Joan Fontaine died yesterday at age 96 and it proves one thing, they don’t make them like they used to. Fontaine, known for her performances in Suspicion and Rebecca died peacefully at her home in Carmel, California. She stayed classy until the very end.
In an age where young Hollywood starlets are known more for their short dresses and drug addictions rather than their contributions to cinema, Fontaine’s death is even more distressing. She did not have a blemish-free life and career. In fact, her rivalry with her sister, actress Olivia De Havilland, was well known. Joan Fontaine represented a by-gone era — a “they don’t make them like they used to” style of elegance. She was one of the last stars from Hollywood’s glamorous “Golden Age.”
Success didn’t come easily to Fontaine. After a series of disappointing films in the 1930s, she finally caught her big break. While at a dinner party, she was seated next to producer David Selznick. The two began to discuss the film version of Daphne du Maurier’s novel, Rebecca. Fontaine was red hot to audition for the part of the nameless heroine. After six months of auditions and a series of tests, she beat out hundreds of other actresses for the lead role. Rebecca marked the American film debut of director Alfred Hitchcock whose close watch resulted in Fontaine turning out a flawless performance. The reviews were all raves — she was the new “it” girl.
Although she was nominated for an Oscar that year, she ended up losing to Ginger Rogers. Nevertheless, Fontaine was on a roll. The movie had made her a star, even with its own behind-the-scenes personal drama. Her co-star, Sir Laurence Olivier, reportedly did not treat her very well. He wanted his lover, Vivien Leigh, to play the female lead alongside him. Fontaine was apparently ignored by everyone in the cast, save for Hitchcock, who insisted that he alone believed in her performance.
Her next role would turn out to be the one she is most famous for. In the 1941 Hitchcock film, Suspicion, she played a shy woman who marries a conman then suspects him of trying to kill her. This would be her only Oscar-winning role.
The real drama behind the scenes was the ages-old rivalry between Joan Fontaine and her sister, Olivia de Havilland. Both were up for Oscars in 1942. De Havilland was nominated for Hold Back the Dawn and Fontaine was nominated for Suspicion. Tensions were high after Fontaine took home the prize that year. Both sisters denied any problems, but after de Havilland won her first Oscar for 1947’s To Each His Own, Fontaine was brushed off by her sister upon exiting the stage. Fontaine wrote in her memoir, No Bed of Roses, that she couldn’t recall her sister ever being kind to her. Olivia de Havilland’s publicist claims that their feud had gone on for years, even since childhood.
Fontaine was old school Hollywood. Back then, a feud with a fellow actor played out mostly behind the scenes. Harsh words were spoken, threats may have been made, but it was all very neat and tidy. Certainly not the way it is these days. Feuds take place over Twitter. Mud slinging is seen in the tabloids on a weekly basis. Rivalries between actresses have taken on a new meaning in the digital age.
Joan Fontaine’s death has more than shown that they don’t make them like they used to. It highlights the feuds being played out between today’s young starlets. It would be great to go back to a simpler time when the cruelest thing to do to another woman would be to mock the way they dress.