Although many think she is most remembered for her sibling rivalry with another top star of the 1940s, older sister Olivia de Havilland, Joan Fontaine was nonetheless a highly popular and Academy Award winning star in her own right.
Read her excellent autobiography, No Bed of Roses, published in 1978 and get her side of the story. The book is loaded with observations about fellow stars and, of course, the gory details of her sisterly feud with DeHavilland. (But remember there are two, or sometimes three versions of every tale.)
For example, that’s Joan above with her Suspicion costar Cary Grant. Fontaine wrote that the only mistake he made on “Suspicion” was not realizing that the part of Lina (the mousy wife, played by Joan) was the major role. It was through her eyes that the story unfolded. She had all the sympathy.
Cary found this out halfway through the shooting schedule. That, plus (director Alfred) Hitchcock’s “divide and conquer” technique (of handling actors) created a temporary distance between us by the end of the film.
Joan’s view of the pre-eminence of her part was validated by her Oscar nomination for that “major” role. As it turned out both Joan and de Havilland were up that year (1942) for best actress citations — Joan for Suspicion and Olivia for Hold Back The Dawn.
As soon as the previous year’s winner Ginger Rogers announced from stage that “the winner is…Joan…,” Fontaine recalls in her autobiography that, I froze. I stared across the table, where Olivia was sitting directly opposite me. ‘Get up there, get up there,’ she whispered commandingly.
Now what had I done! All the animus we’d felt towards each other as children, the hair-pullings, the savage wrestling matches, the time Olivia fractured my collarbone, all came rushing back in Kaleidoscopic imagery.
My paralysis was total. I felt Olivia would spring across the table and grab me by the hair. I felt age four, being confronted by my older sister. Damn it, I’d incurred her wrath again!
Sisterly battles aside, it was Fontaine — and not Grant — who walked off with the Academy Award. Check out 1941’s Suspicion, one of Hitchcock’s early great ones. Cary was terrific but Joan was the “star.”
Be that as it may her career at least equaled Olivia’s. She even went in for producing with third husband, Collier Young (who’d previously been married to Ida Lupino) when she co-starred as the wronged wife with Lupino and Edmond O’Brien in The Bigamist.
Of course you should see her Ocsar-nominated performance in her other Hitchcock film, Rebecca (1940). And don’t overlook Edmund Goulding’s The Constant Nymph (1943). And don’t miss her more subtle parts in films like Robert Wise’s Until They Sail (1957) and in Max Ophul’s Letter From an Unknown Woman (1948).
She was not maternal, but shrewd with money. Several years ago, the story goes, her sister was not doing well financially and the women put their differences aside. Fontaine lent de Havilland the much-needed money, but with the proviso that Olivia go back to work, which she did.
Fontaine made her film debut in 1935’s No More Ladies, and with her death, sister de Havilland, now 97 — along with Luise Rainer, now 103 — seem to be the last of the leading ladies from the 1930s.