Joan Fontaine

Joan de Beauvoir de Havilland (October 22, 1917 December 15, 2013), known professionally as Joan Fontaine, was a British-American actress who is best known for her starring roles in cinema during the Classical Hollywood era. Fontaine appeared in more than 45 feature films in a career that spanned five decades. She was the younger sister of actress Olivia de Havilland.

Joan Fontaine
Fontaine in 1943
Joan de Beauvoir de Havilland

(1917-10-22)October 22, 1917
Tokyo, Japan
DiedDecember 15, 2013(2013-12-15) (aged 96)
Other names
  • Joan Burfield
  • Joan St. John
Years active1935–1994
RelativesDame Olivia de Havilland (sister)
Hereward de Havilland (cousin)
Sir Geoffrey de Havilland (cousin)
AwardsAcademy Award for Best Actress (1941)

She began her stage career in 1935, signing a film contract with RKO Pictures. Fontaine received her first major role in The Man Who Found Himself (1937) and in 1939 was in the adventure Gunga Din. Her career prospects improved greatly after her starring role in the Alfred Hitchcock-directed suspense drama Rebecca (1940), for which she received her first of three nominations for the Academy Award for Best Actress. The following year, she won that award for her role in Suspicion (1941), another Hitchcock suspense drama. A third Oscar nomination came with the film The Constant Nymph. She appeared mostly in drama films through the 1940s—including Letter from an Unknown Woman, which is now considered a classic. In the next decade, after her role in the historical adventure Ivanhoe (1952), her film career began to decline and she moved into stage, radio and television roles. She appeared in fewer films in the 1960s, films which included Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1960) and her final feature film, The Witches (1966).

She released an autobiography, No Bed of Roses, in 1978. She continued to act until her last performance in 1994. Having won an Oscar for her role in Suspicion, Fontaine is the only actor to have won an Academy Award for acting in a Hitchcock film. Furthermore, she and her sister remain the only siblings to have won major acting Academy Awards, although it is well-known that they were estranged for many decades.

Early life

Joan de Beauvoir de Havilland was born on 22 October 1917, in Tokyo, Japan, to English parents. Her father, Walter de Havilland (18721968), was educated at the University of Cambridge and served as an English professor at the Imperial University in Tokyo before becoming a patent attorney.[2] Her mother, Lilian Augusta Ruse de Havilland Fontaine (18861975),[3][4] 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.[2] Her mother returned to work with the stage name "Lillian Fontaine" after her daughters achieved prominence in the 1940s. Joan's paternal cousin was Sir Geoffrey de Havilland (1882–1965), an aircraft designer known for the de Havilland Mosquito,[5] and founder of the aircraft company which bore his name. Her paternal grandfather, the Reverend Charles Richard de Havilland, was from a family from Guernsey, in the Channel Islands.[6][7]

De Havilland's parents married in 1914 and separated in 1919 when she was two, 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.[8]

Taking a physician's advice, Lilian de Havilland moved Joanreportedly a sickly child who had developed anaemia following a combined attack of the measles and a streptococcal infectionand her elder sister, Olivia, to the United States.[9][10] The family settled in Saratoga, California, and Fontaine's health improved dramatically by her teen years. 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, de Havilland returned to Japan to live with her father. There she attended the Tokyo School for Foreign Children, graduating in 1935.[11]


In The Women (1939)
With Cary Grant in Suspicion (1941)
In Jane Eyre (1943)

Fontaine made her stage debut in the West Coast production of Call It a Day (1935) and made her film debut in MGM's No More Ladies (1935) in which she was credited as Joan Burfield. She was Herman Brix's leading lady in a low budget independent film, A Million to One (1937).[12]


Fontaine signed a contract with RKO Pictures. Her first film for the studio was Quality Street (1937) starring Katharine Hepburn, in which Fontaine had a small unbilled role.

The studio considered her a rising star, and touted The Man Who Found Himself (1937) with John Beal as her first starring role, placing a special screen introduction, billed as the "new RKO screen personality" after the end credit.[13] Fontaine later said it had "an A budget but a Z story."[14]

RKO put her in You Can't Beat Love (1937) with Preston Foster and Music for Madame (1937) with Nino Martini.

She next appeared in a major role alongside Fred Astaire in his first RKO film without Ginger Rogers, A Damsel in Distress (1937).[15] Despite being directed by George Stevens, audiences were disappointed and the film flopped. She was top billed in the comedies Maid's Night Out (1938) and Blond Cheat (1938) then was Richard Dix's leading lady in Sky Giant (1938).

Edward Small borrowed her to play Louis Hayward's love interest in The Duke of West Point (1938), then Stevens used her at RKO in Gunga Din (1939) as Douglas Fairbanks Jr.'s love interest. The film was a huge hit, but Fontaine's part was relatively small. Republic borrowed her to support Dix in Man of Conquest (1939) but her part was small. George Cukor gave her a small role in MGM's The Women (1939).[12][14]

David O. Selznick and Hitchcock

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 (1940), starring Laurence Olivier alongside Fontaine, marked the American debut of British director Alfred Hitchcock. The film was released to glowing reviews, and Fontaine was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress.[12] 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.[12] This was the only Academy Award-winning acting performance to have been directed by Hitchcock.[16]

Fontaine was now one of the biggest female stars in Hollywood, although she was typed in female melodrama. "They seemed to want to make me cry the whole Atlantic," she later said.[17]

20th Century Fox borrowed her to appear opposite Tyrone Power in This Above All (1942) then she went to Warners to star alongside Charles Boyer in The Constant Nymph. She was nominated for a third Academy Award for her performance in this film.[18][19]

She also starred as the titular protagonist in the film Jane Eyre that year, which was developed by Selznick then sold to Fox.

During the war she occasionally worked as a nurse's aide.[20]

Fontaine starred in the film Frenchman's Creek (1944). 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.

Selznick wanted to cast her in I'll Be Seeing You (1944) but she refused, saying she was "sick of playing the sad sack." Selznick suspended her for eight months.[21] Eventually she went back to work in The Affairs of Susan (1945) for Hal Wallis at Paramount, her first comedy. She returned to RKO for From This Day Forward (1946).

Rampart Productions

In August 1946 Fontaine set up her own company, Rampart Productions, with her then husband William Dozier. Her contract with Selznick ended in February 1947 and Fontaine would work exclusively for Rampart apart from one film a year for RKO.[22][23]

Their first film was Ivy (1947), a thriller where she played an unsympathetic part.

The most memorable film Fontaine starred in during the late 1940s is Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948) directed by Max Ophüls, produced by John Houseman and co starring Louis Jourdan. It was made by Rampart Productions who released through Universal. It is today considered to be a classic with one of the finest performance in her career.[24]

At Paramount, she appeared opposite Bing Crosby in Billy Wilder's The Emperor Waltz (1948) then went to Universal for another film for Rampart, You Gotta Stay Happy (1948), a comedy with James Stewart.

Fontaine went to England to make Kiss the Blood Off My Hands (1948) with Burt Lancaster. At Paramount she did September Affair (1950) with Joseph Cotten for Wallis, Darling, How Could You! (1951) and Something to Live For (1952), a third film with George Stevens. At RKO she was a femme fetale in Born to Be Bad (1950).

MGM hired Fontaine to play the love interest in Ivanhoe (1952), a big success. She was reunited with Jourdan in Decameron Nights (1953) then went to Paramount for the low budget Flight to Tangier (1953) with Jack Palance.

TV and Theatre

Fontaine made The Bigamist (1953), directed by Ida Lupino. She began appearing on TV shows such as Four Star Playhouse, Ford Theatre, Star Stage, The 20th Century Fox Hour The Joseph Cotten Show, and General Electric Theater.

She won good reviews for her role on Broadway in 1954 as Laura in Tea and Sympathy, playing the role originated by Deborah Kerr. She appeared opposite Anthony Perkins and toured the show for a few months.[25]

She was Bob Hope's leading lady in Casanova's Big Night (1956) then supported Mario Lanza in Serenade (1956). She was in Fritz Lang's Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956) at RKO.

Fontaine had a big hit with Island in the Sun (1957) having a romance with Harry Belafonte. At MGM she appeared with Jean Simmons and Paul Newman in Until They Sail (1957) then she made A Certain Smile (1958) at Fox.


Fontaine had the female lead in the popular Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961) at Fox. She had a key role in Tender Is the Night (1962) also at Fox.

Most of her 1960s work was done on television or stage. TV shows included General Electric Theater,Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse, Startime, Alcoa Presents: One Step Beyond, Checkmate, The Dick Powell Show, Kraft Television Theatre, Wagon Train, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and The Bing Crosby Show.

In October 1964 she returned to Broadway to appear in A Severed Head.[26]

She tried a Hammer horror film, The Witches (1966) which she also co produced.

Her stage work included Cactus Flower and an Austrian production of The Lion in Winter.

In 1967 she was in Dial M for Murder in Chicago.[17] The following year she did Private Lives.[27]

She played Forty Carats on Broadway.

Later career

In the 1970s Fontaine appeared in stage shows and toured with a poetry reading.[28]

She returned to Hollywood for the first time in 15 years in 1975 to appear in an episode of Cannon especially written for her.[29] She was in The Users (1978) and was nominated for an Emmy Award for the soap opera Ryan's Hope in 1980.

Fontaine's autobiography, No Bed of Roses, was published in 1978.[30] In 1982, she traveled to Berlin, Germany and served as a jury president for the Berlin International Film Festival.[31]

In the early 1980s, after 25 years in New York, she moved to Carmel, California. "I have no family ties anymore, so I want to work," she said. "I still host an interview show for cable in New York. I lecture all over the country. But it wasn't enough. My theory is that if you stay busy, you haven't time to grow old. Or at least you don't notice it."[32]

She starred in Aloha Paradise, Bare Essence, and Crossings (1986).[33] She played the lead in a TV movie, Dark Crossings (1986), replacing Loretta Young. She said, "At my time in life, I don't want to do bit parts. Also, Rosalind Russell once said, 'Always escape the mother parts.' And I've avoided them."[32]

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.[34]

For her contribution to the motion picture industry, Fontaine has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1645 Vine Street. She left her hand and foot prints in front of the Grauman's Chinese Theatre on 26 May 1942.

She was a practicing Episcopalian and a member of Episcopal Actors Guild.[35]

Fontaine was a Democrat who not only supported the run of Adlai Stevenson but also had a personal relationship as well, stating,

We had a tenderness for each other that grew into something rather serious. There was so much speculation about our marrying in the press that over lunch at his apartment in the Waldorf Towers he told me he could not marry an actress. He still had political ambitions and the "little old ladies from Oshkosh" wouldn't approve. I told him it was just as well. My family would hardly approve of my marrying a politician.[36]

Personal life

Fontaine held dual citizenship; she was British by birthright (both her parents were British) and became an American citizen in April 1943.[37][38] Outside of acting, Fontaine was also noted as being a licensed pilot, an accomplished interior decorator, and a Cordon Bleu-level chef.[31]

Marriages and children

Fontaine was married and divorced four times. Her first marriage was to actor Brian Aherne, in 1939 in Del Monte, California;[39] they divorced in April 1945.[40]

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.[41] The following year, Fontaine filed for divorce, charging Dozier with desertion. Their divorce was final in January 1951.[42] The two of them had a custody battle over their child which lingered through the 1950s.[43][44]

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.[45] Their divorce was final in January 1961.[46]

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.[47]

While in South America for a film festival in 1951, Fontaine met a four-year-old Peruvian girl named Martita, and informally adopted her.[48][49] 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.[48] 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. While promoting her autobiography in 1978, Fontaine addressed the issue, stating, "Until my adopted daughter goes back to see her parents, she's not welcome. I promised her parents. I do not forgive somebody who makes me break my word."[50]

Sibling rivalry

Fontaine and her sister, Olivia de Havilland, are the only set of siblings to have won lead acting Academy Awards. Olivia was the first to become an actress; when Fontaine tried to follow her lead, their mother, who allegedly favored Olivia, refused to let Joan use the family name. Subsequently, Fontaine had to invent a name, taking first Joan Burfield, and later Joan Fontaine. Biographer Charles Higham records that the sisters had an uneasy relationship from early childhood, when Olivia would rip up the clothes Joan had to wear as hand-me-downs, forcing Joan to sew them back together. A large part of the friction between the sisters allegedly stemmed from Fontaine's belief that Olivia was their mother's favorite child.[51]

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. Higham states that Fontaine "felt guilty about winning given her lack of obsessive career drive ...". Higham has described the events of the awards ceremony, stating that as Fontaine stepped forward to collect her award, she pointedly rejected de Havilland's attempts at congratulating her and that de Havilland was both offended and embarrassed by her behavior. Fontaine, however, tells a different story in her autobiography, explaining that she was paralyzed with surprise when she won the Academy Award, and that de Havilland insisted she get up to accept it. "Olivia took the situation very graciously," Fontaine wrote. "I was appalled that I'd won over my sister."[52] Several years later, however, de Havilland apparently remembered what she perceived as a slight and exacted her own revenge by brushing past Fontaine, who was waiting with her hand extended, because de Havilland allegedly took offense at a comment Fontaine had made about de Havilland's husband.

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.[53] Fontaine also went to visit de Havilland in Paris in 1969.[54]

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!"[55] 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.[56] 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.[51]


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."[57] After Fontaine's death, de Havilland released a statement saying she was "shocked and saddened" by the news.[58]

Fontaine's 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 and Fontaine's estate retained possession.[59]


Year Title Role Notes
1935 No More Ladies Caroline "Carrie" Rumsey Credited as Joan Burfield
1937 A Million to One Joan Stevens
Quality Street Charlotte Parratt Uncredited
The Man Who Found Himself Nurse Doris King
You Can't Beat Love Trudy Olson
Music for Madame Jean Clemens
A Damsel in Distress Lady Alyce Marshmorton
1938 Maid's Night Out Sheila Harrison
Blond Cheat Juliette "Julie" Evans
Sky Giant Meg Lawrence
The Duke of West Point Ann Porter
1939 Gunga Din Emmy
Man of Conquest Eliza Allen
The Women Mrs. John Day (Peggy)
1940 Rebecca The second Mrs. de Winter Nominated – Academy Award for Best Actress
nominated – New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actress – directed by Alfred Hitchcock
1941 Suspicion Lina Academy Award for Best Actress
New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actress – directed by Alfred Hitchcock
1942 This Above All Prudence Cathaway
1943 The Constant Nymph Tessa Sanger Nominated – Academy Award for Best Actress
Jane Eyre Jane Eyre (as an adult)
1944 Frenchman's Creek Dona St. Columb
1945 The Affairs of Susan Susan Darell
1946 From This Day Forward Susan Cummings
1947 Ivy Ivy
1948 Letter from an Unknown Woman Lisa Berndle
The Emperor Waltz Countess Johanna Augusta Franziska
You Gotta Stay Happy Dee Dee Dillwood
Kiss the Blood Off My Hands Jane Wharton
1950 September Affair Marianne "Manina" Stuart
Born to Be Bad Christabel Caine Carey
1951 Darling, How Could You! Alice Grey
Othello Page Uncredited
1952 Something to Live For Jenny Carey
Ivanhoe Rowena
1953 Decameron Nights Fiametta/Bartolomea/Ginevra/Isabella
Flight to Tangier Susan Lane
The Bigamist Eve Graham
1954 Casanova's Big Night Francesca Bruni Alternative title: Mr. Casanova
1956 Serenade Kendall Hale
Beyond a Reasonable Doubt Susan Spencer
1957 Island in the Sun Mavis Norman
Until They Sail Anne Leslie
1958 A Certain Smile Françoise Ferrand
1961 The Light That Failed Hostess TV movie
Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea Dr. Susan Hiller
1962 Tender Is the Night Baby Warren
1966 The Witches Gwen Mayfield Alternative title: The Devil's Own
1978 The Users Grace St. George TV movie
1986 Dark Mansions Margaret Drake TV movie
1994 Good King Wenceslas Queen Ludmilla TV movie

Television credits

Year Title Role Episode(s)
1953–1954 Four Star Playhouse Trudy "Trudy"
"The Girl on the Park Bench"
1956 The Ford Television Theatre Julie "Your Other Love"
1956 Star Stage "The Shadowy Third"
1956 The 20th Century Fox Hour Lynne Abbott "Stranger In the Night"
1956–1957 The Joseph Cotten Show Adrienne "Fatal Charm"
"The De Santre Story"
1956–1960 General Electric Theater Linda Stacey
Laurel Chapman
Melanie Langdon
Countess Irene Forelli
"A Possibility of Oil"
"The Story of Judith"
"At Miss Minner's"
"The Victorian Chaise Lounge"
"In Summer Promise"
1959 Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse Margaret Lewis "Perilous"
1960 Startime Julie Forbes "Closed Set"
1960 Alcoa Presents: One Step Beyond Ellen Grayson "The Visitor"
1961 Checkmate Karen Lawson "Voyage Into Fear"
1962 The Dick Powell Show Valerie Baumer "The Clocks"
1962 Kraft Mystery Theatre Margaret Lewis "Perilous"
1963 Wagon Train Naomi Kaylor "The Naomi Kaylor Story"
1963 The Alfred Hitchcock Hour Alice Pemberton "The Paragon"
1965 The Bing Crosby Show Mrs. Taylor "Operation Man Save"
1975 Cannon Thelma Cain episode: "The Star"
1980 Ryan's Hope Paige Williams Five episodes
Nominated – Daytime Emmy Award Outstanding Guest/Cameo Appearance in a Daytime Drama Series
1981 Aloha Paradise "Love Teacher/The Actress/Prodigy"
"Turn Me On/Treasure Hunt/A Child Will Become Father"
1981 The Love Boat Jennifer Langley "Chef's Special/Beginning Anew/Kleinschmidt"
1983 Bare Essence Laura "Hour Four"
"Hour Five"
1986 Hotel Ruth Easton "Harassed"
1986 Crossings Alexandra Markham Miniseries

Broadway credits

Date Production Role
September 30, 1953 – June 18, 1955 Tea and Sympathy Laura Reynolds
December 26, 1968 – November 7, 1970 Forty Carats Ann Stanley

Radio appearances

1946Lux Radio TheatreFrom This Day Forward[60]
1946Academy AwardPortrait of Jennie[61]
1946Hollywood PlayersThe Constant Nymph[62]
1949SuspenseThe Lovebirds[63]
1952Hallmark PlayhouseMiracle on the Blotter[64]
1952Broadway PlayhouseManhattan Serenade[65]
1952Theatre Guild on the AirThe House of Mirth[65]
1952Hollywood Sound StageIvy[66]
1953Theater of StarsThe Guardsman[67]
1953Radio TheaterUndercurrent[68]

Awards and nominations

Year Award Category Title of work Result
1940 Academy Award Best Actress Rebecca Nominated
1942 Academy Award Best Actress Suspicion Won
1941 NYFCC Award Best Actress Suspicion Won
1943 Academy Award Best Actress The Constant Nymph Nominated
1947 Golden Apple Award Most Cooperative Actress Won
1980 Daytime Emmy Award Outstanding Guest/Cameo Appearance in a Daytime Drama Series Ryan's Hope Nominated



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