R.I.P. Joan Fontaine

One screen legend is barely gone when we lose another. Joan Fontaine, one of the last vestiges of the Hollywood studio era, passed away at her home in California late on Sunday. She was 96.

Starting off in film at a very young age, Fontaine (real name Joan de Beauvoir de Havilland) was for a time overshadowed by her older sister, Olivia de Havilland (still kicking, by the way – I guess Olivia wins the unofficial “Death Becomes Her” reboot), who received flashy roles in “The Adventures of Robin Hood” and “Gone with the Wind.” She struggled to make an impression in bit parts, though she got approving notices for her part in George Cukor’s ensemble film “The Women.” It wasn’t until she nabbed the lead role in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 adaptation of “Rebecca” that Fontaine became a star in her own right, and received an Oscar nomination – although to keep things in perspective, she was still only 22 at the time. Two years later she became the youngest Best Actress Oscar winner (at the time) by re-teaming with Hitchcock to play a terrified, paranoid newlywed in “Suspicion.”

For about two decades, Fontaine had a rousing career, playing opposite many of the great leading men of her day – Orson Welles, Jimmy Stewart, Tyrone Power, Burt Lancaster, even Harry Belafonte. After “Suspicion” she’d only receive one more Oscar nomination (for a total of three), for “The Constant Nymph” in 1944. She made a habit of highbrow, literary adaptations, starring in films like the 1943 “Jane Eyre,” “Ivanhoe,” “Letter from an Unknown Woman” and “Island in the Sun.” She kept acting past the 1950’s, but increasingly in television and stage roles, her last film of any note being the campy Hammer Films cult classic “The Witches” (aka “The Devil’s Own”).

Her oft-publicized rivalry with her sister aside, Fontaine was perhaps one of the most underrated talents of her time. “Rebecca” and “Suspicion” are both generally underrated in the Hitchcock canon, I believe, and her expert performances have a great deal to do with that. A heavy loss indeed as Hollywood’s golden era continues to flicker out.

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