In 1939, Joan Fontaine, twenty-one years old, was slowly making her way up the Hollywood ladder. MGM signed Fontaine to play a small part in the high profile production The Women, directed by George Cukor, starring Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell and Paulette Goddard. For the young actress, it was a plum assignment.
At the same time, Fontaine was subject to numerous screen tests for the role of the second Mrs. De Winter for David O. Selznick’s highly anticipated Rebecca, first under the direction of John Cromwell and then Alfred Hitchcock. The screen tests were grueling, and the emotional toll devastating. Fontaine’s nerves were seriously frayed.
Fontaine and her sister Olivia de Havilland were living in the same house in North Hollywood with their overbearing mother Lilian, a failed actress. As always, Joan and Olivia were engaged in a low-intensity conflict. Like so many Hollywood actresses, Fontaine’s father was long gone.
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.
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