OSCAR-winning actress Joan Fontaine, who rose to fame during Hollywood’s golden age as the star of several Alfred Hitchcock classics, has died aged 96. The Hollywood Reporter cited Fontaine’s assistant Susan Pfeiffer as saying the actress died from natural causes at her home in Carmel, northern California. The 1942 Academy Awards were a watershed for Joan Fontaine, and not just because she won an Oscar for her performance in Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion. In doing so, the 24-year-old triumphed over her older sister, Olivia de Havilland, who had also been nominated. It marked the beginning of a public feud between the siblings that apparently remained unresolved when Fontaine died at her home in California on Sunday.
“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”
Born in Japan to British parents, Fontaine moved in 1919 to California, where she and her elder sister – screen idol Olivia de Havilland – were to forge successful movie careers. Fontaine and de Havilland remain the only siblings to have won lead actress honours at the Academy Awards. Yet the two sisters also had an uneasy relationship, with Fontaine chronicling a bitter rivalry in her memoir No Bed of Roses. Fontaine began her acting career in her late teens with largely minor roles on the stage and later in mostly B-movies in the 1930s. It was not before legendary British film director Hitchcock spotted her a decade later that her career took off.
Taken aback by her expressive looks, the suspense master cast Fontaine in his first US film, a 1940 adaptation of the Daphne du Maurier novel Rebecca. She received an Academy Award nomination for her performance as a troubled wife. A year later, Fontaine finally won the golden statuette, for her role as leading lady in Suspicion opposite Cary Grant, becoming the first and only actress to earn the title for a Hitchcock film. Although her sister, Olivia de Havilland, preceded her in gaining Hollywood fame, Fontaine was the first of the siblings to win an Oscar, trumping Olivia’s nomination as best actress in Mitchell Leisen’s Hold Back The Dawn.
The animosity between the sisters was felt at the Oscars ceremony.
“I froze. I stared across the table, where Olivia was sitting. ‘Get up there!’ she whispered commandingly,” Fontaine said. “All the animus we’d felt toward each other as children … all came rushing back in kaleidoscopic imagery … I felt Olivia would spring across the table and grab me by the hair.”
Olivia would win her first Oscar in 1946, for her role as the lover of an itinerant World War I pilot in Leisen’s To Each His Own. Fontaine had later revealed her sister had snubbed her as she attempted to offer congratulations. “She took one look at me, ignored my hand, clutched her Oscar and wheeled away,” she said.
Fontaine appeared in more than 30 movies, including early roles in “The Women” and “Gunga Din,” the title part in “Jane Eyre” and in Max Ophuls’ historical drama “Letter from an Unknown Woman.” She was also in films directed by Wilder (“The Emperor Waltz”), Lang (“Beyond a Reasonable Doubt”) and, wised up and dangerous, in Ray’s “Born to be Bad.” She starred on Broadway in 1954 in “Tea and Sympathy” and in 1980 received an Emmy nomination for her cameo on the daytime soap “Ryan’s Hope.”
“You know, I’ve had a helluva life,” Fontaine once said. “Not just the acting part. I’ve flown in an international balloon race. I’ve piloted my own plane. I’ve ridden to the hounds. I’ve done a lot of exciting things.”
Fontaine, died in her sleep in her Carmel, Calif., home Sunday morning, said longtime friend Noel Beutel. Fontaine had been fading in recent days and died “peacefully,” Beutel said. In her later years, Fontaine had lived quietly at her Villa Fontana estate about 5 miles south of Carmel, enjoying its spectacular view of wind-swept Point Lobos.