Cool beauty Joan Fontaine, who gave strong performances in a number of classic films including Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rebecca” and Max Ophuls’ “Letter From an Unknown Woman,” died Sunday at her home in Carmel, Calif. She was 96.
Though acclaimed for her talent and elegance, the actress was equally well known for her decades-long feud with sister Olivia de Havilland.
Her porcelain beauty sometimes underlined an icy hauteur (which became more pronounced in later years), but she is best remembered for performances of vulnerability, such as in “The Constant Nymph” (her personal favorite) and Hitchcock’s “Suspicion,” which brought her an Oscar.
The daughter of Lillian Ruse and Walter de Havilland, Fontaine was born in Tokyo (she was 18 months younger than Olivia). Her parents divorced soon after, and her mother brought the two young girls to live in Saratoga, in Northern California, where she taught diction and voice control.
Her mother’s marriage to George Fontaine drew both daughters to leave home while still in their teens. Fontaine was opposed to his wife’s theatrical designs for the girls. Ironically, Joan took her stepfather’s surname after working briefly as Joan St. John and Joan Burfield.
While Olivia de Havilland was starring in Warner Bros.’ “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in 1935, 18-year-old sis Joan was being tested by director George Cukor, who signed her to play the “older woman” to Robert Montgomery and Joan Crawford in “No More Ladies.”
Her first role under the Fontaine surname was in 1937’s “Call It a Day,” on stage and in the film version. Producer Jesse L. Lasky signed her to a personal contract, which he later sold to RKO Pictures. A number of insignificant roles followed, including a small part in “Quality Street,” starring Katharine Hepburn, who suggested that RKO star Fontaine in its B-roster of films.
She was cast opposite Fred Astaire, who was looking for a new dancing partner after Ginger Rogers, in “Damsel in Distress,” but he gave her only one dance number. She got her first star billing in “Maid’s Night Out” and was the female interest in “Gunga Din.”
In 1939 RKO dropped its option on Fontaine, and Cukor, who had considered her for Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone With the Wind,” gave her a small but showy role in his film version of “The Women.”
After marrying actor Brian Aherne that same year, Fontaine was determined to retire. At a dinner party she suggested to producer David O. Selznick that he star her friend Margaret Sullavan in his “Rebecca.” Selznick ignored her and instead gave Fontaine the role opposite Laurence Olivier in the 1940 pic. Both actors were nominated for Oscars; both lost (to Ginger Rogers for “Kitty Foyle” and James Stewart for “The Philadelphia Story,” respectively), but the film won as best picture.
Hitchcock was so pleased with her work that he signed her for another Selznick production, “Suspicion,” as the shy English woman who fears her husband (Cary Grant) is trying to kill her. She won the Oscar that year (though many believe it was payment for being thwarted on “Rebecca”) and beat out her sister, who had been nominated for “Hold Back the Dawn.”
It was the beginning of a public rivalry that, though sometimes distorted by the media, was genuine and long-lived. In 1947, photographer Hymie Fink caught the feuding sisters in an infamous photo, when Fontaine tried to congratulate de Havilland for her Oscar win for “To Each His Own” and was snubbed (supposedly due to a callous remark Fontaine had made about de Havilland’s then husband, novelist Marcus Goodrich).
In her autobiography, “No Bed of Roses,” more than 30 years later, Fontaine missed no opportunity to pour salt into the wound. “I adore, respect and like my sister,” Fontaine once said. “But we don’t seek out each other’s company. We’re such complete opposites.”
During WWII, Fontaine worked for the Red Cross and did some of her best work, such as “The Constant Nymph” and “Jane Eyre.”
After refusing “I’ll Be Seeing You,” Fontaine parted company with producer Selznick but continued to capture interesting roles such as in “Ivy” and “The Emperor Waltz,” for Billy Wilder, even when the films weren’t always superior.
Her role as the thwarted lover in 1948’s “Letter From an Unknown Woman” is considered her last great perf, although a decade later she would shine in the drama “Until They Sail” as the eldest of four sisters.
In the 1950s Fontaine starred in big-budget productions such as “Ivanhoe” and some ambitious low-budget films such as Ida Lupino’s “The Bigamist” (produced by Fontaine’s third husband Collier Young, who had previously been married to Lupino).
She replaced Deborah Kerr in “Tea and Sympathy” on Broadway and did several productions in stock, though she largely lived off her smart investments (real estate and stocks) from the mid-’60s onward.
“I make pictures because I like to be able to get a good table when I go to a nightclub and because I like to travel,” she said, summing up the limits of her ambitions.
In 1980 Fontaine was nominated for a Daytime Emmy for an appearance on the soap “Ryan’s Hope.”
In 1982 she headed the jury at the Berlin Film Festival.
She came out of retirement for the ’94 Family Channel telefilm “Good King Wenceslas.”
Fontaine is survived by two daughters.