It’s over, the morbid suspense concerning which movie-star sister—Olivia de Havilland, age 97, or Joan Fontaine, age 96—would be the first to die. Their famously long, long feud made it clear that neither of them intended to be first to go, seeming to turn even mortality into an issue of sibling rivalry. (I guess they have reached a truce, at least until Olivia makes her way to “the other side.”) So, Olivia has outlived Joan, besting her baby sister yet again, as she notably had done by winning two Oscars while Joan had a measly one. But even a pair of Oscars couldn’t erase the sting of Joan’s single Oscar victory of 1941: when Joan won for Suspicion, among the four losers was none other than Olivia for Hold Back the Dawn. Pardon me, sis, while I make my way to the podium.
The saddest thing about Fontaine’s death for me has been the relatively scant attention it has received. True, the timing wasn’t good, coming immediately after Peter O’Toole’s death (his on December 14, hers on the 15th). But the depressing part is how quickly the famous and the revered become unknowns. The extensive coverage surrounding O’Toole’s death has much to do with the fact that his biggest decade was the 1960s, which means that boomers everywhere remember him and his most high-profile movies. Fontaine’s peak was the 1940s, and there just aren’t enough people around anymore (outside of classic-film lovers) who remember just how major a star she was.
I’ve always felt that Olivia de Havilland was the superior talent in the family, the more relaxed, perceptive, and probing actress. Acting always seemed vitally important to de Havilland, while Fontaine’s work often looked less committed than her sister’s, as if acting were something she could take or leave. And yet I do feel that Fontaine gave three great screen performances. Within that trio, I would not include her Oscar-winning performance in Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion, a rather uninteresting performance that I have described elsewhere as ”constipated.” Nor would I include her lackluster work in Max Ophuls’ Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), which has recently become, in critical circles, the most celebrated of all Fontaine performances.
But she is rather astonishing—not just credible but vibrant—as the soulful, spirited teenager with a heart condition in Edmund Goulding’s The Constant Nymph (1943), for which she received her third and final Oscar nomination. And she’s shocking in her composure and also intoxicatingly manipulative as the amoral murderess in Sam Wood’s Ivy (1947). Both of these are award-caliber performances. (I’ve already written about her work in The Constant Nymph elsewhere on this blog, and examined her title role in Ivy in my book Screen Savers II.) Then, of course, there’s Rebecca (1940), the film that made Fontaine a star after her late-1930s stretch as a not-too-promising starlet unlikely to match the success of her rapidly rising sister. She wasn’t seen to advantage dancing with Fred Astaire in A Damsel in Distress (1937), but she finally revealed genuine potential under George Cukor’s careful guidance in The Women (1939).
You could still call Fontaine a virtually untried commodity when David O. Selznick entrusted her with the coveted role of the second Mrs. de Winter in Rebecca, a risk that paid off handsomely for everyone involved. Fontaine herself achieved not just stardom but her first Best Actress Oscar nomination. (She lost to a far less deserving Ginger Rogers for Kitty Foyle, then got a consolation-prize Oscar the next year for Suspicion, which was similar but inferior to Rebecca.) Selznick’s instinct about Fontaine was nearly as inspired as his gut feeling about casting Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind the year before. Both films have endured thanks to these actresses and our utter belief in them as being their characters.
Relatively green as an actress, Fontaine was placed in a high-pressure situation, carrying not just a major Selznick production but the first American film helmed by British Alfred Hitchcock. Her circumstances were fairly close to those of the character she was playing, a woman also inexperienced and thrust into an intimidating world. As the film opens (in Monte Carlo), she’s a sweet, naive young thing, a paid companion suddenly whisked away from her employer (wonderfully horrid Florence Bates) by the dashing widower Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier). He marries her, which instantly makes her the unexpected (and ill-equipped) mistress of Manderley, his English estate. In her autobiography, No Bed of Roses, Fontaine speaks about Hitchcock fueling her sense of alienation from the rest of the cast, hoping this would inform her performance. However his tactics affected the end result—consciously, subconsciously, or both—hers was (and is) an irresistibly effective and appealing performance. Audiences fell in love with her. After all, she’s the heartbeat of the movie.
Fontaine was able to make her famously nameless character someone with whom the audience felt enormous sympathy. By being so open and honest in her reactions and interactions, she made it easy for viewers to feel her aching insecurity and her fears, all that shyness and the ensuing embarrassments. Hitchcock helped her immensely by using the camera to emphasize just how insignificant a creature she was in a place like Manderley. He put us right into her shoes, sharing her sense of isolation, like being lost in a maze. Hitch and his star seem perfectly synchronized, jointly creating the intensely personal point of view by which we experience the first two-thirds of this movie.
It’s lovely to watch Fontaine fall in love with Olivier and experience a schoolgirl fantasy of courtship, even though he’ll continue to be a figure of mystery. She’s the kind of beautiful girl who doesn’t know she’s beautiful, so fresh and natural. She’s even occasionally funny. But now she’ll have to deal with Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson), the forbidding housekeeper who has turned Manderley into the haunted shrine of Rebecca, Maxim’s deceased wife to whom Danvers remains twistedly devoted, refusing to accept this little nobody as Rebecca’s replacement. By icily browbeating Fontaine into quivering aspic, Ms. Anderson became an icon of villainy. But, despite the fragility and uncertainty Fontaine brings to her role, she knows she isn’t playing a weakling. If you’ve seen Rebecca with an audience, there’s a moment that invariably elicits cheers, when Fontaine finally stands up to Anderson and proclaims, “I am Mrs. de Winter now.”
Great scenes abound: Fontaine stunned by Anderson’s creepy guided tour of Rebecca’s immaculately unspoiled bedroom; the troubling unpleasantness between Olivier and Fontaine while their happy-honeymoon home movies play bittersweetly in the background; Fontaine’s almost giddy, then humiliating, staircase descent at the costume ball, engineered so flawlessly by Anderson; the scene at the open window, with Anderson quietly trying to convince a temporarily shattered Fontaine that suicide is the best option left for her.
But for all the charm, poignancy, and exposed vulnerabilities in Fontaine’s performance, there is one element that elevates it beyond the merely excellent. For most of the movie she has doubted Maxim’s love for her, still believing he’s obsessed with Rebecca, whom she also believes was her superior in every way. At the film’s 90-minute mark, Maxim blurts out that he hated Rebecca. This comes right after her body has been found, which will turn Maxim into a murder suspect. Suddenly seeing her thrust into a situation in which she might lose her husband, you could expect this Mrs. de Winter to be completely undone by worry. But she has just found out that her husband loves her deeply, and that he has never loved her perceived rival. And so, Fontaine, while stalwartly supporting Olivier, is carried aloft by this revelation. She imbues the character with a new confidence and an overriding happiness. Whatever challenges and miseries come their way, she’s ready for them because she now has a sturdy core of strength. And her newfound joy is not something that can be concealed. Yes, it’s all there in the writing, but it could easily have been understressed, or missed altogether, by an actress with a less intuitive connection to the role.
Maxim’s admission about despising Rebecca, and his subsequent suspicion of murder, effectively end the second Mrs. de Winter’s position at the center of the plot. And yet it’s here where Fontaine’s performance displays its richest subtext, bringing emotional resonance to the least imaginative section of the movie. The once-frightened girl is now a woman who knows who she is, empowered by love. It’s a subtle, pleasing transformation that brings warmth to this talkiest part of the plot (including the inquest). Fontaine was certainly given a lovely arc to play, from total innocent to challenged novice to mature young woman. And she didn’t miss a beat.
Rebecca has always been a favorite film of mine. It may not be in Hitchcock’s top-five all-time best, but it’s still pretty terrific, a thoroughly enthralling and atmospheric romantic mystery, a perfect melding of Selznick’s splendor and Hitchcock’s ingenuity. And it’s blessed with one of those supporting casts you dream about, some of them blissfully typecast to do whatever it was they had already patented to perfection: Ms. Anderson (who goes so pleasurably over the top), George Sanders, Gladys Cooper, Florence Bates, Leo G. Carroll, C. Aubrey Smith, Nigel Bruce, etc. The fact that Fontaine was able to emerge as a new star under these circumstances—negotiating the scene-stealing skills of her seasoned co-players—makes her achievement that much more impressive.
When Olivia de Havilland’s time comes, she is sure to get GWTW-sized obituaries, especially because she’s currently the last major survivor of that mega-classic’s cast. I wish Rebecca had been deemed classic enough to warrant a fitting farewell to Fontaine, but, alas, it seems that when Olivia dies she will best her sister one final time.