Oscar-winning ‘Suspicion’ star Joan Fontaine dead

Joan Fontaine in her Academy Award winning role as "Rebecca"
Joan Fontaine in her Academy Award winning role as “Rebecca”

Oscar winning actress Joan Fontaine has passed away at her home in Carmel, reportedly due to natural causes.  She was 96 years old.  She and her elder sister, Olivia de Havilland are the only siblings in the history of the Academy Awards to have both won Oscars for best leading performances.

Born Joan de Beauvoir de Havilland in 1917 in Tokyo, to British parents.  Her father had been a professor at a university in Tokyo before becoming a patent attorney in Japan.  Her mother Lillian had been a stage actress before giving up that career to move to Japan with her husband.  Lillian took her daughter’s stage name herself and returned to acting, after both her daughters had achieved stardom in the 1940s.

Joan Fontaine was educated in both California and Japan before doing her first acting on the stage. From there she signed a studio contract and did some small parts, one of which had her billed under yet another name, Joan Burfield.  She landed the lead role in Fred Astaire’s first movie without long-time partner Ginger Rogers, but the picture was a critical and commercial failure.  She moved back to the small roles but had little success and her contract was not renewed.

Joan Fontaine in 'Rebecca'
Joan Fontaine in ‘Rebecca’

She finally got the break she needed when she met David O. Selznick and he had her audition for the title role in Rebecca.  She got the part while still only 21 years old.  Acting alongside the great Laurence Olivier, she was nominated as Best Actress but lost out, ironically, to Ginger Rogers.  However the following year she won that award for her work in another Alfred Hitchcock film, Suspicion.  It was the only time that an actor in a Hitchcock movie won Oscar gold.  She would receive one more nomination for an Oscar, for 1943’s “The Constant Nymph.”

Her film career lost steam in the late 1940s and early 1950s and she transitioned into television and on stage.  She made her last movie for the big screen in 1966 but continued acting on stage and in television until retiring following a made for TV movie.

Joan Fontaine was married and divorced four times, including her second marriage to William Dozier.  Also an actor, Dozier is best remembered as the executive producer of the television series Batman in the 1960s.  He was also the show’s narrator, although he received no screen credit for that.  She “informally adopted” a four year old Peruvian girl and had two other daughters of her own.

Her relationship with her sister, Olivia de Havilland is best described as acrimonious.  The pair stopped speaking altogether in the mid 1970’s, although they had experienced problems from childhood.  Each walked past the other’s outstretched hand, in congratulations, when walking up to receive their Oscar.   At one point, Joan Fontaine gave an interview in which she said “I got married first, I was the first to win an Oscar, and if I should happen to die first, she will undoubtedly be livid because I beat her to that as well.”

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