Joan Fontaine, Star of "Suspicion" and "Rebecca," Dies at 96

By Robert Simonson
16 Dec 2013

Joan Fontaine
Joan Fontaine

Joan Fontaine, who rocketed to fame playing frightened wives in two landmark Hitchock films of the early 1940s, died Dec. 16 of natural causes at her home in Carmel, CA. She was 96.

Ms. Fontaine was only 24 when she won an Academy Award as Best Actress for "Suspicion." In the suspense thriller, her character, a shy retiring type, comes to believe that her playboy husband, played by Cary Grant, is planning to kill her in order to collect her life insurance policy. The film culminated with a scene in which Grant brings possibly a poisoned glass of milk—which Hitchcock had lit from within for eery effect—to Fontaine's bedroom.

The year before, she played another young woman who is swept off her feet by a dashing man—this time the Maxim de Winter of Laurence Olivier—in the film adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier's "Rebecca." Once married and settled in Maxim's mansion, Manderlay, however, she is nearly driven mad by the memory of the first Mrs. de Winter, a great beauty to whom the home's housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, is slavishly devoted. Ms. Fontaine landed the role after six months of film tests. The film won her stardom and her first Oscar nomination. 

"The real surprise, and the greatest delight, is Joan Fontaine's second Mrs. de Winter," wrote the New York Times. "Miss de Maurier never really convinced me any one could behave quite as the second Mrs. de Winter behaved and still be sweet, modest, attractive and alive. But Miss Fontaine does it."



She continued to find success throughout the '40s, though none of her subsequent films attainted the notoriety of "Rebecca" and "Suspicion." Those two movies cemented her screen persona with the public, and thereafter she frequently played meek and self-sacrificing women whose lives were dominated by stronger, magnetic men.

She received a third Academy Award nomination for "The Constant Nymph" (1943), in which she played a teenager in love with a composer played by Charles Boyer. She starred opposite Orson Welles in the 1944 adaptation of "Jane Eyre." Though the director of record is Robert Stevenson, critics generally agree that Welles had a role in the look of the moody, visually striking black-and-white picture. Another career landmark was the 1948 Max Ophuls film "Letter From an Unknown Woman," in which she played a woman who spends her life in love with a pianist who barely knows she exists, despite the fact that she has borne his child.

Other films of this period included "Frenchman's Creek," "The Affairs of Susan," "Ivy," "The Emperor Waltz," "Something to Live For," "You Gotta Stay Happy" and "Ivanhoe." Her star dimmed during the 1950s. She gave her final screen appearance, in "The Witches," in 1966.

On the stage, she stepped into two Broadway roles, assuming the leads in Tea and Sympathy in the mid-'50s and the Julie Harris comedy Forty Carats in the late '60s.

She was born Oct. 22, 1917, as Joan de Beauvoir de Havilland in Tokyo, Japan, to British parents. Her father, Walter Augustus de Havilland, was an English professor at the Imperial University in Tokyo at the time. Her mother, Lilian Augusta, had been a stage actress, but she abandoned her career after going to Tokyo with her husband. The two split up in 1919, with Lillian taking Joan and her sister Olivia to the U.S., where they settled in Saratoga, CA.

Much of Ms. Fontaine's career was shadowed by a decades-long rivalry with her sister, the film actress Olivia de Havilland, who survives her. Olivia embarked upon an acting career first, and soon made a name for herself as the heroine of swashbuckling 1930s films like "Captain Blood" and "Robin Hood."

Lillian de Havilland disapproved of Joan following in her elder sister's footsteps, and refused to let the younger sibling use the family name. Joan, who believed Lillian favored Olivia over her, bucked her mother's authority and began playing under the name of Joan Burfield and, later, Joan Fontaine. When Fontaine won an Oscar before de Havilland did, it hardly helped matters. Owing to a series of perceived slights, the sisters' relationship remained a chilly one over the decades. Following the death of their mother in 1975, they ceased speaking at all. Both actresses subsequently had troubled relationships with their own children.

Fontaine was married and divorced four times. Her first marriage was to actor Brian Aherne. She later married actor and producer William Dozier, with whom she had a daughter, Deborah; producer and writer Collier Young; and Sports Illustrated editor Alfred Wright, Jr.