe.

Until They Sail (1957) - Joan has my favorite scene in this absorbing story of four sisters in New Zealand during WWII.  She plays the eldest sister who falls in love with an American soldier (Charles Drake); the moment near the end when she hears from his parents is lovely.  Unfortunately some of her role seems to have been left on the cutting-room floor, as stills and the trailer attest.  Directed by Robert Wise.

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961) - Two decades after her Oscar win, Joan had a starring role in Irwin Allen's colorful adventure classic.

Laura Grieve is a lifelong film enthusiast whose thoughts on classic films, Disney, and other topics can be found at Laura's Miscellaneous Musings, established in 2005.