Joan Fontaine, who died aged 96 on 15 December 2013, was one of the last Hollywood stars who learned their craft during the heyday of the 1930s. Her career matured during the next decade, but she was served less well in the 1950s, due to a lack of roles catering for her particular style, when she increasingly turned to television and theatre.
Fontaine’s stock in trade was gentle, vulnerable young women, making her perfect casting for Alfred Hitchcock’s Hollywood debut, and her own first leading role, in Rebecca in 1940. As the ‘second Mrs De Winter’, in thrall to her dashing husband and under the spell of her predecessor, her performance is faultless, her nervousness and almost childlike naivety in complete contrast to Judith Anderson’s scheming housekeeper Mrs Danvers. Hitchcock instructed Fontaine to tiptoe around Manderley, her husband’s gothic pile, with her handbag on her arm, as if at a hotel, highlighting the sense of discomfort she feels trying to fill the shoes of the beautiful and mysterious Rebecca.
Fontaine had a natural, understated beauty which she could downplay when required, her role in Rebecca being one occasion when her character was meant to be plain and mousy. She was nominated for the Oscar for best actress for her performance, losing out to Ginger Rogers on that occasion, but winning the following year for her next Hitchcock film, Suspicion.
Here, she was again cast as a victim, this time opposite Cary Grant as the charming but reckless Johnny Agar. Based on the novel Before the Fact, the film offers one of the best female roles in Hitchcock’s filmography. The director wanted to preserve the novel’s ending, in which Fontaine’s character, Lina, effectively commits suicide by drinking the poisoned milk Johnny gives her. But the studio refused to allow a big star like Grant to be revealed as a murderer and Lina’s suspicions about her husband’s intentions turn out to be unfounded. This ‘double bluff’ provides Grant and Fontaine with a wonderfully complex relationship to explore and they make a formidable team.
Both Fontaine’s characters for Hitchcock were English and although she never lived in the UK, her parents were British, which perhaps explains the reserve and contained passion of her screen performances. She was a natural film actor and possessed a depth and thoughtful quality that suggested a welter of emotion behind her composed features.
She was also good at effecting a convincing transformation from child to woman, as required in several of her films. This ability to tap into a wide-eyed youthfulness was one of her trademarks. In 1943, she played Tessa in The Constant Nymph, which, although not one of her best films, demonstrated this well. Another aspect of Tessa is her loyalty, another common feature of Fontaine’s roles. She was often cast as the faithful woman, yet one with a strength of character, such as Lisa in Max Ophüls’ 1948 classic Letter from an Unknown Woman. In this sweeping melodrama, Fontaine traces the life of a woman from her youth to a premature death, in love throughout with Louis Jourdan’s dissolute pianist who learns too late of her devotion.
This constancy, so much a part of her on-screen presence, seems not to have translated to her private life. She had four unsuccessful marriages, was apparently estranged from her children, and, famously, was not on speaking terms with her sister, fellow star Olivia de Havilland. However, Joan Fontaine will continue to be appreciated for her beauty and glamour, and the restraint and understated delicacy of her screen performances.
Joan Fontaine: a career in pictures