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Obituary: Joan Fontaine

Obituary by Jack Foley

JOAN Fontaine has died in California at the age of 96.

The Oscar-winning actress was best known for her roles in several Alfred Hitchcock classics, including Suspicion and Rebecca (pictured), as well as the films The Constant Nymph, Jane Eyre and Letter from an Unknown Woman.

Fontaine, the sister of fellow Oscar-winner Olivia de Havilland, died in her sleep on Sunday (December 15, 2013) in her home in Carmel, California, according to her friend Noel Beutel.

Born in Japan in 1917, Joan Fontaine’s father, Walter de Havilland, was a patent lawyer, while her mother, Lillian, had been a drama student in London.

At the age of two, she moved to California with her mother for the sake of her health, a move that led to the eventual divorce of her parents. Lillian later married George M Fontaine, having been introduced to him by her own daughters.

Fontaine developed a passion for acting from an early age and made her theatre debut in 1934. In a bid to distinguish herself from her sister, she tried different surnames, before settling on her stepfather’s.

Soon after, she started to win small parts in films such as You Can’t Beat Love. But her big break break came in 1940, following a chance encounter with “a bespectacled man” while at a dinner at Charlie Chaplin’s house.

The man in question was David O Selznick, who was currently casting for his next movie, Rebecca. Upon revealing that she was a big fan of Daphne Du Maurier’s novel, Fontaine was invited to audition for a role and, seven auditions later, she landed the coveted part of the second Mrs de Winter.

According to reports from the time, Fontaine enjoyed working with the film’s legendary director, Hitchcock, but struggled to bond with its leading man, Laurence Olivier, because he resented the fact that she had won the role over his then wife, Vivian Leigh.

However, Hitchcock duly cast Fontaine again in Suspicion for which she won the best actress Oscar in 1941, dramatically beating her sister, Olivia de Havilland, who had been nominated for her role in Hold Back the Dawn.

High profile roles continued to follow, including her own personal favourite performance in A Constant Nymph, and she was able to star alongside some of the biggest names in film history, including Joan Crawford in 1935’s No More Ladies and Katharine Hepburn, Fred Astaire and Cary Grant.

Fontaine maintained a successful career into her seventies, making her last screen appearance in 1994 in the television film Good King Wenceslas.

Away from the screen, Fontaine was married three times, including to the actor Brian Aherne. But she struggled to find a lasting happiness away from her first love: acting.

Indeed, such was her desire to give something back that she regularly lectured in her later years. But she will forever be remembered as one of cinema’s greats.