Joan Fontaine, who passed away on December 15 at the age of 96, had a long and notable career in films, on stage, and on television. Yet, the thing she will probably be remembered for most was her feud with sister Olivia de Havilland.
Joan was born Joan de Beauvoir de Havilland in Tokyo, Japan, on October 22, 1917, in that part of the city known as the International settlement. Both parents were British. Her father, Walter Augusts de Havilland, was a patent lawyer with a thriving practice in Japan. Her mother, Lilian Augusta (nee Ruse), was a stage actress who retired upon marrying. Joan was the younger of two daughters to the family. Her older sister was Olivia Mary de Havilland, who was born on July 1, 1916. The parents, who married in 1914, split up in 1919 when Lilian left after learning that Walter had availed himself of the services of geisha girls. The divorce was finalized in February 1925.
Joan was a sickly child, having developed anemia following a combined attack of the measles and a strep infection. A physician advised Lilian to move Joan to a warmer climate, and Lilian took Joan and Olivia to California, settling in Saratoga, a city in Santa Clara County directly west of San Jose. Fontaine’s health improved dramatically and she was educated at Los Gatos High School, taking diction lessons with Olivia after school. When she was 16 years old she returned to Japan to live with her father, and while there, graduated from the American School in Japan in 1935.
Returning to the United States later in 1935, Joan’s stage mother pushed her into films, as she did with older sister Olivia. Joan signed a contract with RKO, who immediately loaned her out to MGM. Since Mom, who reportedly favored Olivia, refused to let Joan use the family name, Joan took the moniker “Joan Burfield” (her stepfather’s name) when she made her movie debut in the 1935 Joan Crawford-Robert Montgomery MGM comedy, No More Ladies. Joan was billed ninth, as “Caroline,” an object of the wandering eye of Montgomery’s character.
Back at RKO she was idle for about a year-and-a-half, the only notable event in her career being to change her last name from “Burfield” to “Fontaine.” RKO pushed her slowly, with her first big break being cast opposite Fred Astaire in A Damsel in Distress (1937). She was supposed to be Fred’s love interest, but two things doomed the film: Joan couldn’t dance (theatergoers expected any partner of Fred Astaire to be able to dance), and she lacked the chemistry with Fred that he had enjoyed with Ginger.
After this she had two decent supporting roles in Gunga Din and MGM’s The Women, but it wasn’t until David O. Selznick chose her for the female lead in Rebecca that Joan hit stardom . . . and never looked back. The next year, she won the Best Actress Oscar for Suspicion (which everyone acknowledges was a consolation for not having won the year before with Rebecca) and was nominated a year after for her role in The Constant Nymph.
During this time, sister Olivia de Havilland had not won an Oscar. She had been nominated for Best Supporting Actress for Gone With the Wind, but lost to fellow cast member Hattie McDaniel. In fact, de Havilland would not cop an Oscar for herself until 1946, when she won the Best Actress award for To Each His Own (1946). To say the sisters had a rivalry was putting it mildly. They couldn’t stand one another. Their feud began as children, according to Fontaine in her autobiography, with big sister Liv annoying young Joan while she was still in the crib. It later escalated to things like hair pulling, tearing her own clothes so Joan couldn’t wear them as hand-me-downs, and outright fistfights, one of which ended when Olivia broke Joan’s collarbone. As they got older and Joan got bigger, the physical was replaced with the psychological. After Olivia became a star in 1935, Joan, still looking for a regular gig, was pressed into service as her sister’s driver. And when Joan did hit it big, the tension increased.
Joan was nominated in 1942 by the Academy in the Best Actress category for her role in Hitchcock’s Suspicion the year before. Sister Olivia was also nominated for the same award for her turn on Hold Back the Dawn. Both sisters were to be seated at the same table, and Joan considered no-showing; she believed that as she didn’t win the award the previous year for a superior film, she had no chance of winning it now. However, when Olivia visited Joan on the set of her latest film with her dress in hand, Fontaine decided to attend. According to her autobiography, when Fontaine’s name was called out as the winner, she froze. She stared across the table, where Olivia was whispering to her in a commanding tone to get up there. Joan said that when she did arise to accept the trophy, she walked around the other side of the table so as to bypass Olivia, whom she was certain would trip her on the way up.
Their feud escalated even further over the years and reached the point of cold war: neither sister was speaking with the other. This war-of-the-sisters made for an indelible moment at the 1947 Oscars, where Olivia won Best Actress for To Each His Own. Joan, who was on hand to present the Best Actor award, hung around afterward backstage. After Olivia departed the stage holding the award, Joan stuck out her hand in congratulations, only to have Olivia snub it. The moment was caught in a photo by Hymie Fink of Photoplay, and remains to this day one of Tinseltown’s iconic photographs. Over time, the sisters somewhat reconciled, but the relationship was never a warm one, often diverging between hot and ice cold. In 1989, the sisters were reunited at the Oscars, but upon discovering they were staying in adjoining hotel rooms, Joan had her room changed and swore never again to attend another Academy ceremony, an oath she kept until her death. For her part, when notified of her sister’s death, Olivia issued a rare public statement: “I was shocked and saddened to learn of the passing of my sister, Joan Fontaine, and my niece, Deborah, and I appreciate the many kind expressions of sympathy that we have received." Unless Olivia writes something of their relationship, Joan’s autobiography remains the main source of our knowledge of the relationship between these two talented sisters.
If I were to be approached and asked as to which sister was my favorite, I would have to excuse myself. I loved seeing both in whatever film they happened to appear. My first memories of Olivia come as an 8-year old completely enraptured by Errol Flynn in The Adventures of Robin Hood, thinking that, I too would risk death to be with Maid Marian. Joan I didn’t catch until years later when I saw her in ads for the local New York market hawking the delights of Arnold sliced bread. I suppose it was either that or star in a bad horror films such as The Witches (1966). Joan did come out of retirement in the late ‘70s to do a few TV movies and series, among them the soaper Ryan’s Hope. But it wasn’t until I saw Rebecca at the age of 13 that I began to appreciate her ability – and her beauty. To me, she was the better looking of the sisters, but in terms of ability, both are equal in my eyes and remain as actors I love to watch no matter what sort of film they happen to be in.
My Favorite Fontaine:
Damsel in Distress (1937): Granted it’s not one of Astaire’s better films, but Joan is quite fetching as his love interest, Lady Alyce Marshmorton. OK, it’s basically the same old plot, but Joan comes off quite well, considering she doesn’t dance. The thing that always got me was the fact that someone that looked as emaciated as Astaire could score a doll like Fontaine, even in a movie.
Rebecca (1940): Joan is superb as the second Mrs. De Winter. No one can project timidity and beauty like Fontaine and make it totally work. I don’t know how bright Joan was in real life, but she projected the image of the gorgeous inhibited librarian-type to near perfection.
Suspicion (1941): With a character that’s nearly a repeat of her earlier turn as Mrs. De Winter, the role could hardly be called a stretch for Fontaine. She proved the perfect foil to Cary Grant’s easygoing con man and shnook. How Grant’s character could look at her and still call her “Monkey Face” was a mystery, even with that unflattering early ‘40s hairdo?
The Constant Nymph (1943): The picture’s not so hot, but Joan is superb. She and Ginger Rogers were the only adult actresses of that time who could rock the teenage look and make you actually believe they were that young. She manages to dominate the film, not an easy task when we can see that co-star Charles Boyer has left his teeth marks all over the scenery.
Letter From an Unknown Woman (1948): This is where one can really appreciate a good actress. Anyone less and we’d be bored out of our skulls, for this film takes a master to pull off properly. Directed by the great Max Ophuls, Joan plays lead character Lisa brilliantly, capturing both her vulnerable facet and later the mature, hardened Lisa, marrying a man for financial security and social respectability rather than love. We see in the film that the notion of romantic love makes the younger Lisa vulnerable and needy, and how Stefan (Louis Jourdan in a fine performance) takes advantage of this neediness. To make Lisa work requires an actress to be strong, yet subtle. Joan delivers on this in spades, aided by Ophuls’ excellent direction and equally strong performances by Jourdan and Marcel Journet.
Born to Be Bad (1950): Another film that’s not so hot. In fact, Joan’s character, Christabel, comes off as a junior grade Eve Harrington. Nicholas Ray’s direction doesn’t help matters, either. But Joan is still able to give her character some badly needed depth and a little oomph. It also helps when one has the sort of chemistry she had with co-star Robert Ryan.