Joan Fontaine was the younger sister of Olivia de Havilland, who was famous in her own right. Fontaine had a solid career early on, in the 1930s and 40s, marked by turns in Hitchcock’s Rebecca and Edmund Goulding’s The Constant Nymph. She was nominated for Best Actress in both films. (Fontaine has the distinction of being the only actress to have won an Oscar for a Hitchcock film.) When her career started taking off, she changed her surname to Fontaine, after her stepfather, so she would not be confused with her sister.
When Joan Fontaine won her Oscar in 1941 for Suspicion, De Havilland was nominated the same year for Hold Back the Dawn. Fontaine was likely more famous than her sister but De Havilland might have endured in the public’s memory due to her Melanie Hamilton role in the 1939 film classic Gone With the Wind.
The two sisters were practically in a sibling feud since birth. Their mother left their father after discovering he was having an affair with the Japanese maid, and moved to California. Their mother encouraged both sisters to act in films. In Joan Fontaine’s 1978 autobiography, No Bed of Roses, she said: “I married first, won the Oscar before Olivia did. And if I die first, she’ll undoubtedly be livid because I beat her to it.” There was so much competition between the sisters that when De Havilland learned that Fontaine was going to present her with her Best Actress Oscar for To Each His Own, De Havilland refused to accept the award and turned and walked off the stage.
But the chill in the sisters’ relationship might have been made even chillier when Fontaine made cutting remarks about De Havilland’s husband and refused to apologize for any of her remarks. Fontaine was convinced, though, that De Havilland never wanted a younger sister, and resented Fontaine wanting to become an actress, according to her autobiography. (De Havilland is still living, at 97, in France.)
Joan Fontaine was known for her seemingly shy nature but she had a steel will. She was intent on carving out a film career, ever in competition with De Havilland. She tested for roles that De Havilland did; perhaps most famously, Fontaine auditioned for Gone With the Wind but De Havilland nabbed the coveted Melanie role. Fontaine was daunted by this but shortly after, she started reading the new bestseller Rebecca and envisioned herself as the main heroine, Mrs. de Winter. She knew the book was going to be made into a film so she happened to meet David O. Selznick at a dinner, where he asked her if she wanted to audition for the Mrs. de Winter role in Rebecca.
Fontaine played in more good roles although she was making only one film a year. She took the year 1949 off and then returned to film September Affair, Born to be Bad, and Darling, How Could You! The latter film did poorly and she couldn’t bring her career back up again, finding work in dinner theater. Broadway beckoned later, and she appeared in some laudatory productions. From the 1970s on, she appeared in TV movies and soaps. Her last TV movie was in 1994. Thereafter, she retired to Carmel, CA, where she lived comfortably.
By Juana Poareo