In Memoriam: Joan Fontaine, 1917 – 2013

Joan Fontaine and Burt Lancaster in Kiss the Blood Off My Hands.

Joan Fontaine and Burt Lancaster in Kiss the Blood Off My Hands.

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.

Joan Fontaine and Louis Jordan in Letter From An Unknown Woman.

Joan Fontaine and Louis Jordan in Letter From An Unknown Woman.

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.


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  1. Larry
    Posted December 23, 2013 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

    Watched the only Joan Fontaine movie on Netflix the other night, “The Duke of West Point.” While she seemed more lively in the small part than I’ve seen her in other roles, it was a traditional love-interest role with little input to the main character, played by Louis Hayward, or to the plot except as the female objective to Hayward’s character. Oh, well. I’ll keep an eye out for more of hers other than the ones I’ve already seen, “Gunga Din,” “The Women,” “Rebecca,” “Suspicion,” “Jane Eyre,” “September Affair,” “Ivanhoe.” Ok, so I’d seen one more than a half dozen.

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  2. Posted December 23, 2013 at 9:09 am | Permalink

    There’s nothing at all wrong with “Hollywood product,” nor was I trying to give off a superior tone.  I meant “product” in the sense of the cliched “boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-gets-girl” storyline, which, in the end, is the plot of Waltz.  I like the movie.  I like those kind of movies.

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  3. Posted December 20, 2013 at 10:47 am | Permalink

    Robert – I’ll have to watch some of these over the holidays.  The only Fontaine movie I’ve ever seen is The Emperor Waltz with Bing Crosby.  I actually cried at the end, because even though it’s Hollywood product (though Billy Wilder product), the ending of “true love conquers all and everyone lives happily ever after” was so note-perfect, it was heartbreaking.

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    • Barry
      Posted December 20, 2013 at 11:19 am | Permalink

      And, what is wrong with  Hollywood product?  As far as true love conquering all, possibly not, but it conquers an awful lot.

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      • kishke
        Posted December 21, 2013 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

        In a certain crowd, Hollywood product is uncool. They are, or consider themselves to be, too hip for that.

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        • Barry
          Posted December 21, 2013 at 3:42 pm | Permalink

          Oh, I know. Just a superior tone puts me off. Like being too hip for Dickens. Essentially the same attitude I had with the judgments re acting in a prior thread.  Like being a high school baseball player, and having some success, but without any understanding that the Major Leaguer’s aren’t only more gifted athletically, but far more sophisticated. In sport, at least.

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    • Robert J. Avrech
      Posted December 22, 2013 at 4:34 pm | Permalink


      It is a Billy Wilder film. True. But Wilder really hated it. In a revealing book length interview with director Cameron Crowe, Wilder dismissed the film. In fact, he stated that the musical genre was totally foreign to his sensibilities.  

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  4. Posted December 20, 2013 at 8:29 am | Permalink

    Robert, on Facebook you mentioned the infamous feud between Fontaine and de Haviland, but this recent article seems to substantiate what I’ve heard before… that although there was a definite rivalry there (and they did snub each other of several occasions)  most of “The Feud” was PR driven rather than reality. This article seems to indicate that Joan visited Olivia in Paris and Olivia visited Joan in NYC on numerous occasions. Your thoughts?

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    • Robert J. Avrech
      Posted December 20, 2013 at 9:25 am | Permalink


      The article actually supports the notion that the sisters rivalry was intense and ugly. Of course there were some half-hearted reconciliations, but basically, the sisters hated each other. The PR story is just a feeble attempt to rewrite family history

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  5. Larry
    Posted December 19, 2013 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

    Those last three movies you mention of hers are ones I haven’t seen. I was never all that wild about Fontaine from the few of her roles — half-dozen or so — that I have seen. Didn’t dislike her, just didn’t appeal to me. I’ll be on the lookout for those latter three based on your intriguing descriptions, Robert.

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    • Robert J. Avrech
      Posted December 20, 2013 at 9:27 am | Permalink

      I think women generally like Fontaine more than men.

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  6. Bill Brandt
    Posted December 19, 2013 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

    Nice write up Robert – I hadn’t heard much of Joan but my mother had mentioned her a lot –

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    • Robert J. Avrech
      Posted December 20, 2013 at 9:26 am | Permalink

      Thanks so much. The best of Fontaine’s work is worth screening.

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