As you’ve probably read by now, Academy Award-winning actress Joan Fontaine, the leading lady known for her string of roles as demure, well-mannered and often well-bred heroines in the 1940s, and the younger sister of actress Olivia de Havilland, died today at her home in Carmel, California; she was 96.
She was known best for her back-to-back roles in two Alfred Hitchcock thrillers — the 1940 Best Picture winner Rebecca and the 1941 film Suspicion, for which she won a Best Actress Oscar, making her the only actor in a Hitchcock film to receive an Academy Award.
Her obituary on the IMDB (click her for the entire piece) stated that producer David O. Selznick snapped up the rights to the Daphne du Maurier bestseller Rebecca, in which an unnamed, demure heroine — known only as “the second Mrs. de Winter” — is taunted by the memory of her husband’s first wife, the beautiful and seductive title character. Selznick brought director Alfred Hitchcock over for his first American production, cast matinée idol and rising star Laurence Olivier as moody, mysterious husband Maxim de Winter, and embarked on a Scarlett O’Hara-style talent search for his leading lady. Rejecting Loretta Young, Margaret Sullivan, Vivian Leigh (then Olivier’s wife), and a then-unknown Anne Baxter along with hundreds of other actresses, Selznick decided on Fontaine, who though not an established star projected the right mix of beauty, insecurity, and tenacity needed for the part. Fontaine’s insecurity, however, was heightened by Olivier’s sometimes cruel treatment of her on set, as he had lobbied aggressively for Leigh to get the role, and Hitchcock capitalized on her inferiority complex to shape her performance. The resulting film, released in 1940, was an unqualified critical and financial success, catapulting Fontaine into the tier of top Hollywood leading ladies, establishing Hitchcock firmly in the United States, and nabbing the film 11 Academy Award nominations, including ones for both Fontaine and Olivier; it would go on to win Best Picture.
Below is a classic nine-minute clip from Hitchcock’s Rebecca – the one that first jumped to our minds whenever we thought of her acting in the film.
And here’s a fan-made trailer for the film:
RIP, Ms. Fontaine. Your fans will miss you dearly.
- Rebecca – Alfred Hitchcock (mrmovietimes.com)
- Joan Fontaine: Hitchcock’s First Leading Lady in Hollywood (themoviola.com)
- Joan Fontaine, Hollywood Heroine (famousdames.wordpress.com)
- Rebecca (1940) (theblondeatthefilm.wordpress.com)