CARMEL, Calif. – Academy Award-winning actress Joan Fontaine, who found stardom playing naive wives in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Suspicion” and “Rebecca,” died Sunday at 96.
Fontaine, sister of fellow Oscar winner Olivia de Havilland, died in her sleep Sunday morning.
Her pale, soft features and frightened stare made her ideal for melodrama and she was a major star for much of the 1940s. For Hitchcock, she was a prototype of the uneasy blondes played by Kim Novak and Tippi Hedren.
Fontaine appeared in more than 30 movies, including “The Women” and “Gunga Din,” and the title role in “Jane Eyre.” She was also in films directed by Billy Wilder (“The Emperor Waltz”), Fritz Lang (“Beyond a Reasonable Doubt”) and, wised up and dangerous, in Nicholas Ray’s “Born to be Bad.” She starred on Broadway in 1954 in “Tea and Sympathy.” Fontaine was without a studio contract when she was seated next to producer David O. Selznick at a dinner party. She impressed him enough to be asked to audition for “Rebecca,” his first movie since “Gone With the Wind” and the American directorial debut of Hitchcock.
Hundreds of actresses applied for the lead female role in “Rebecca,” based on Daphne du Maurier’s gothic best-seller about haunted Maxim de Winter and the dead first wife – the title character – he obsesses over. With Laurence Olivier as Maxim, Fontaine as the unsuspecting second wife and Judith Anderson as the dastardly housekeeper Mrs. Danvers, “Rebecca” won the Academy Award for best picture and got Fontaine the first of her three Oscar nominations.
“Rebecca” made her a star, but she remembered being treated cruelly by Olivier, who openly preferred his then-lover Vivien Leigh for the role, and being ignored by the largely British cast. Her uncertainty was reinforced by Hitchcock, who would insist that he was the only one who believed in her.
Hitchcock’s “Suspicion,” released in 1941, and featuring Fontaine as the timid woman whose husband (Cary Grant) may or may not be a killer, brought her a best actress Oscar and dramatized one of Hollywood’s legendary feuds, between Fontaine and de Havilland, a losing nominee for “Hold Back the Dawn.”
Her most daring role came in the 1957 film “Island in the Sun,” in which she had an interracial romance with Harry Belafonte. Several Southern cities banned the movie after threats from the Ku Klux Klan.