A few hours after Peter O’Toole’s death was announced, Joan Fontaine’s death was also made public.
Fontaine, the younger sister of Olivia de Havilland, is best known for her breakout role in Rebecca (’40). Notice, the character she played is nameless. She is merely The Girl. Crushed by a life of diminishing expectations The Girl steps into a marriage and a mansion that bring oppressive psychological tensions to new heights. Fontaine, blessed with aristocratic beauty, turns herself into a hunched victim, assaulted by the mad Mrs. Danvers and the ghost of Rebecca, never seen, but always present.
Maureen O’Hara claims that Hitchcock first offered the role to her, but she had to decline because she was already committed to Hunchback of Notre Dame. Hitchcock considered Vivien Leigh, Margaret Sullavan, Anne Baxter, and Loretta Young. But David O. Selznick was smitten with Fontaine and convinced Hitch to go with her.
Fontaine, scared to death by the role, by Hitchcock, and a hostile leading man, Laurence Olivier, played the nameless character to a pitch of uncertain perfection.
The very next year, Fontaine co-starred with Cary Grant in Hitchcock’s Suspicion. The role was similar to the one she played in Rebecca, but less demanding. Hollywood gave her an Oscar for this performance. Perhaps realizing she should have gotten it for Rebecca.
In The Constant Nymph (’43) she plays Tess, an innocent young girl in love with the adult Charles Boyer. It’s a wondrous performance because most actresses play innocence as a one note dirge. Fontaine understands that innocence breeds powerful feelings that can barely be suppressed. Thus, her Tess is shy and virginal, but bursting with a love that verges on madness.
In Kiss the Blood Off My Hands (’48), one of the greatest titles in history, Fontaine plays a lonely nurse whose drab apartment, and even drabber life, is invaded by none other than the strapping Burt Lancaster. Once again, Fontaine makes a woman’s awakening from loneliness a transcendental, almost religious, experience.
Fontaine’s romantic vulnerability found its apotheosis on Letter From An Unknown Woman (’48) which Fontaine co-produced. Letter is a great film that charts a young girl’s puppy love for a playboy (Louis Jordan) that turns into full blown obsession. In a sense, Fontaine plays a socially appropriate stalker whose entire life is defined by her infatuation with a man who does not know she exists. Fontaine’s performance is flawless and haunting; made all the more powerful because the man she loves is unworthy of her passion.
In hindsight, it’s clear that Joan Fontaine represented a new female paradigm for the silver screen. Clara Bow was unrestrained sensuality. Norma Shearer was the suffering, dignified lady. Jean Harlow shimmered as a wise-cracking blond bombshell. Joan Crawford smoldered with rage. And Bette Davis was destructively stubborn. In contrast, Fontaine was plain, unloved, unsure of herself — but aroused to life by the possibilities of love.