Today is the 100th birthday of Olivia de Haviland, the last surviving star of Gone with the Wind. Her younger sister was Joan Fontaine, one of the great Hollywood leading ladies of the 1940s. Only 15 months apart, they were the only pair of siblings to win lead acting Oscars.
Fontaine’s performance in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca, the Oscar-winning 1940 film, lifted her into the top ranks of dramatic actresses. She followed up that success in 1941 with Hitchcock’s Suspicion, for which she won the Best Actress Academy Award.
In Conversations with Classic Film Stars, James Bawden’s interview with Fontaine demonstrates that despite being one of the brightest stars in the film industry at the time, a life in Hollywood wasn’t always sensational and glamorous. Fontaine also elaborates on her long-standing feud with her sister Olivia.
Setting the Scene
I first met Joan Fontaine at a Toronto hotel where she was peddling her tell-all 1979 autobiography No Bed of Roses. There was a second interview in 1987 in an L.A. screening room when Fontaine was promoting her appearance in the TV documentary The RKO Story. And a few years later she appeared on a panel with Tommy Tune and Stanley Kramer for The Movie Channel and we lunched afterward.
BAWDEN: Why did you decide to become an actress?
FONTAINE: I needed a job. My sister (Olivia De Havilland) was doing nicely at Warners, so I became Joan Burfield for RKO and had a bit part in Katharine Hepburn’s movie Quality Street (1937).
BAWDEN: What happened?
FONTAINE: I bombed at RKO. They made me Fred Astaire’s leading lady in Damsel in Distress (1937) only because first choice Jessie Matthews had to bow out due to schedule changes. I remember walking along a path and Fred dancing around me. I was truly awful!
BAWDEN: But you managed to get into some big pictures.
FONTAINE: In bit roles. George Cukor hired me as the insignificant ninny who is part of The Women (1939). I really only had a telephone scene to strut my stuff and George lit it as carefully as Norma Shearer’s close ups. And I met Joan Crawford on that set and I continued to get Xmas cards from her until she passed. Both Paulette Goddard and I had tiny parts. When MGM re-released it in 1946, we were elevated to top star billing! And I had a bit as Doug Fairbanks, Jr.’s sweetheart in Gunga Din (1939). I remember, after a day of shooting, I looked out the window and saw Doug and his current flame, Marlene Dietrich, off to some grand soiree all dressed up and I sighed. Because that kind of glamour always eluded me.
BAWDEN: What do you remember of the making of Rebecca?
FONTAINE: How miserable I was. Larry Olivier had tested with his wife, Viv Leigh, but (producer) David Selznick said it was too early after (his) Gone With the Wind. In fact scenes from Gone With the Wind were being done at the same time as we started. I also know Loretta Young and Maggie Sullavan had tested, but both were considered too American. Finally David said, “I guess it will have to be you,” which is hardly a ringing endorsement.
The best thing is that David was so busy with the last minute details of Gone with the Wind that he stayed away for long periods of time, which was unusual for him. Hitch (director Alfred Hitchcock) simply refused to discuss characterization. Occasionally they’d met for a great blow up. One of the scenes had the young lovers meeting in the hotel lift. David came on set and told Hitch to do it again because he’d paid for the construction of a great breakfast room and he wanted to show it off. Hitch did as told–this was his first movie (in America) and he had no clout.
Larry and Judith Anderson were very mean to me, but I now see this only increased my performance because I had nothing else to fall back on, no technique. Oscar night I was in a hissy fit. I didn’t want to win, I was only 23. David insisted I would, but he was wrong. Ginger Rogers walked away with it that year. And as it turned out, Rebecca was the only David Selznick movie I would ever star in.
BAWDEN: But he promptly loaned you and Hitch out to RKO for Suspicion and you won the Oscar.
FONTAINE: Hitch was angry David demanded so much off the top for us that there wasn’t an adequate budget for production. At the time I was very contemptuous of Cary Grant. I thought he was only interested in himself. Re-watching the film, I see how he threw whole scenes to me. He seemed aloof at the time, but he never was the gregarious sort. I loved knowing Nigel Bruce — so warm, so winning. Hitch kept mumbling all the time it didn’t look at all like England. But neither did Rebecca, really! This time I got the Oscar. It changed my life. It changed my relationship with David, too.
FONTAINE: After Rebecca, he went out of production for three whole years. He started a lavish remake of Jane Eyre. I’d be Jane. Another Selznick director, Bob Stevenson, would direct it. Orson Welles was signed. David did all sorts of market tests and finally concluded the public would confuse it with Rebecca, so he sold the whole thing, sets, scripts, cast, crew to Darryl Zanuck who had a huge success. People always ask me did Orson interfere? Well, he certainly tried to! But Bob was a guy who knew movies inside out. And there was our cinematographer George Barnes, who had trained Greg Toland.
BAWDEN: But you are too pretty to play Jane!
FONTAINE: Kind sir! This was Hollywood after all. I first met little Elizabeth Taylor on that set, all about 10 years old, Dresden china features. It’s one of my faves to this day.
BAWDEN: how did your relationship with Selznick evolve?
FONTAINE: He sold my services to the biggest bidder and pocketed the profits. I wanted to only do a picture a year. David needed money to pay for all his failed ventures. I think he’d pay me $2,000 weekly for 10 weeks and get up to $150,000 for my services. You do the math. I didn’t much want to do This Above All (1942), but it was with Ty Power, who was the biggest leading man around at the time and it was a good picture to make for wartime audiences.
BAWDEN: Then you played a 12-year old in The Constant Nymph (1943).
FONTAINE: A few years back, Turner Classic Movies arranged a screening for me. I watched in awe. I was really good and then I staggered into the sunlight in desperate search of a gin and tonic. This was the movie that really started the Joan-Olivia feud. I was at Olivie’s home studio. I’d gotten the assignment after director Teddy Goulding had turned her down as too mature. I did not know that at the time. Teddy was a magician. He drew from me emotions I never knew I had and also from Alexis Smith, who was only 24 at the time and playing a frosty beauty of 35.
BAWDEN: You brought it up so I have to ask about your famous feud with your sister.
FONTAINE: It takes two to feud. I know how Livvie was shocked the night in 1942 I won an Oscar over her. But I’ve always tried to make amends. She was shocked when our mother (Lillian Fontaine) started acting–she played Ray Milland’s landlady in The Lost Weekend (1945). I’m always shocking her, but she doesn’t ever shock me. We’re so close in birth terms, we’re more like twins and twins do quarrel on occasion, right?
[. . .]
BAWDEN: You once said Ivy (1947) was your favorite film.
FONTAINE: Why not! I Get to poison the cast, which is an actress’ s dream. Bill Cameron Menzies, who designed Gone With the Wind, designed it and the sets are fantastic. And we later did a sort of modern day version called Born To Be Bad (1950), which is another favorite.
[. . .]
BAWDEN: At MGM you were the loveliest Rowena in Ivanhoe (1952).
FONTAINE: That got me going at MGM and I later made Until They Sail (1957) I was 40 by then, playing the frumpy sister who never married. Paul Newman told me he’d grown up on my movies, but Paul was only eight years younger! And I had a 20th Century-Fox period with Island in the Sun, Voyage To the Bottom of the Sea and Tender is the Night.
BAWDEN: I remember Island in the Sun (1957 ) was considered highly controversial.
FONTAINE: I played Harry Belafonte’s lover but we were not allowed to touch hands, let alone kiss. One day I casually brushed against his arm and alarm bells went off with the censor, who considered it racial and we had to re-shoot the scene. But I much preferred Voyage because I fell into the fish tank and got eaten by Peter Lorre’s shark. I was the older wife in A Certain Smile (1958) and everybody at 20th said how big a star Christine Carere was going to be. Nobody ever heard from her again!
[. . .]
Joan Fontaine’s final screen appearance was in a made-for-TV movie, Good King Wenceslas (1994) for cable’s The Family Channel. She died in her sleep in her home in Carmel, CA, on December 15, 2013. She was ninety-six.