Joan Fontaine: The Competitive Sister

In the interest of equal time, and having given considerable attention to Olivia de Havilland, we balance the record with some brief attention to her rival, sister, and pesky shadow Joan Fontaine (1917-2013). de Havilland and Fontaine were what used to be known inelegantly as “Irish twins”, meaning not Irish, but born about a year apart. Fontaine was slightly younger, followed her sister into acting slightly later, and then seemingly bested her in some ways, both marrying and winning an Oscar prior to de Havilland. Fontaine once joked that she would also die before her, and she did that as well, although it took her a long time to get around to it. The sisters had a famous feud dating to around the time of Fontaine’s Oscar (1942), although they didn’t stop speaking to each other until the time of their mother’s funeral in 1975. de Havilland thought Fontaine snubbed her at the Oscars; Fontaine thought de Havilland snubbed her at the funeral (by not inviting her). Since they both lived such a long time, the period of non-communication lasted nearly 40 years.

Like de Havilland, Fontaine played mostly shrinking violet, fainting couch types. Her best known parts are of this sort. Immediately after de Havilland’s most famous role of Melanie in Gone with the Wind (1939), Fontaine starred in Hitchcock’s first two American films Rebecca (1940) and Suspicion (1941, winning the Oscar for this one) and played the title role in Jane Eyre (1943) opposite Orson Welles. These three roles are so similar that it’s hard to tell them apart. Other well known films of the classic era she appeared in included A Damsel in Distress (1937), Gunga Din (1939), The Women (1939), The Constant Nymph (1943), The Affairs of Susan (1945), Ivy (1947), Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), The Emperor Waltz (1948), Born to Be Bad (1950), Ivanhoe (1952), Decameron Nights (1953), Bob Hope’s Casanova’s Big Night (1954), Irwin Allen’s Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961) and Tender is the Night (1962). In certain of these, she is cast against type as a femme fatale. Her last theatrical release was Hammer’s The Witches (1966), which has a certain parallel to de Havilland’s presence in Lady in a Cage (1964) and Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964). Low-budget, Halloween horror, appropriate to the season.

Fontaine also acted in radio and in the Broadway plays Tea and Sympathy (1953-55) and Forty Carats (1968-70), and on television from the early days through 1994.

Fontaine was married four times: to stage and screen actor Brian Aherne, producer William Dozier (whose credits included Letter from an Unknown Woman and tv shows Batman and Green Hornet), Collier Young (producer of the TV shows One Step Beyond, The Wild Wild West, and Ironside), and Alfred Wright Jr (editor of Golf magazine). All ended in divorce. So she also exceeded de Havilland in number of marriages, though I’m not sure how much of a victory that is.