Nationality: American. Born: Joan de Beauvoir de Havilland in Tokyo, Japan, to English parents, 22 October 1917; sister of the actress Olivia de Havilland; took name of stepfather, Fontaine; grew up in Saratoga, California; became U.S. citizen, 1943. Education: Attended Los Gatos High School in California; American School in Kami-Meguro, Japan; Max Reinhardt Drama School. Family: Married 1) the actor Brian Aherne, 1939 (divorced 1944); 2) the producer William Dozier, 1946 (divorced 1951), daughter: Deborah Leslie; 3) the film producer Collier Hudson Young, 1952 (divorced 1961); 4) Alfred Wright Jr., 1964 (divorced 1969). Career: 1935—stage debut in Kind Lady; film debut in No More Ladies, billed as Joan Burfield; 1936—briefly used name Joan St. John before settling on Joan Fontaine; signed seven-year contract with Jesse Lasky, who soon sold it to RKO; 1938—RKO drops contract; 1939—signed seven-year contract with David O. Selznick; 1947—formed Rampart Productions with husband William Dozier; 1954—on Broadway in Tea and Sympathy; 1981—host of syndicated TV talk show Joan Fontaine; 1986—in TV mini-series Crossings. Awards: Canadian Film Critics Award, for Rebecca, 1940; Best Actress Academy Award, and Best Actress, New York Film Critics, for Suspicion, 1941.
Films as Actress:
No More Ladies (Edward H. Griffith and Cukor) (as Caroline Rumsey, billed as Joan Burfield)
Quality Street (Stevens) (as Charlotte Parratt); The Man Who Found Himself (Landers) (as Doris King); You Can't Beat Love (Cabanne) (as Trudy Olson); Music for Madame (Blystone) (as Jean Clemens); A Damsel in Distress (Stevens) (as Lady Alyce Marshmorton)
Maid's Night Out (Holmes) (as Sheila Harrison); A Million to One (Shores) (as Joan Stevens); Blond Cheat (Santley) (as Julie); Sky Giant (Landers) (as Meg); The Duke of West Point (Alfred E. Green) (as Ann Porter)
Gunga Din (Stevens) (as Emmy Stebbins); Man of Conquest (Nicholls Jr.) (as Eliza Allen); The Women (Cukor) (as Peggy Day)
Rebecca (Hitchcock) (as Mrs. de Winter)
Suspicion (Hitchcock) (as Lina McLaidlaw)
This Above All (Litvak) (as Prudence Cathaway)
The Constant Nymph (Goulding) (as Teresa "Tessa" Sanger)
Jane Eyre (Stevenson) (title role); Frenchman's Creek (Leisen) (as Lady Dona St. Columb)
The Affairs of Susan (Seiter) (as Susan Darell)
From This Day Forward (Berry) (as Susan)
Ivy (Wood) (title role)
Letter from an Unknown Woman (Max Ophüls) (as Lisa Berndle); The Emperor Waltz (Wilder) (as Johanna Augusta Franziska von Stultzenberg); Kiss the Blood off My Hands (Blood on My Hands) (Norman Foster) (as Jane Wharton); You Gotta Stay Happy (Potter) (as Dee Dee Dillwood)
Born to be Bad (Nicholas Ray) (as Christabel Caine); September Affair (Dieterle) (as Manina Stuart)
Darling, How Could You! (Rendezvous) (Leisen) (as Alice Grey)
Something to Live For (Stevens) (as Jenny Carey); Ivanhoe (Thorpe) (as Rowena); Othello (Welles) (as page)
Decameron Nights (Fregonese) (as Fiametta/Bartolomea/ Ginevra/Isabella); Flight to Tangier (Warren) (as Susan); The Bigamist (Lupino) (as Eve Graham)
Casanova's Big Night (McLeod) (as Francesca Bruni)
Serenade (Anthony Mann) (as Kendall Hale); Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (Fritz Lang) (as Susan Spencer)
Island in the Sun (Rossen) (as Mavis Norman); Until They Sail (Wise) (as Anne Leslie)
A Certain Smile (Negulesco) (as Françoise Ferrand); South Pacific (Logan) (cameo)
Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (Irwin Allen) (as Dr. Susan Hiller)
Tender Is the Night (Henry King) (as Baby Warren)
The Witches (The Devil's Own) (Frankel) (as Gwen Mayfield, + co-pr)
The Users (Hardy—for TV) (as Grace St. George)
Hitchcock: il brivido del genio (The Thrill of Genius) (Bortolini and Masenza)
Dark Mansions (London—for TV) (as Margaret Drake)
Good King Wenceslas (The Good King) (Tuchner—for TV) (as Queen Ludmilla)
By FONTAINE: book—
No Bed of Roses, New York, 1978.
By FONTAINE: articles—
Interview with Carol Craig, in Motion Picture Magazine (New York), August 1937.
"This Must Be It," interview with Bosley Crowther, in New York Times, 11 February 1940.
"Hollywood at Home," interview with Adele Whitely Fletcher, in Photoplay (New York), July 1940.
"These Above All," interview with Lean Surmelian, in Photoplay (New York), April 1942.
"A Mistake I Wouldn't Make Again," in Photoplay (New York), May 1943.
"Fontaine's Fling," interview with Adele Whitely Fletcher, in Photoplay (New York), December 1944.
"Come into the Kitchen, Darling," in Photoplay (New York), May 1946.
"Till Work Do Us Part," interview with Sheilah Graham, in Photoplay (New York), September 1947.
"Joan Fontaine Casts a Vote for Independence," interview with Thomas M. Pryor, in New York Times, 16 November 1947.
"Miss Dozier's Bank Account," in Photoplay (New York), April 1949.
Interview with P. Anthony, in Photoplay (New York), March 1962.
"Olivia and I," in Good Housekeeping, August 1978.
Interview with C. P. Andersen, in People (New York), 20 November 1978.
Interview with Brian McFarlane, in Cinema Papers (Melbourne), June 1982.
Interview in Cinématographe (Paris), November 1983.
Interview with Gregory Speck, in Interview (New York), February 1987.
On FONTAINE: books—
Memo from: David O. Selznick, edited by Rudy Behlmer, New York, 1972.
Higham, Charles, Sisters: The Story of Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine, New York, 1984.
Beeman, Marsha Lynn, Joan Fontaine: A Bio-Bibliography, Westport, Connecticut, 1994.
On FONTAINE: articles—
Fletcher, Adele Whitely, "Sister Act," in Photoplay (New York), September 1941.
Baskette, Kirtley, "Olivia's Little Sister," in American Magazine, April 1942.
Waterbury, Ruth, "Personal Conquest," in Photoplay (New York), June 1942 and July 1942.
Current Biography 1944, New York, 1944.
Graham, Sheilah, "Is There a Man in the House?," in Photoplay (New York), August 1949.
Carlyle, John, "Joan Fontaine: Is as Believable as a Sophisticate as She Was as an Ingenue," in Films in Review (New York), March 1963.
Bourget, Jean-Loup, "The Coming of Age of Joan Fontaine," in Film Comment (New York), January-February 1974.
Ciné Revue (Paris), 1 September 1983.
Stars (Mariembourg), Summer 1996.
* * *
Joan Fontaine established her screen persona in the early 1940s in Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca and Suspicion. In both films, she plays young Englishwomen but, interestingly, while the two characters are from opposite economic and social backgrounds, Fontaine projects a similar "passive" identity in each film—a quality she also brought to her title role in the non-Hitchcock Jane Eyre. In these and other films, Fontaine evidenced skill at playing characters who, because of the restrictions society places on the woman's role, depend on the construction of romantic fantasies which they project onto an "active" male. In our society, since passivity is considered a feminine trait, it is best exemplified through a corresponding demeanor which reflects, as Fontaine's screen persona does, such qualities as patrician beauty, elegance, and refinement. In the Hollywood cinema passivity is particularly associated with European female characters and, not surprisingly, Fontaine has most often appeared in such roles, as she does in Max Ophüls's Letter from an Unknown Woman. Arguably, the film contains her finest screen performance and, even more so than Rebecca, Suspicion, and Jane Eyre, the film depends on Fontaine's persona to elaborate its thematic concerns.
Fontaine was best used in the 1940s romance melodramas mentioned above which have directors who are sensitive to the social and sexual tensions these characterizations embody. Undoubtedly Fontaine was conscious of being typecast but her most notable attempt to expand her image by playing an assertive woman, in Mitchell Leisen's Frenchman's Creek, was an unfortunate choice. In particular, Leisen's direction lacks the necessary delicacy and nuance that Fontaine's persona demands. Another change of pace film (if not quite role) in the noir thriller Kiss the Blood off My Hands opposite producer-star Burt Lancaster failed to expand her image much either.
In the 1950s Fontaine was no longer contemporary in a cinema which distilled the images of woman into either Doris Day or Marilyn Monroe. Increasingly, under the circumstances, Fontaine had no recourse but to exploit her feminine demeanor by playing worldly and, by extension, self-centered women (characters anticipated in Sam Wood's Ivy). The "bitch" implications of this persona are most fully realized in Anthony Mann's Serenade, but are more interestingly employed in Fritz Lang's Beyond a Reasonable Doubt and Henry King's Tender Is the Night.
Unlike some of her contemporaries from Hollywood's Golden Age—Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, and even her sister, Olivia de Havilland—Fontaine did not take advantage of her age and latter-day "bitch" persona to fashion a new career for herself by appearing in horror films, although she did make one for England's Hammer Productions—The Witches; in it she played, not the harridan villain, but a patrician doctor of elegance and refinement in the vein of her earlier Hollywood roles. She also co-produced the film.
—Richard Lippe, updated by John McCarty