A British actress born in Japan and the younger sister of Olivia de Havilland, Joan Fontaine was an exceptional performer who became a star under Alfred Hitchcock’s wing. In fact, she was the only actor male or female ever to win an Academy Award for her work with the Master.
She reached her peak in the 1940s and early 1950s, though during this time there was much talk of her noted rivalry with de Havilland, which stemmed from their childhood. While she claimed that the studios fanned the flames to drum up publicity, Fontaine had a very real falling out with her sister over the sickness and death of their mother. The two ceased speaking with each other in the mid-1970s.
Fontaine left movies behind in the mid-1960s, and focused her career on television and the Broadway stage. With Golden Age glamour and considerable talent, Fontaine lived on as one the greats from the Classic era.
She was born Joan de Beauvoir de Havilland in Tokyo, Japan on Oct. 22, 1917. Her father, Walter de Havilland, was a British-born patent attorney whose lineage could be traced to kings Edward II and Henry VIII, and her mother, Lillian Ruse – also known as Lillian Fontaine – was an actress who graduated from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts.
Fontaine was often sick as a child, battling measles, anemia and other infections that lead her mother to bring her and her sister, Olivia, to the United States in 1919 while her father stayed in Japan. But their marriage was on the rocks and her parents divorced that same year.
Settled in Saratoga, CA, the bright Fontaine excelled at school, but ran afoul with Olivia. The siblings had an uneasy relationship all throughout their lives, which only grew worse once both were famous.
In the meantime, Fontaine went Los Gatos High School and returned to Japan when she was 15 years old, where she attended the American School of Tokyo. She had a falling out with her father a year later and returned to the states, where she followed Olivia’s footsteps and adopted an interest in acting.
Her Career Begins
After meeting Australian actress May Robson, Fontaine adopted the stage name Joan Burfield and made her debut opposite Robson in 1935’s Kind Lady. Legend has it that her mother would not allow her to use the de Havilland name, since it might interfere with Olivia’s own career.
She starred in a production of Call It a Day, which lead to signing a contract with RKO Pictures. The play was turned into a 1937, but Fontaine lost out on reprising her role to her sister.
Fontaine made her feature debut with No More Ladies and starred opposite Fred Astaire in A Damsel in Distress. The latter picture flopped. In 1939, she had supporting roles in Gunga Din and The Women, now using the name Fontaine, but failed to make much of an impression and her contract expired. That same year, she married her first husband, actor Brian Aherne; the two divorced in 1945.
A chance meeting with legendary producer, David O. Selsnick, resulted in a career rebirth when she was cast in the lead opposite Laurence Olivier in Alfred Hitchcock’s American film debut, Rebecca. Fontaine went through the ringer to win the part – she tested for months and beat out numerous other actresses – but her hard work paid off when she earned her first Academy Award nomination for Best Actress.
Fontaine reunited with Hitchcock to star opposite Cary Grant in 1941’s Suspicion, in which she played a woman who marries a man she comes to learn may have tied the knot to do away with her and take her inheritance. She again found herself in Oscar contention for Best Actress, only this time she was in direct competition with sister Olivia, who was nominated for her performance in Hold Back the Dawn.
Fontaine’s win contributed to further deterioration in their relationship, with both later claiming that one snubbed the other when Fontaine went up to the podium to receive her award.
Her Peak Years
After becoming an American citizen in 1943, Fontaine settled into a fruitful period where she excelled in a number of romantic films that were critical and box office hits. She earned her third Best Actress nomination for her performance in The Constant Nymph, played the titular Jane Eyre opposite Orson Welles in Robert Stevenson’s adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s novel, and was a revenge-minded man eater in the film noir, Ivy.
In 1946, Fontaine married actor William Dozier and had daughter, Deborah, two years later. The couple formed the company Rampart Productions and made 1948’s Letter from an Unknown Woman with director Max Ophuls under its banner.
A Slip in Popularity
Fontaine had fewer success in the 1950s, as evidenced by a number of rather mediocre melodramas like Born to Be Bad and September Affair. Meanwhile, her marriage to Dozier ended in 1951 and she remarried again, this time to screenwriter Collier Young in 1952. She also adopted a Peruvian girl named Martita.
With her string of hits starting to wane, Fontaine entered into a lull. She had a cameo in Orson Welles’ miraculous production of Othello and played Rowena, love of the titular hero, Ivanhoe, played by Robert Taylor.
But starring turns in the toned-down Decameron Nights and Bob Hope’s tame comedy Casanova’s Big Night only precipitated her slide from grace. Fontaine did the only thing one could in such a situation – she turned to Broadway and starred opposite Anthony Perkins in Robert Anderson’s 1954 production of Tea and Sympathy.
As she grew older, Fontaine moved away from leading roles playing more sophisticated and calculating supporting roles. She was a snobby art patron in Serenade, co-starred in Fritz Lang’s last American film, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, and played an older socialite in love with an emerging politician (Harry Belafonte) in the ensemble drama Island in the Sun.
In the 1960s, Fontaine appeared more on television than in movies, appearing as a panelist on game shows and as the host of the syndicated series Perspectives on Greatness. She made her last feature appearance with 1966’s The Witches, a supernatural horror thriller where she gets mixed up in a voodoo cult and has a curse put on her by an African witch doctor.
Fontaine returned to the stage throughout the decade and appeared on Broadway once more in 1968 in Forty Carats. She divorced Young in 1961 and entered into her fourth marriage with journalist Alfred Wright. They divorced in 1969 and Fontaine never remarried. She also lost custody of Martita on the grounds that the adoption was not valid in the United States. Fontaine never saw nor heard from her again.
In 1978, Fontaine published her memoirs, No Bed of Roses, which in part detailed her life-long feud with Olivia. The two ceased contact altogether over issues concerning their mother’s battle with cancer and subsequent death.
Also that year, she appeared in her first television movie, The Users, and later earned a Daytime Emmy nomination for a guest starring role on the soap opera Ryan’s Hope. In 1986, Fontaine made her first miniseries, Crossings,and stepped in for Loretta Young, who departed from the pilot for Dark Mansions, a gothic primetime soap produced by Aaron Spelling. The show never made it to series.
After playing a grandmother in the Family Channel’s Good King Wenceslas, Fontaine retired from acting and settled into a life of seclusion at her home in Carmel-by-the-Sea, CA. She died quietly of natural causes on Dec. 15, 2013 and never reconciled with her sister. She was 96.