One of Hollywood’s biggest stars in the 1940s, Joan Fontaine, died on December 15. In this article The Global Panorama celebrates her life and her silver screen success.
Born in Japan to British parents in 1917, Joan de Beauvoir de Havilland, known professionally as Joan Fontaine, was a British-American actress. Fontaine made her stage debut in the West Coast production of Call It a Day (1935) and was soon signed to an RKO contract. Her film debut was a small role in No More Ladies (1935) in which she was credited as Joan Burfield.
Although Fontaine, on contract with RKO, had already made her screen appearance in No More Ladies, a series of other minor roles followed, in A Million to One and Quality Street (both 1937), opposite Katharine Hepburn. The studio considered her a rising star, and touted The Man Who Found Himself (1937) as her first starring role, placing a special screen introduction, billed as the “new RKO screen personality” after the end credit.
She next appeared in a major role alongside Fred Astaire in his first RKO film without Ginger Rogers: A Damsel in Distress (1937) but audiences were disappointed and the film flopped. She continued appearing in small parts in about a dozen films, including The Women (1939), but failed to make a strong impression and her contract was not renewed when it expired in 1939.
Fontaine’s luck changed one night at a dinner party when she found herself seated next to producer David O. Selznick. She and Selznick began discussing the Daphne du Maurier novel Rebecca, and Selznick asked her to audition for the part of the unnamed heroine. She endured a grueling six-month series of film tests, along with hundreds of other actresses, before securing the part sometime before her 22nd birthday.
Rebecca, starring Laurence Olivier alongside Fontaine, marked the American debut of British director Alfred Hitchcock. In 1940, the film was released to glowing reviews, and Fontaine was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress. Fontaine, however, did not win that year, with Ginger Rogers taking home the award for her non-musical role in Kitty Foyle (1940).
The 1942 Academy Awards were a watershed for Joan Fontaine, and not just because she won an Oscar for her performance in Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion (1941). In doing so, the 24-year-old triumphed over her older sister, Olivia de Havilland, who had also been nominated. This was to be the only Academy Award-winning acting performance to have been directed by Hitchcock.
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