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Joan Fontaine (1917-2013)

First Peter O'Toole, and now Joan Fontaine (née Joan de Beauvoir de Havilland)? It's going to be a rough week. Hollywood lost another of its living giants this weekend when Ms Fontaine passed away of natural causes at 96 years of age. The two-time Hitchcock heroine, bizarrely the only actor to ever win an Oscar in one of his films, is survived by her daughter Debbie and her older estranged sister Olivia. Though Fontaine and Olivia de Havilland are the most successful sister movie stars of all time (both A listers, Oscar winners, and stars of at least one immortal classic) they were famously competitive, never got on well, and haven't spoken since 1975!

The actress would undoubtedly shoot us one of those delicious cocked eyebrow looks to hear her sister mentioned so prominently in all of her obituaries but Old Hollywood Mythology is too enticing to ignore. 

Though her career was very successful in the 40s, the 50s weren't as kind and like many Oscar winning actresses of her time she went Grande Dame Guignol in the 60s (American Horror Story didn't invent the stunt casting tradition of aging Best Actress winners in horror flicks); her last film was the Hammer Horror The Witches (1966). Have any of you seen it?

Five Must-Sees For Your Queue: The Women (1939), Rebecca (1940, Best Actress nomination, Best Picture winner), Suspicion (1941 Best Actress Oscar), The Constant Nymph (1943, Best Actress nomination) and Letters from an Unknown Woman (1948)

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Reader Comments (27)

Loved her in Rebecca and Suspicion, such brilliant performances and really the 'template' for all Hitchcock female leads that followed.

December 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRami

I'm so attached to that period of movie history that coincided with the peak of her stardom that I was honestly and hugely saddened by her passing.

Seems De Haviland is among the last (if not the last?) surviving of the major stars from that time. Just for my emotional balance and wellbeing, I need at least one of those icons to still be in this world. May she live forever!

And of course may the great Joan Fontaine rest in peace.

She seems to have been such a sly, intriguing antithesis to her on-screen persona in real life. And that legendary sister feud is just crying out for a biopic.

In fact every other biopic currently in the works should be put on indefinite hiatus until this issue is sorted. (Really, every other biopic currently in the works should just be put on indefinite hiatus, period.)

December 16, 2013 | Unregistered Commentergoran

goran -- we only have three major movie stars from the Golden Age left :( *sniffle*)


Kirk Douglas is similarly aged but he got famous later.

December 16, 2013 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I was very sad to hear of her passing - and doubly so, hot on the heels of Peter O'Toole (such great names to lose...).

Nathaniel: I've seen four of the five classics you list - just need to see The Constant Nymph. I love her in all the other four. Such a talented and radiant actress.

goran: Luise Rainer is still with us too - at 103 years young! But other than her and de Havilland, I can't think of many others. I agree with you about biopics. And the Fontaine-De Havilland story would be fascinating. But why does something tell me that they would cast two top-flight actresses, give them equal billing, screen time and importance, and then campaign for one of them in the supporting category???!!!!

December 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterEdward L.

Edward -- LOL. that's exactly what would happen.

December 16, 2013 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

final score: olivia - 1, joan - 0

December 16, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterpar3182

Joan Fontaine:

"I married first, won the Oscar before Olivia [sister Olivia de Havilland] did, and if I die first, she'll undoubtedly be livid because I beat her to it!"

December 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterYavor

I just saw The Witches-also known as The Devil's Own in October when TCM ran it along with other chillers for Halloween. It wasn't bad, although I wouldn't say it was that good either, being an English 60's thriller it had quite a bit of reserve to it's horror but was worth a view. Joan was very chic and dignified and was unquestionably the star but Kay Walsh had the flashier part.

It's been a tough couple of weeks, starting with Paul Walker they've been falling like dominos Eleanor Parker, Audrey Totter, Rossana Podesta, Tom Laughlin, Peter O'Toole and now Joan it makes you leery of looking at the news feed!

December 16, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

In her book, No Bed of Roses (a pretty good read for an autobiography), there's a picture of her at the table after winning the Oscar, looking at the statue. The caption captures all the emotions on her face. It reads "Pyrrhic victory".


December 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPam

Nathaniel-Lauren Bacall and Shirley Temple should be on that list as well.

December 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJohn T

Yavor -- Love that quote! They just don't make movie stars like they used to.

December 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBia

Oh, and as for the biopic, can we wait a few years and cast the Fanning sisters?

December 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJohn T

After 'Rebecca' and 'Letter from...', my favorite Fontaine performance is in 'The Bigamist' - she's warm and intelligent, with that omnipresent uncertainty that either makes or undermines most of her performances particularly well deployed. And it's a sympathetic portrait of a career woman in the fifties, too.

December 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLaika

the witches is on uk tv over xma.

December 16, 2013 | Unregistered Commentermark

The Women. She was the perfect foil of innocence to all the cynicism and that can't just be type casting. She would have had to fight the desire to follow in Shearer's steps (a brilliant performance--such balance between the sugar and vinegar) to keep it clear. JF was a great star and actress.

December 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterHenry

She was heartrending in Rebecca.

December 16, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterthebluemoon

What a heartbreak to lose Joan Fontaine and Peter O'Toole in the same day. I love her performance in Rebecca; every time I get to "I'm Mrs. De Winter now" I practically leap off the couch cheering.

I'm surprised nobody has brought up Jane Eyre with Orson Welles. It was my favorite Eyre adaptation for a while, just because it covered the gothic feeling (if not the actual plot) of the novel so well. It's part of her "damsels in distress phase" along with Suspicion and Rebecca, but I still think she has great chemistry with Welles.

December 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAnne Marie

Anne Marie, that's a great description of that part of her career as her "damsels in distress phase". Did any actress's persona change as rapidly as Fontaine's from tremulous, fragile doe eyed porcelain doll up to about Letters from an Unknown Woman then turning into a highly polished rather brittle sophisticate for the remainder of her career. She was good at both but much more remote in her latter period.

December 16, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

I also read No Bed Of Roses, and I guess that's why I've always been a bit of Team Joan, but it takes two parties to create really THE classic Hollywood Estrangement. Maybe that was Olvia's plan all along? :-)

I remember the movie of Island In The Sun being pretty boring, but quite racy for the time. Certain echoes of Joan/Harry later in Far From Heaven.

Rebecca is my favorite Hitchcock movie (so sue me) and Joan Fontaine was a great Hitchcock blonde. Tentative and agreeable on the surface with a bit of volcanic activity at her core.

December 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDave in Alamitos Beach

Any chance to take a dig at American Horror Story huh

December 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJohn

I am saddened by this news. Joan Fontaine was a brilliant actress and so smart and witty. May she rest in peace.

December 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMike M.

John -- what do you mean? I love AHS:Coven

December 16, 2013 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Yeah, Bacall, Temple, Rainer, Rooney, De Havilland. Maureen O'Hara(, Leslie Caron, Kirk Douglas, Christopher Lee, Betty White.)

December 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

She was a singular sensation. My two favorites are Rebecca and Letter From an Unknown Woman. She was instrumental in getting that movie made by Ophuls. She was smart in front of and behind the camera. What an underrated talent.

December 16, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

@Anne Marie
Jane Eyre = masterpiece.

December 16, 2013 | Unregistered Commentergoran

I believe Audrey Totter died,also

Never a major star

December 17, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRick

Wonderful actress and it's too bad her sister and her had such issues with each other. Are they the only siblings ever to win an Oscar (I think Beatty and MacLaine sort of count even though one's directing).

December 17, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterOrrin Konheim

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