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 Hollywood films during the "Golden Age". Fontaine appeared in more than 45 films in a career that spanned five decades. She was the younger sister of actress Olivia de Havilland. Their rivalry was well-documented in the media at the height of Fontaine's career.
She began her film career in 1935, signing a contract with RKO Pictures. Fontaine received her first major role in The Man Who Found Himself (1937) and in 1939 with Gunga Din. Her career prospects improved greatly after her starring role in Alfred Hitchcock's 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 Hitchcock's Suspicion (1941). A third nomination came with The Constant Nymph (1943). She appeared mostly in drama films through the 1940s, including Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), which is now considered a classic. In the next decade, after her role in 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, which included Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1960), and her final film role in The Witches (1966).
She released an autobiography, No Bed of Roses, in 1978, and continued to act until 1994. Having won an Academy Award for her role in Suspicion, Fontaine is the only actor to have won an Academy Award for acting in a Hitchcock film. She and her sister remain the only siblings to have won major acting Academy Awards.
Joan de Beauvoir de Havilland was born on October 22, 1917, in Tokyo City, in the then Empire of Japan to English parents. Her father, Walter de Havilland (1872–1968), was educated at the University of Cambridge and served as an English professor at the Imperial University in Tokyo before becoming a patent attorney. Her mother, Lilian Augusta Ruse de Havilland Fontaine (1886–1975), 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. Her mother returned to work with the stage name "Lillian Fontaine" after her daughters achieved prominence in the 1940s.
Joan de Beauvoir's parents married in 1914 and separated in 1919 when she was two. The divorce was not finalized, however, until February 1925.
Lilian de Havilland moved Joan and her elder sister Olivia to Saratoga, California, USA where Joan's health improved dramatically during her teen years. When she was 16 years old, Joan returned to Japan to live with her father. There she attended the Tokyo School for Foreign Children, graduating in 1935.
Joan 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.
Joan's sister Olivia de Havilland was the first to become an actress; when Fontaine tried to follow her lead, their mother, who 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 taking her stepfather's surname.
Her first starring role in a film was The Man Who Found Himself (1937) for RKO studio, which she later said it had "an A budget but a Z story."
Joan Fontaine's luck changed one night at a dinner party when she found herself seated next to producer David O. Selznick with whom 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 Joan 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. Fontaine did not win that year but did win the following year for Best Actress in Suspicion, another film by Hitchcock, in which she co-starred with Cary Grant . This was the only Academy Award-winning acting performance to have been directed by Hitchcock.
Fontaine was now one of the biggest female stars in Hollywood, although she was typecast in female melodrama. "
20th Century Fox borrowed her to appear opposite Tyrone Power in This Above All (1942) then she went to Warner Brothers to star alongside Charles Boyer in
The Constant Nymph. She was nominated for a third Academy Award for her performance in this film.
Fontaine became an American citizen in April 1943 thus held dual citizenship as she was British by birthright.
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.
In 1948, Fontaine appeared in Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948) co-starring Louis Jourdan, directed by Max Ophüls. It was made by Rampart Productions, and released through Universal. It is today considered to be a classic with one of the finest performances of her career.
Starting from the 50s, her film career began to decline and she moved into stage, radio and television roles. Most of her 1960s work was done on television or stage.
In the 1970s Fontaine appeared in stage shows and toured with a poetry reading.
She returned to Hollywood for the first time in 15 years in 1975 to appear in an episode of Cannon especially written for her.
Fontaine published her autobiography, No Bed of Roses, in 1978.
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."
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.
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.
Outside of acting, Fontaine was also noted as being a licensed pilot, an accomplished interior decorator, and a Cordon Bleu-level chef.
Fontaine was married and divorced four times. Her first marriage was to actor Brian Aherne, in 1939 in Del Monte, California; they divorced in April 1945.
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. The following year, Fontaine filed for divorce, charging Dozier with desertion. Their divorce was final in January 1951.
The two of them had a custody battle over their child which lingered through the 1950s.
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. Their divorce was final in January 1961.
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.
Fontaine also had a personal relationship with Adlai Stevenson: "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".
While in South America for a film festival in 1951, Fontaine met a four-year-old Peruvian girl named Martita, and informally adopted her. 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.
But her relationship with her sister Olivia de Havilland, is much more publicized.
According to biographer Charles Higham, Fontaine and her sister Olivia de Havilland had an uneasy relationship from early childhood, and a large part of the friction between the sisters stemmed from Fontaine's belief that Olivia was their mother's favorite child.
Both of the sisters were 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, and they are the only set of siblings to have won lead acting Academy Awards.
In a 1978 interview, Joan 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!"
On December 15, 2013, Joan Fontaine died in her sleep of natural causes at the age of 96 in her Carmel Highlands home. After Fontaine's death, her sister Olivia de Havilland released a statement saying she was "shocked and saddened" by the news, Olivia de Havilland she herself would die on July 26, 2020, outliving Joan Fontaine by almost 7 years.