Joan Fontaine, legend of the silver screen


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“On a sad weekend for the film world, the news of the death of Lawrence of Arabia star Peter O’Toole was swiftly followed by that of the passing away of a leading light of an earlier generation: Joan Fontaine” explains the film editor Andrew Pulver for The Guardian  (Andrew Pulver, The Guardian, Dec 16, 2013). Indeed, the Hollywood Golden Age legend, sister of the also well-know actress Olivia de Havilland, died last Sunday at the age of 96 in her house in Carmel in California, while sleeping (Mike Barnes, The Hollywood Reporter, Dec 15, 2013) .

Fontaine, who was born as Joan de Beauvoir de Havilland to British parents – Walter, a lawyer, and Lillian, an actress –, came into the world in 1917 in Tokyo, Japan, where her father was working. Her parents divorced when she was two and her mother took both sisters to California, where they  grew up (Veronica Horwell, The Guardian, Dec 16, 2013) . She later followed her elder sister’s steps and started her own acting career in the mid-30’s, with minor roles in B-movies. 

Her big break, however, came by a chance encounter in 1940, as the obituary published by the BBC explains (Obituary, BBC News, Dec 16, 2013) . In an interview with the Spanish author Terenci Moix, the actress explained how her shyness and her not very well known carrer helped her to get the role in her first great succes, Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca(Terenci Moix, El Pais, Aug 5, 1993) .

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After Rebecca came Suspicion, a film by Hitchcock  she co-starred with Cary Grant and for which she won her first and last Oscar. At that time she had already started her enmity with her own sister, Olivia de Havilland, who had participated in several more filsm that her younger sister. “The sisters finally stopped speaking altogether in 1975, following their mother’s death from cancer. Fontaine claimed de Havilland failed to invite her to the memorial service, while de Havilland said Fontaine had told her she was too busy to attend. Fontaine later told an interviewer: “My sister was born a lion, and I a tiger, and in the laws of the jungle, they were never friends.”” (Tim Walker, The Independent, Dec 16, 2013) .

Joan Fontaine’s career lasted for over 6 decades but she always missed the years in Hollywood.  “I realize that one outstanding quality it possesses is not the lavishness, the perpetual sunshine, the golden opportunities, but fear.” Just as “careers often begin by chance there,” she observed in “No Bed of Roses” (Morrow, 1978), her autobiography, “they can evaporate just as quickly.”(Anita Gates, The New York Times, Dec 16, 2013).

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With  Fontaines’s death, Hollywood has lost an unforgetable star, just as Peter O’toole, apart from  one of the most beautiful actresses in its history, but her legend, however, will always stay with us as a reminder of one of the greatest stars of the silver screen.

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