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Joan Fontaine dies at 96; star of 'Suspicion' and 'Rebecca'

The star of 1940s film won an Oscar for Alfred Hitchcock's 'Suspicion' and was also well-known for her rivalry with her sister, actress Olivia de Havilland.

December 15, 2013|By Claudia Luther

Joan Fontaine, the coolly beautiful 1940s actress who won an Academy Award for her role in Alfred Hitchcock's "Suspicion" and who became almost as well-known for her lifelong feud with her famous older sister, Olivia de Havilland, died Sunday. She was 96.

Fontaine died of natural causes at her home in Carmel, said her assistant, Susan Pfeiffer.

In addition to winning an Academy Award as best actress for "Suspicion," Fontaine was also nominated as best actress for her role in Hitchcock's "Rebecca" (1940) and, three years later, for Edmund Goulding's "The Constant Nymph."

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She gave her Oscar-winning performance as the threatened wife in "Suspicion," opposite Cary Grant, in 1941, the same year for which De Havilland was nominated for "Hold Back the Dawn" — a head-to-head sibling competition that had the Hollywood press buzzing.

"Now what had I done!" Fontaine wrote in her 1978 autobiography, "No Bed of Roses," of her reaction at the awards ceremony when Fontaine's name was announced. "All the animus we'd felt toward each other as children, the hair-pullings, the savage wrestling matches, the time Olivia tried to fracture my collarbone, all came rushing back in kaleidoscopic imagery."

Career totals for the sisters would be: Fontaine, three Oscar nominations and one win; De Havilland, five nominations and two wins. De Havilland, partly because of her role as Melanie in 1939's classic "Gone With the Wind," would be the one with the more enduring film legacy.

Although she continued to make films into the 1960s and appeared on Broadway and on television, Fontaine's brief stardom peaked in the early 1940s.

Joan de Beauvoir de Havilland was born Oct. 22, 1917, in Tokyo to Walter de Havilland, a British patent attorney, and Lillian Ruse, an actress.

Joan's parents separated when she was a small child, and she moved to the United States with her mother and sister Olivia, who was 15 months older. After their mother remarried to George Fontaine, the De Havilland girls grew up in Saratoga in Northern California, where they acted in school plays.

But family life was chaotic, and by age 15 Joan was back in Japan with her father and his second wife. When that did not go well, Walter de Havilland put Joan on a ship to the U.S. with $50. She didn't see him again for 16 years.

When Fontaine landed in San Francisco, Olivia was already touring as Hermia in Max Reinhardt's "A Midsummer Night's Dream," which would lead to a contract at Warner Bros.

For a time, Joan lived with her sister and mother in Hollywood, but the sisters' rivalry deepened as Olivia's acting career met with early success.

"You see, in our family Olivia was always the breadwinner, and I the no-talent, no-future little sister not good for much more than paying her share of the rent," Fontaine told columnist Hedda Hopper in 1949.

It was an oft-repeated theme. In 1992, Fontaine told journalist Angela Fox Dunn that, as the younger child, she was "the usurper," while de Havilland was "the berator."

"My sister was born a lion, and I a tiger, and in the laws of the jungle, they were never friends."

On another occasion in 1978, she told The Times: "As my older sibling, Olivia could have looked after me. But au contraire, her desire my whole life has been to get me off-balance." At the time of that interview, the sisters had not spoken since their mother's death several years earlier.

During the years when Olivia was becoming a star, Joan, who had been sickly as a child, had blossomed into a beautiful young woman, and soon she was embarking on a Hollywood career of her own.

She began in films with a role in "No More Ladies," starring Joan Crawford, and soon was under contract at RKO. Not able to use the family name because of her sister, she first became Joan Burfield and for a brief time Joan St. John, and finally took the name of her stepfather, Fontaine. She became a naturalized citizen in 1943.

Fontaine spent several years doing B movies and minor roles before one night, sitting at dinner next to producer David O. Selznick, she conversed with him about the book she had just read, Daphne du Maurier's romance "Rebecca."

Selznick eyed the young actress and said, "I bought it today. Will you test for it?"

"Would I!" Fontaine replied.

Fontaine was pitted against such stars of the era as Vivien Leigh, Susan Hayward, Virginia Mayo, Margaret Sullavan, Anne Baxter and Loretta Young. But the casting process was so protracted that by the time Fontaine got the part, she was thoroughly demoralized. This suited Hitchcock in preparing her for her role as "the second Mrs. de Winter."

"Hitchcock built up his power over Fontaine while keeping her nervous and vulnerable enough to enhance the nervous, vulnerable character she was playing," Patrick McGilligan wrote of Hitchcock in his 2003 biography of the director.

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