Today marks the centenary of Joan Fontaine, an actress I’ve long-admired, and one who was a prime figure in getting me into older films. I had already seen a good handful of classic Hollywood movies before discovering her in Rebecca, but after watching it I had to immediately follow it up with Suspicion, as I was transfixed by her presence on screen. Perhaps it’s because I’m quite an introverted person myself, so I identified a bit with the types of characters she played, especially in these two films directed by Alfred Hitchcock, which are also the films she’s best remembered for.
While on holiday in Monte Carlo, wealthy widower Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier) meets a shy young woman (Joan Fontaine) working as a lady’s companion, soon embarking on a whirlwind romance, leading to marriage soon after. Following a blissful honeymoon, the couple returns to Maxim’s vast family estate, Manderley, where the new Mrs. de Winter soon discovers his first wife, Rebecca, still has a stronghold on everyone in the residence, particularly the housekeeper Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson), who will not accept the young woman as the new mistress of the house.
Joan Fontaine was just one of many actresses to audition for the nameless protagonist in Daphne du Maurier’s acclaimed novel, with names such as Anne Baxter and Loretta Young up for consideration. Though she’d already made more than a dozen films, including The Women and Gunga Din the previous year, Fontaine wasn’t quite an established star, so casting her in the coveted role didn’t seem like a good idea too much of producer David O. Selznick’s staff, but he and director Alfred Hitchcock felt she was perfect for the part. Her co-star Laurence Olivier was another person who wasn’t all too happy about her casting, as his then-girlfriend Vivien Leigh was another actress who tested for the role. Hitchcock utilized Olivier’s resentment to fuel Fontaine’s performance, taking it further and telling the actress everyone on set hated her, thus making her uneasy like the heroine is among Manderley.
As an actress, Fontaine is best known for playing demure young women put through some sort of emotional turmoil, and this was the film to really cement that image. Through most of Rebecca, she’s presented as a quiet, awkward, girl, often uncomfortable with speaking up to authority figures, especially Mrs. Danvers. But as the second Mrs. de Winter learns more about her surroundings, Fontaine imbues a gradual strength into her character, giving her an organic arc that makes it easy to root for her despite any initial shortcomings she seemed to have in the beginning. Before Rebecca, the parts Fontaine played weren’t so fully formed, but here she had the chance to prove her talent.
After a chance meeting on a train, playboy Johnnie Aysgarth (Cary Grant) woos the timid heiress Lina McLaidlaw (Joan Fontaine), who decides to elope with him despite knowing him for only a short amount of time. After their honeymoon though, she learns of his true character and his tendency to gamble and get involved in risky financial situations. When Johnnie’s good friend and business partner, Beaky (Nigel Bruce), dies suddenly while the two are on a trip, Lina’s suspicions grow further, and she begins to suspect her husband is planning to kill her for her inheritance.
Immediately following the success of Rebecca, Fontaine and Hitchcock teamed up again the following year for Suspicion. Though both Rebecca and Suspicion begin with a whirlwind romance involving a shy young woman, Fontaine is able to play Lina in a slightly more mature manner than she could in her previous effort with Hitchcock. In Suspicion, her character is not as insecure about herself, though her paranoia about what her husband is thinking is even more apparent. While Fontaine’s work here is not as transformative as it was the previous year, it’s still an effective performance.
For both of her films with Hitchcock, Fontaine received back-to-back Oscar nominations for Best Actress. She lost the first time around to Ginger Rogers for Kitty Foyle but won her first and only Oscar for her performance in Suspicion, famously winning over her sister Olivia de Havilland for Hold Back the Dawn. Her Oscar win for Suspicion is also famous for being the only acting win from a Hitchcock movie, though he directed a good number of actors to nominations, with three alone coming from Rebecca.
Fontaine earned one more Oscar nomination for 1943’s The Constant Nymph, and one of her most acclaimed performances came after in 1948’s Letter from an Unknown Woman. In between and after those films, she appeared in a variety of films, from comedies to dramas, and musicals to noir films, even playing unsympathetic roles like in 1947’s Ivy and 1950’s Born to Be Bad. While much of her filmography isn’t very well-known today, her two career-defining collaborations with Hitchcock put on display what audiences are missing out on, and hopefully, it’ll lead them to see more of her work, as they did for me.
I wrote this entry as a part of The Joan Fontaine Centenary Blogathon, where bloggers are writing about the Oscar-winning actress in honor of her 100th birthday. Click the banner below to read more wonderful posts!