Best known for her roles in Hitchcock’s Rebecca and Suspicion as well as her ongoing feud with sister Olivia de Havilland.
No More Ladies
A Million to One
The Man Who Found Himself
You Can’t Beat Love
Music for Madame
A Damsel in Distress
Maid’s Night Out
The Duke of West Point
Man of Conquest
This Above All
The Constant Nymph
The Affairs of Susan
From This Day Forward
The Emperor Waltz
You Gotta Stay Happy
Kiss the Blood Off My Hands
Darling, How Could You!
Something to Live For
Flight to Tangier
Casanova’s Big Night
Beyond a Reasonable Doubt
Until They Sail
A Certain Smile
Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea
Tender Is the Night
You know, I’ve had a helluva life. Not just the acting part. I’ve flown in an international balloon race. I’ve piloted my own plane. I’ve ridden to the hounds. I’ve done a lot of exciting things. ~ Joan Fontaine
Joan Fontaine was born Joan de Beauvoir de Havilland; October 22, 1917 in Tokyo, Japan, to English parents. Her father, Walter Augustus de Havilland (August 31, 1872 – May 20, 1968), was educated at the University of Cambridge and served as an English professor at the Imperial University in Tokyo before becoming a patent attorney. Her mother, Lilian Augusta de Havilland Fontaine (née Ruse; June 11, 1886 – February 20, 1975), was educated at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, and became a stage actress who left her career after going to Tokyo with her husband.
De Havilland’s parents married in 1914 and separated in 1919, when Lilian decided to end the marriage after discovering that her husband used the sexual services of geishas; the divorce was not finalized, however, until February 1925.
Taking a physician’s advice, Lilian de Havilland moved Joan—reportedly a sickly child who had developed anemia following a combined attack of the measles and a streptococcal infection—and her elder sister, Olivia de Havilland, to the United States. The family settled in Saratoga, California, and Fontaine’s health improved dramatically. She was educated at nearby Los Gatos High School, and was soon taking diction lessons alongside her elder sister. When she was 16 years old, Joan returned to Japan to live with her father. There she attended the Tokyo School for Foreign Children, graduating in 1935.
Fontaine made her stage debut in the West Coast production of Call It a Day (1935) and was soon signed to an RKO contract. Her film debut was a small role in No More Ladies (1935) in which she was credited as Joan Burfield.
Although Fontaine, under contract with RKO, had already made her screen appearance in No More Ladies, a series of other minor roles followed, in A Million to One and Quality Street (both 1937), opposite Katharine Hepburn. The studio considered her a rising star, and touted The Man Who Found Himself (1937) as her first starring role, placing a special screen introduction, billed as the “new RKO screen personality” after the end credit. She next appeared in a major role alongside Fred Astaire in his first RKO film without Ginger Rogers, A Damsel in Distress (1937), but audiences were disappointed and the film flopped. She continued appearing in small parts in about a dozen films, including The Women (1939), but failed to make a strong impression, and her contract was not renewed when it expired in 1939.
Fontaine’s luck changed one night at a dinner party when she found herself seated next to producer David O. Selznick. Selznick and she began discussing the Daphne du Maurier novel Rebecca, and Selznick asked her to audition for the part of the unnamed heroine. She endured a grueling six-month series of film tests, along with hundreds of other actresses, before securing the part sometime before her 22nd birthday.
Rebecca, starring Laurence Olivier alongside Fontaine, marked the American debut of British director Alfred Hitchcock. In 1940, the film was released to glowing reviews, and Fontaine was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress. Fontaine did not win that year (Ginger Rogers took home the award for Kitty Foyle), but she did win the following year for Best Actress in Suspicion, which co-starred Cary Grant and was also directed by Hitchcock. This was the only Academy Award-winning acting performance to have been directed by Hitchcock.
During the 1940s, Fontaine excelled in romantic melodramas. In 1943, She starred along with Charles Boyer in The Constant Nymph. She was nominated for a third Academy Award for her performance in this film. She also starred as the titular protagonist in the film Jane Eyre that year. Both The Constant Nymph and Jane Eyre are considered to be among the finest films she starred in.
In 1944 she starred in the film Frenchman’s Creek. Like Rebecca, this was also based on a novel by Daphne du Maurier. Fontaine personally considered Frenchman’s Creek one of her least favorites among the films she starred in.
The most memorable film Fontaine starred in during the late 1940s is Letter from an Unknown Woman. Released in 1948, Letter from an Unknown Woman was directed by Max Ophüls and is today considered to be a classic. Fontaine’s performance in this film is also considered to be one of the finest in her career.
Although she is mostly remembered for her performances in the two Hitchcock films and the romantic melodramas she starred in throughout the 1940s, she starred in a wide variety of genres, like the comedy film The Affairs of Susan, the musical film The Emperor Waltz (directed by Billy Wilder and co-starring Joseph Cotten), the film noir Kiss the Blood Off My Hands (co-starring Burt Lancaster) and the adventure drama Ivanhoe, which also starred Robert Taylor and Elizabeth Taylor. Although she was often cast as good-natured and naive characters or aristocrats, she played unsympathetic characters in films like Ivy and Born to Be Bad.
She also appeared in numerous radio shows during the 1940s for the Lux Radio Theater. Her film successes slowed a little during the 1950s, and she also began appearing in television and on the stage. She won good reviews for her role on Broadway in 1954 as Laura in Tea and Sympathy, opposite Anthony Perkins. During the 1960s, Fontaine appeared in several stage productions.
Her last theatrical film was The Witches (1966), which she also co-produced. She continued appearing in film and television roles throughout the 1970s and 1980s, and was nominated for an Emmy Award for the soap opera Ryan’s Hope in 1980.
Fontaine’s last role for television was in the 1994 TV film Good King Wenceslas, after which she retired to her estate, Villa Fontana, in Carmel Highlands, California, where she spent time in her gardens and with her dogs.
Fontaine was married and divorced four times. Her first marriage was to actor Brian Aherne, in 1939 in Del Monte, California; they divorced in April 1945. In May 1946, she married actor/producer William Dozier in Mexico City. They had a daughter, Deborah Leslie, in 1948, and separated in 1949. Deborah is Fontaine’s only biological child. The following year, Fontaine filed for divorce, charging Dozier with desertion. Their divorce was finalized in January 1951. Fontaine’s third marriage was to producer and writer Collier Young on November 12, 1952. They separated in May 1960, and Fontaine filed for divorce in November 1960. Their divorce was finalized in January 1961. Fontaine’s fourth and final marriage was to Sports Illustrated golf editor Alfred Wright, Jr, on January 23, 1964, in Elkton, Maryland; they divorced in 1969.
While in South America for a film festival in 1951, Fontaine met a four-year-old Peruvian girl named Martita, and informally adopted her. Fontaine met Martita while visiting Incan ruins where Martita’s father worked as a caretaker. Martita’s parents allowed Fontaine to become Martita’s legal guardian to give the child a better life. Fontaine promised Martita’s parents she would send the girl back to Peru to visit when she was 16 years old. When Martita turned 16, Fontaine bought her a round-trip ticket to Peru, but Martita refused to go and opted to run away. Fontaine and Martita became estranged following the incident.
De Havilland and Fontaine were both nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress in 1942. Fontaine won for her role in Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion over de Havilland’s performance in Hold Back the Dawn.
They are the only set of siblings to have won lead acting Academy Awards.
Contrary to press reports, the sisters continued their relationship after the 1940s. After Fontaine’s separation from her husband in 1952, de Havilland came to her apartment in New York often, and at least once they spent Christmas together there, in 1961. They were photographed laughing together at a party for Marlene Dietrich in 1967. Fontaine also went to visit de Havilland in Paris in 1969.
The sisters reportedly did not completely stop speaking to each other until 1975, after their mother’s funeral, to which Joan, who was out of the country, was not invited.
Both sisters largely refused to comment publicly about their relationship. In a 1978 interview, however, Fontaine said of the sibling rivalry, “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!” The following year, in a 1979 interview, Fontaine claimed the reason her sister and she stopped speaking to each other was that de Havilland wanted their mother (who was suffering from cancer) to be treated surgically at the advanced age of 88, which Fontaine apparently did not think was a good idea. Fontaine claims that after their mother died, de Havilland did not bother to try to find where Fontaine could be reached (Fontaine was on tour in a play). Instead, de Havilland sent a telegram, which did not arrive until two weeks later at Fontaine’s next stop. According to Fontaine, de Havilland did not invite her to a memorial service for their mother. De Havilland claims she informed Fontaine, but Fontaine brushed her off, claiming she was too busy to attend. Higham records that Fontaine had an estranged relationship with her own daughters, as well, possibly because she discovered that they were secretly maintaining a relationship with de Havilland.
On December 15, 2013, Fontaine died in her sleep of natural causes at the age of 96 in her Carmel Highlands home. Her longtime friend Noel Beutel said, “She had been fading in recent days and died peacefully.” Her Academy Award for Best Actress in Suspicion was initially going to be sold at an animal rights auction; however, the Academy threatened to sue since it was not offered back to them for $1. After Fontaine’s death, de Havilland released a statement saying she was “shocked and saddened” by the news. Fontaine was cremated.