Born in 1917 in Tokyo, Japan, actress Joan Fontaine made her film debut in 1935. She became a top film star in the 1940s, appearing in Rebecca and Suspicion, both directed by Alfred Hitchcock. She co-starred with Orson Welles in Jane Eyre (1944) and Othello (1952). Fontaine published her autobiography in 1978. She had a longstanding feud with her sister, actress Olivia de Havilland, from the early '40s until her death, on December 16, 2013, in Carmel, California.
Born in Tokyo, Japan, on October 22, 1917, actress Joan Fontaine was a sickly child. Her mother, Lilian, moved the family to California when she was young to help improve her health. Her parents split up around this time. Fontaine and her older sister, Olivia (de Havilland), seemed to have a difficult relationship from the start, with the pair fighting for their mother's attention and affection. According to some reports, Lillian favored Olivia.
In 1932, Fontaine moved to Japan to live with her father. Their reunion proved to be short-lived, however, and she returned the United States after about a year. Before long, Fontaine began her acting career, following in the footsteps of her older sister. She reportedly studied with Max Reinhardt, just as her sister had done before her.
Using the name Joan Burfield, Joan Fontaine made her film debut in 1935's No More Ladies, starring Joan Crawford. She eventually took the last name "Fontaine" after her stepfather. Continuing to work in movies, Fontaine appeared alongside Fred Astaire in the musical A Damsel in Distress in 1937. She was better suited to dramatic roles, however, made apparent by her performances in films like Gunga Din (1939), with Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Cary Grant, and The Women (1939), with Joan Crawford and Rosalind Russell. She reportedly also missed another great role that year, turning down the part of Melanie in Gone with the Wind—a role eventually won by her sister, Olivia de Havilland, and for which Olivia earned great acclaim. This marked the first of many events in a longstanding feud between the two acting sisters.
Fontaine's career reached new heights in 1940 with her starring role in Rebecca, Alfred Hitchcock's adaptation of the popular Daphne du Maurier novel. She starred opposite Laurence Olivier as the second wife of Mr. de Winter. The following year, Fontaine reteamed with Hitchcock for the thriller Suspicion, co-starring with Cary Grant. She received Academy Award nominations for her performances in Rebecca and Suspicion, taking home the golden statue for best actress for the latter. This win became the latest flare-up in the feud between Fontaine and de Havilland, who had been nominated as well, for her role in Hold Back the Dawn.
In 1943, Fontaine picked up her third and final Oscar nomination (best actress) for her performance in The Constant Nymph. She went on to co-star with Orson Welles in 1944's classic romantic tale Jane Eyre. The pair worked together again in 1952's Shakespearean tragedy Othello. That same year, Fontaine had another hit with Ivanhoe, in which she co-starred with Robert Taylor and Elizabeth Taylor.
By the '60s, the once-busy Fontaine's career had begun to slow down. She made only a handful of films in her later years, though she played a number of television roles. She made guest appearances on such shows as Wagon Train, Hotel and The Love Boat, and had a recurring role on the daytime soap opera Ryan's Hope in the early '80s.
Fontaine was married and divorced four times throughout her lifetime: In 1939, she married actor Brian Aherne. The couple divorced in 1945. The following year, she wed producer and actor William Dozier. Dozier and Fontaine had one child together, a daughter named Deborah, before going their separate ways in 1951. Following her marriage to Dozier, Fontaine reportedly stated, "I think it's virtually impossible for the right kind of man to be married to a movie star. Something happens when he steps off a train and someone says, 'Step right this way, Mr. Fontaine.' That hurts. Any man with self-respect can't take it, and I wouldn't want to marry the other kind." In 1952, Fontaine married Collier Young, a writer, and their union lasted until 1961. Her final marriage, to journalist Alfred Wright Jr., lasted from 1964 to 1969.
Fontaine released an autobiography, No Bed of Roses, in 1978. In it, she wrote about her long, troubled relationship with sister Olivia, much to Olivia's dismay. The final straw between the two siblings had reportedly come with their mother's death a few years earlier, in 1975. Fontaine stated that she was initially not invited to the funeral, and that she threatened to talk to the press about being omitted from the service. The date of the funeral was eventually changed so that Fontaine and her daughter could attend, but the events leading up to the funeral would mark the last time that Joan and Olivia would speak to each other.
Death and Legacy
Joan Fontaine died in her sleep on December 15, 2013, in Carmel, California. She was 96 years old. She was survived by her sister, daughter Deborah and adopted daughter Martita.
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