Joan de Havilland, better known by her stage name Joan Fontaine, had a truly singular career. At age 24 she became the youngest winner of the Oscar for Best Actress at the time when she took home the award for her performance in Suspicion. Her win for her performance in Suspicion would make her the only actor to ever win an Academy Award for acting in an Alfred Hitchcock film. She and her sister Olivia de Havilland are the only siblings to have both won Oscars for Best Actress. Over the years she appeared in some truly legendary films, including The Women (1939), Rebecca (1940), Suspicion (1941), Jane Eyre (1943), and many others. Sadly, Joan Fontaine died today, 15 December 2013, at the age of 96.
Joan Fontaine was born Joan de Havilland on 22 October 1917 to English parents in Tokyo, Japan. Her father, Walter de Havilland, was a patent attorney. Her mother, Lilian (born Lilian Augusta Ruse) had trained in acting at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and performed on stage before giving up her career to go to Japan with her husband. She would later return to acting under the name Lillian Fontaine, appearing in such films as The Lost Weekend (1945) and The Bigamist (1954). Her older sister, Olivia de Havilland, was born a little over a year before she was. The de Havilland sisters' parents separated in 1919, although their divorce would not be finalised until 1925. Neither Olivia nor Joan were particularly healthy children and so Lilian de Havilland moved to Saratoga, California in hope that the climate would be better for them. There Joan de Havilland attended Los Gatos High School. When she was 16 years old she went to Japan to be with her father. There she attended the American School in Japan, from which she graduated in 1935.
After graduating from the American School in Japan, Joan de Havilland returned to California. She made her stage debut in a production of the play Call It a Day. She was soon signed to a contract with RKO and made her screen debut in the film No More Ladies using the screen name "Joan Burfield". She did not remain "Joan Burfield" long as she soon took the stage name "Joan Fontaine," taking her stepfather's surname. She appeared in the films A Million to One (1937) and Quality Street (1937) before receiving her first starring role in The Man Who Found Himself (1937). Thereafter she was the female lead in You Can't Beat Love (1937) and Music for Madame (1937). She appeared in Damsel in Distress in 1937 alongside Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, but sadly the film did poorly at the box office. She starred in the films Maid's Night Out (1938), Blond Cheat (1938), Sky Giant (1938), and The Duke of West Point (1938), and played the female lead in Gunga Din (1939). Unfortunately, given the poor box office performance of Miss Fontaine's films (except for Gunga Din), RKO decided not to renew her contract in 1939.
Fortunately, Joan Fontaine's luck was about to change. In 1939 she appeared in MGM's adaptation of the play The Women. While it was a small role, it was a significant one. What is more The Women would lead Miss Fontaine being cast in what would become her best known role. Alfred Hitchcock saw her performance in The Women and as a result she was cast in the lead role of the second Mrs. de Winter in his adaptation of Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca (1940). It was a star making role and Miss Fontaine was nominated for the Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role. Alfred Hitchcock would call upon Joan Fontaine's services again, casting her as the female lead in Suspicion (1941). For her role in the film she won the Academy Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role. She starred in the film This Above All (1942) before playing the lead role in The Constant Nymph (1943), for which she was once again nominated for the Oscar for Best Actress in a Lead Role.
Joan Fontaine played the lead role in the 1942 adaptation of Charlotte Brontë's novel Jane Eyre and it would be followed by the adaptation of another Daphne du Maurier novel, Frenchman's Creek. Thereafter Miss Fontaine was cast in more costume melodramas, including Ivy (1947), Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), and The Emperor Waltz (1948). She also appeared in the comedies, The Affairs of Susan (1945) and You Gotta Stay Happy (1948), as well as the drama From This Day Forward (1946). Kiss the Blood Off My Hands (1948) marked Miss Fontaine's first film noir, a genre in which she would visit again in such films as Born to Be Bad (1950), The Bigamist, and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956). The Fifties would see Miss Fontaine appear in a variety of genres of film. She returned to costume drama with Ivanhoe (1952) and Decameron Nights (1953). She appeared in the comedies Darling, How Could You! (1951) and Casanova's Big Night (1954) She also appeared in such dramas as Something to Live For (1952), Serenade (1956), Island in the Sun (1957), Until They Sail (1957), and A Certain Smile (1958).
In 1953 Joan Fontaine made her television debut in an episode of Four Star Playhouse. As the Fifties progressed she appeared more and more on television, making guest appearances on The Ford Television Theatre, Star Stage, Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse, Startime, Alcoa Presents: One Step Beyond, and G.E. Theatre. She also appeared on Broadway in Tea and Sympathy. The Sixties would see Miss Fontaine make her final feature films: Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961), Tender Is the Night (1962), and her very last feature film, Hammer Films' The Witches (1966). She guest starred on such shows as Checkmate, The Dick Powell Show, Kraft Mystery Theatre, Wagon Train, and The Bing Crosby Show. In 1970 she appeared on Broadway in the play Forty Carats.
Following Joan Fontaine's last feature film, The Witches she made only a few more appearances. She guest starred on the TV shows Cannon, Aloha Paradise, The Love Boat, Bare Essence, and Hotel. She appeared in four episodes of the daytime soap opera Ryan's Hope, as well as the 1986 mini-series Crossings. Her last appearance was in the TV film Good King Wenceslas in 1994.
Just as Vivien Leigh remains forever identified with Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind and Margaret Lockwood with Barbara Worth in The Wicked Lady, there can be no doubt that Joan Fontaine will be forever identified with the second Mrs. de Winter in Rebecca. That having been said, like Miss Leigh and Miss Lockwood, Joan Fontaine's career was much more than a single role She was a versatile actress who could and did play a wide variety of roles. She was well know for her portrayals of frail and often neurotic women. These were roles that she played very well, and there can be no doubt that her performance in Suspicion numbers among the best performance sin film history. At the same time, many of Miss Fontaine's heroines, although they may have had low self esteem, often revealed the hidden steel in their veins in the very end. This is certainly the case with her most famous role, that of the second Mrs. de Winter in Rebecca, as well as her roles in Jane Eyre and in her final feature film The Witches.
Of course, Joan Fontaine played more than timid and often neurotic heroines in her career. She played a beautiful and headstrong English lady in love with a French pirate in Frenchman's Creek. She played femmes fatales in both Ivy and Born to Be Bad. At 26 years of age Miss Fontaine could be convincing even as a lovestruck teenager in The Constant Nymph. Such was the talent of Joan Fontaine that she could often excel in roles that lesser actresses might find daunting. In Letter from an Unknown Woman she convincingly portrayed the lead character of Lisa from a teenager to a married adult woman. She played the difficult role of an alcoholic actress in Something to Live For and did it very well. Miss Fontaine was as adept at comedy as she was drama. She was one of the best things about the Bob Hope film Casanova's Big Night and was hilarious in The Affairs of Susan. Miss Fontaine could give great performances even when the material was beneath her. She was easily the best thing about Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea in her role as Dr. Susan Hiller.
On a personal note I have to say that Joan Fontaine was always one of my favourite actresses and I considered her one of the last true film stars. Never mind that she was beautiful and extremely talented, she also had a magnetism on the screen that impelled one to watch her. Even in the worst of her films Joan Fontaine remained a delight to watch. Of course, what is not widely known is that Joan Fontaine was more than an actress. She was a licensed pilot, a skilled horsewoman, a Cordon Bleu chef, a licensed interior decorator, an accomplished golfer, and even a champion balloonist. And while I never had the opportunity to interact with her, from those I know who have I know that Miss Fontaine was one of the sweetest, kindest, and most considerate women one could ever hope to know. An immensely talented actress and a woman of many skills, Joan Fontaine was a truly great lady of the silver screen.