Academy Award winner Joan Fontaine
died yesterday at age 96. She shot to fame in 1940 playing the title role in Rebecca
, and then won the Oscar for best actress the following year for her role opposite Cary Grant in Suspicion
. Both films were directed by Alfred Hitchcock. She was also the sister of Olivia de Havilland, another Oscar-winner with whom she had a famously contentious relationship.
By an odd coincidence, I had Suspicion
on my Netflix cue and watched it last night. Fontaine was a fine actress and stunningly beautiful, but she didn't make very many movies, especially when compared with her sister. In part, that was due to Fontaine's apparent lack of ambition. It also had to do with the way she came up through the studio system. After a rocky start with RKO, she signed on with independent producer David O. Selznick right at the time that Selznick was dissolving his own studio in the wake of Gone With the Wind
. After that, Selznick more-or-less stopped making films and went into the rent-an-actor business. Fontaine (and Hitchcock, who was also under contract with Selznick) were loaned out to RKO for Suspicion
. In the following years she'd make films for Warner Bros., 20th Century-Fox, and Paramount. That meant she didn't have constant work, unlike her sister, who was under contract with Warner Bros. and was routinely starring in two or three movies a year.
The feud with de Havilland is another mystery of sorts. I get the sense that it pre-dated their time in Hollywood, a sort of "mom always liked you best" kind of thing. Olivia de Havilland was known for playing sweet, radiantly virginal characters, like Melanie Wilkes in Gone With the Wind
and Maid Marian in The Adventures of Robin Hood
, but one gets the impression that she had a rather different personality off-screen. She was involved in some epic battles with her bosses at Warner Bros., and most of the stories about her feud with her younger sister suggest that de Havilland was more than half responsible. De Havilland is now 97 and living in France. I think the only thing keeping her alive was her rivalry with her sister. Neither was willing to let the other have the satisfaction of outliving them.