Actress Joan Fontaine has died at the age of 96. The younger sister of Olivia de Havilland, Fontaine—born “Joan de Beauvoir de Havilland”—made her movie debut in No More Ladies (1935) using the name “Joan Burfield,” to avoid being compared with her sister. She switched to “Fontaine” with her next picture, A Million To One (1935). In the first five years of her career, she danced—not too well, as she herself conceded—with Fred Astaire in A Damsel In Distress (1937), tried to lure Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. away from his British regiment in India in Gunga Din (1939), and was part of the all-female-star cast of The Women (1939).
In 1940, Fontaine had the biggest role of her career as the heroine of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940). Always strikingly beautiful, in Rebecca she was also tremulous and emotionally off-balance as a second wife made to feel like a trespasser in her new husband’s home. Legend has it that her co-star, Laurence Olivier, treated her poorly because he’d hoped her role would go to his then-girlfriend, Vivien Leigh. To get her into the right frame of mind, Hitchcock took advantage of this to get her into the right frame of mind by telling her everyone felt she’d been forced them on by the producer, David O. Selznick.
A year later, Fontaine worked with Hitchcock again on Suspicion, starring opposite Cary Grant. The Academy Award she won for her performance is generally thought to be the Academy’s way of atoning for not having given it to her for Rebecca. In any case, it remains the only Oscar-winning performance in a Hitchcock film.
After her two films with Hitchcock, Fontaine spent much of her career starring in prestige weepers and “women’s pictures.” She co-starred with Orson Welles in the 1943 Jane Eyre (and, nine years later, contributed an uncredited appearance as a page in Welles’ Othello); she was exceptionally fine in Max Ophuls’ tragic romance Letter From An Unknown Woman (1948); competed with Elizabeth Taylor for the affections of Robert Taylor in (1952); played multiple roles in Decameron Nights (1953); starred in Ida Lupino’s The Bigamist (1953); cuddled up with Bob Hope in Casanova’s Big Night (1954); co-starred with Mario Lanza in Anthony Mann’s insufficiently weird version of James M. Cain’s opera novel, Serenade (1956); signed on for Irwin Allen’s Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea (1961); and played Baby Warren in Tender Is The Night (1962), another half-cocked literary adaptation. Her final movie role was in The Witches (1966), a Hammer horror film written by Nigel Kneale.
For decades after retiring from feature films, she continued to turn up on TV. In 1963, she starred in an episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, and she made guest appearances on Wagon Train, Cannon, The Love Boat, and Hotel. Her last performance was in a 1994 holiday TV-movie, Good King Wenceslas.