Joan Fontaine, an Academy Award-winning actress whose delicate beauty made her a movie star in the 1940s and who excelled at portraying romantic vulnerability in such films as Alfred Hitchcock’s “Suspicion” and “Rebecca,” died Sunday at her home in Carmel, Calif. She was 96.
An assistant to Fontaine confirmed the death to the Hollywood Reporter.
Fontaine was the younger sister of Oscar-winning actress Olivia de Havilland, with whom she endured one of the longest-running sibling feuds on record. Their rivalry began in childhood and was encouraged by their ambitious stage mother.
The rupture deepened over the decades, with spats over movie roles and the attention of powerful men such as oil magnate and film producer Howard Hughes. When de Havilland wed the five-time married novelist Marcus Goodrich in 1946, Fontaine reputedly quipped, “It’s too bad that Olivia’s husband has had so many wives and only one book.”
Fontaine, a teenager when she began her Hollywood career in 1935, was best remembered for playing elegant Englishwomen, fragile society ladies and wide-eyed innocents dominated by men. She could play chic and she could play demure.
Six years later, she earned her only Oscar, opposite Cary Grant in “Suspicion” as a rich bride uncertain whether her ne’er-do-well bridegroom is a murderer. That same year, she was pitted against her sister for the most prestigious honor in Hollywood. De Havilland was Oscar nominated for her dramatic leading role in “Hold Back the Dawn.”
In her memoir, “No Bed of Roses,” Fontaine described the tension of the awards ceremony.
“I froze,” she wrote. “I stared across the table, where Olivia was sitting. ‘Get up there!’ she whispered commandingly. Now what had I done? All the animus we’d felt towards each other as children, the savage wrestling matches, the time Olivia fractured my collarbone, all came rushing back in kaleidoscopic imagery. My paralysis was total. I felt Olivia would spring across the table and grab me by the hair.”
The relationship grew more strained when de Havilland won the best actress Oscar for “To Each His Own” (1946). Fontaine recalled that when she walked over to congratulate her sister at the awards fete, “She took one look at me, ignored my hand, clutched her Oscar and wheeled away.”
Years passed before they spoke again, but the truce did not only hold. Fontaine said the break became permanent after their mother’s death in 1975. When she was not invited to the memorial service, Fontaine said she threatened to leak the news to the press unless she were permitted to attend with members of her family.
The two sisters had to be separated by an entire room during a 1979 Oscar winners’ reunion. A year earlier, she had told the Hollywood Reporter, “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!”
Unlike her sister – who early on starred in the hits “Captain Blood” (1935), “The Adventures of Robin Hood” (1938) and “Gone With the Wind” (1939) – Fontaine was initially unable to break out of low-budget films despite occasional opportunities. As Fred Astaire’s partner in “A Damsel in Distress” (1937), Fontaine called herself “terrible” and joked that the title was apt.
Her first widespread good notices came in 1939 when she was cast in “The Women,” the all-woman catty comedy by Clare Boothe Luce and made at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios. She played the “good” girl in a film that included established players such as Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer, Paulette Goddard and Rosalind Russell.
Holding her own in “The Women” against a high-electricity cast earned her a seven-year contract with David O. Selznick, who produced “Gone With the Wind.”
After Fontaine was turned down for the role of the plain Southerner Melanie Hamilton Wilkes in that 1939 epic, she suggested her older sister for the part. De Havilland got it and was nominated for a supporting Oscar but was said to have resented the help from her younger, lesser-known sibling.
Cast opposite Laurence Olivier, Fontaine earned an Oscar nomination for “Rebecca” (1940) in a role that critics praised for her complex and expressive performance. Fontaine followed with some of her finest work: “Suspicion”; “The Constant Nymph” (1943) as a girl in love with a composer (Charles Boyer); and “Jane Eyre” (1943), as the young bride opposite Orson Welles’s Rochester.