Joan Fontaine: Hitchcock’s Oscar-Winning Damsel in Distress

FONTAINE, JOAN 2Her place in Old Hollywood’s most storied sibling rivalry tends to obscure the caliber of craftwork that the poised and pretty Joan Fontaine lent to acclaimed and enduring lead performances through the ’40s and ’50s. Born in 1917 in Tokyo, the second of two girls, to a British patent attorney and a stage actress, Joan de Beauvoir de Havilland was still an infant when her parents split and her mother relocated the children to Saratoga, California for their health. She and her 15-months-older sister Olivia both fostered an interest in the stage in adolescence. Joan moved back in with her father for her senior year of high school; she returned to the West Coast upon graduation to embark on an acting career. Seeking professional distance from Olivia, she took on the stage name of Joan Burfield. RKO was impressed enough by a stage appearance to tender a contract, but her film debut came just before, in the MGM Joan Crawford vehicle No More Ladies (1935).

Soon afterwards, Joan adopted her stepfather’s name for her more familiar screen sobriquet. Over the balance of the ’30s, however, RKO didn’t find much for her beyond decorative assignments. A lead opposite Fred Astaire in A Damsel in Distress (1937) didn’t gain her any traction, and effective supporting turns in high-profile fare like Gunga Din and The Women (on loan to MGM) in 1939 didn’t result in a contract renewal. Her luck changed for the better when she made the acquaintance of David O. Selznick, who gave her entry to audition for the coveted part of the dowdy and imperiled heroine in Alfred Hitchcock’s first American film, 1940′s Gothic suspenser Rebecca. Winning the role, she more than held her own alongside co-stars Laurence Olivier, Judith Anderson and George Sanders and notched her first Best Actress Oscar nomination.

JANE EYRE 1944Her reputation made, she reunited with Hitchcock the following year for her next project, and her work as the mousy heiress who comes to imagine the worst of ne’er-do-well new husband Cary Grant in Suspicion brought her the Academy Award (Among the field of nominees she beat out was her sister, another strain on an already tenuous relationship.). The war years would signify a career crest for Fontaine, marked as they were by This Above All (1942); 1943′s The Constant Nymph (her last career nod from the Academy) and Jane Eyre (with Orson Welles) and Frenchman’s Creek ( both 1944). The balance of the ’40s found Joan beginning to transition to more aggressive and worldly-wise characterizations, even if the critical hosannas came less frequently; high points include Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), The Emperor Waltz (also ’48), and 1950′s September Affair and Born to Be Bad.

Fontaine remained in demand as the Eisenhower era got underway, a period marked by 1952′s Ivanhoe, 1953′s Decameron Nights and The Bigamist, and– for a change of pace–the 1954 Bob Hope comedy Casanova’s Big Night. The maturing actress, like many of her peers, began turning to omnibus TV drama and Broadway (Tea and Sympathy), though big-screen opportunities remained plentiful through the decade (Serenade with Mario Lanza, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, Island in the Sun alongside James Mason, Until They Sail). After marking the beginning of the ’60s onscreen with Irwin Allen’s Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961) and Tender Is the Night (1962),  episodic television appearances followed, including One Step Beyond, Wagon Train and reuniting with her old director for The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. Joan’s last big-screen bow came with the 1966 Hammer chiller The Witches. In the late ’60s, she enjoyed another Broadway run with 40 Carats, and she’d surface intermittently on TV over the ensuing generation (Cannon, The Love Boat, Hotel, and the daytime soaper Ryan’s Hope).

Following the 1994 telefilm Good King Wencelas, Joan called it a career and enjoyed a quiet retirement in her Carmel, California home, a retirement that still included not talking to sister Olivia (“I married first, won the Oscar before Olivia did, and if I die first, she’ll undoubtedly be livid because I beat her to it!,” she once stated in a late ’70s interview). It would indeed be Joan who passed away first, dying of natural causes in December of 2013 at the age of 96. 

  • Gord Jackson

    Last night (12/17/13) I watched a film I had neglected for too long since acquiring it, the 1956 soaper SERENADE with Mario Lanza, Joan Fontaine, Vincent Price and Sarita Montiel. I remember first seeing it as an usher and quite liking it, especially for Lanza’s singing, which I thought (and still do) was the best of his career. As the socialite ice-princess Joan Fontaine was wonderful, as usual. Indeed she was always a favourite of mine, more so than sister Olivia.

    • mike j

      just a matter of choice, but I like Oliva more than Joan. Oliva seems to be more quite and to me had a very gentile smile. I liked her roles better, especially with Flynn.

    • MichaelTJ

      I read the book Seranade in the 1940′s; it was quite different than the movie. Our Hero goes off to Mexico (I think) and gets involved with a MAN! Of course that couldn’t be allowed in the Eisenhower Era so they changed to all straight relationships. And of course the ending is the same. You couldn’t have 2 men living happy ever after!

      • Gord Jackson

        I have not read the book, but 2 men living happily ever after? – definetly NOT in the Eisenhower/last vestiges of the McCarthy era. Thanks Michael. Excellent observation!

  • Brian

    Kiss The Blood Off My Hands(1948)with Burt Lancaster.Good Noirish thriller with one of the best chase scenes Ive ever seen in a film.Robert Newton is great as a drug dealing crime boss.This film has never been out on DVD.

  • Alton Robertson

    I cannot recall the number of times I’ve seen “Rebecca.” You probably wouldn’t believe me if I could. Each time I see it, I want to jump into the screen and save her character without a first name. This device made the haunting sound of Rebecca’s name when spoken more chilling and sinister. “Rebecca” contained Joan Fontaine’s finest performance, though I fell in love with each of her performances.

  • Frank DeCavalcante

    I loved Fontaine’s ability to portray sweetness and innocence in many of her films. She was not as saccharine as her sister Olivia deHavilland could sometimes be, but she effectively portrayed vulnerabilty. This was done in Rebecca, Suspicion and The Constant Nymph. As she got older, she successfully transitioned to more sophisticated parts, such as her roles in Island in the Sun, Tender Is the Night and Born to be Bad. But my all time favorite Joan Fontaine part was the tragic lead in Letter from an Unknown Woman in which she breaks my heart as she moves from childhood naivete to unselfish womanly devotion.