Sad To See You Leaving 2013: Joan Fontaine

by George_East on December 31, 2013

Joan FontaineThere aren’t many of them left now.  Links back to the golden age of Hollywood from the 1920s to the early 1950s.  Stars who made their name when the studio system was king and the big 6 studios turned out perfectly crafted films that were fit for purpose like Henry Ford did cars.  The glamour, mystique and romance of those years was blown away by the television revolution, making things smaller and attention spans shorter – requiring the studios to do what television couldn’t do in order to survive – go for spectacle (in the 1950s) and then sex and drugs and rock n roll in the 1960s and 1970s.  In the end all the studios would go bust or be swallowed up by other corporations.   As Norma Desmond famously said in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd., it was the films (and the stars) that became small.

So who is left from that period?   Kirk Douglas is still with us at the ripe old age of 97.  Eli Wallach never really made his name in films until the early 1960s with The Magnificent Seven and The Misfits (before going to play his most famous role, Tuco (the Ugly) in Leone’s The Good The Bad and the Ugly) but he is still going strong at the age of 98.  Maureen O’Hara, who first made her name in Hitchcock’s Jamaica Inn (1938), played Esmeralda opposite Charles Laughton in the great 1939 version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame and who would go on to be something of a muse for John Ford (starring in four of the old master’s films, How Green Was My Valley, Rio Grande, The Quiet Man and The Long Gray Line).  Louis Jourdan, perennially cast as the slightly dubious European romantic male lead. The great Lauren Bacall, Eve Marie-Saint of On The Waterfront and North By Northwest fame.  Maybe a handful of others.  The living connection to this time, like the living connection to the Second World War, grows weaker and weaker by the year.

This year saw another major loss in Joan Fontaine at the age of 96, while her year old sister, Olivia de Havilland (Melanie Hamilton in Gone With The Wind), is still with us.    With the exception of Maureen O’Hara the actors listed in the paragraph above started their film careers post-Second World War.   Both de Havilland and Fontaine made their names in the 1930s.

Fontaine, whose real name was the impossibly grand Joan de Beauvoir de Havilland, had a life long rivalry with her sister which would break down completely in the mid-1970s, after which they never spoke.   However to dwell on this (as many newspapers obituaries did) is to fail to accord Fontaine the respect she deserves.  She was a great actress and there is probably no one who played the naïve and innocent woman in thrall to the older man better.    As I wrote in my Cine-East Film Club piece on Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion, presented in tribute to her, Fontaine’s greatest roles all fall into this category (Jane Eyre, Rebecca, Suspicion, Letter From An Unknown Woman).

However, she was never simply the virgin (as opposed to the whore) cipher in her roles.  In Suspicion she played the paranoid (and possibly wrong) wife of Cary Grant’s shyster (and possibly murderous) Johnny Aysgarth in a way which makes the film essentially an internal dialogue in her mind – what is true and what is simply overheated imagination is never made clear.  It deservedly resulted in an Oscar for Best Actress in 1942 (which is supposedly the origin of the feud with her sister, who was also nominated that year).

In Max Ophuls’ almost unbearably gorgeous Letter From An Unknown Woman she portrays her obsession for Louis Jourdan’s Stefan in such a way that it borders on stalkerish.

Even as the second Mrs de Winter in Rebecca, the most passive of her great roles, Fontaine is wholly convincing in howing the development of her character from utterly naïve girl to a woman willing to stand up to the terrifying Mrs Danvers (and to some extent to Maxim).

Fontaine would also make films with many other great directors: George Cukor (the wonderful showcase of female talent that was The Women), Orson Welles (Othello), Fritz Lang (Beyond A Reasonable Doubt), and Ida Lupino (The Bigamist), amongst others.

RIP Joan Fontaine 1917-2013

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