Happy Birthday to the Great Joan Fontaine

A re-post of the tribute I wrote about Joan Fontaine when she died in December of 2013.


While filming “The Women”, in 1939, Joan Fontaine, who played “the sheep” Peggy, was surrounded by powerhouse scene-stealers with far more acting experience and ambition to dominate than she had, Grande Dames like Norma Shearer and Joan Crawford and Rosalind Russell. Fontaine felt out-matched, and although she had done quite a few films at that point, they were not films where she had to really rise to the occasion. So she spoke to director George Cukor about acting technique, and the proper gestures and vocal intonations she should be going for. In answer to Fontaine’s nervous queries about acting, Cukor cut through with what Fontaine describes in her memoir as the best acting advice she had ever been given: “Think and feel and the rest will take care of itself.”

This advice only works with those who already have a gift for the sometimes-silly business of playing Make Believe. And Joan Fontaine had a gift. She took to Cukor’s words hungrily, eagerly, it would be her “way in”, it would be the thing she could remember when the going got tough (and it often got tough). Think and feel, and the rest will take care of itself. Her gift for acting was in that realm, in her ability to think and feel in such a palpable way that her anxiety and love and desire and calculations and sometimes outright misery vibrate off the screen like white noise, or an ongoing supersonic wave of emotion. There are times when the emotions are so strong that the effect is nearly unbearable. You worry about her characters. They seem too fragile, too susceptible. They are prey. They have signs on them saying, “Take advantage of me.” When her most famous characters fall in love, it is more like joining a cult than anything else.

Joan Fontaine had a way of looking up at her male co-stars, from Laurence Olivier to Cary Grant to Robert Ryan, with an anxious hopeful look, uncertain, and yet overlaid with kind sympathy, a desire to understand her man, to be there for him, to not let him down by doubting him. And yet the doubts come, first in a trickle, then in a flood. It is her own doubts that drive her mad, time and time again. Should she trust her own impressions? Should she follow her gut that something is wrong with this picture? Cannot she be happy again, satisfied with her man who so swept her away in the beginning stages? There is guilt in Joan Fontaine’s characters, guilt at her own doubt and disloyalty. It’s painful to see someone so gentle, so trusting, succumb to the dark underworld of anxiety, neuroticism, and guilt. She always seems to deserve better.

Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine in Rebecca

Those who trust too easily, those who turn off their critical thinking skills in order to submit to domestic happiness, are bound to pay, especially in the hothouse world of the films of the 1940s, with directors like Alfred Hitchcock at the helm.

Joan Fontaine was put through her paces to get the role of Mrs. de Winter in “Rebecca”. And, by all accounts, her trials had just begun. She submitted to nearly six months of grueling screen tests. While it was clear she had the beautiful face and the gentle manner required for the first act, it was not altogether clear that she had the “chops” to make it through the second and the third act. Going in, Fontaine knew that she was not first choice for the role, despite powerful lobbying by producer David O. Selznick, who had pushed her to the head of the pack for consideration (over the likes of Anne Baxter and Margaret Sullavan). Fontaine had played small parts in a number of movies at that point, as well as appearing in George Stevens’ gigantic hit “Gunga Din” and the aforementioned “The Women”, but nothing she had done could have prepared her for the rigors of playing that role under those stressful circumstances. Laurence Olivier was not happy with her casting and did not hide his opinion; he had wanted his wife Vivien Leigh to play the role (who was currently becoming the biggest star in the world, following her performance in “Gone With the Wind”, whose co-star, of course, was Fontaine’s sister Olivia de Havilland, who would be nominated for an Oscar for her performance as Melanie in the same film). The British cast members in “Rebecca” formed a clique, and Fontaine felt shunned. Hitchcock made disparaging comments about Fontaine’s brand-new husband, Brian Aherne, leaving her feeling insecure, and she had no confidence that she actually had what it took to play the role properly.

In an unsent letter to Hitchcock, dated September 19, 1939, David O. Selznick wrote:

“I am aware that it takes time to get the performance out of Joan Fontaine, but every picture I have ever worked on had some such difficulty, and you are fortunate in having a completely competent cast of highly expert actors … Miss Fontaine … requires work – but so has every other girl who has been aimed at stardom and who requires an enormous amount of work in her first big opportunity.”

Acting in that atmosphere, where one is aware that people have both high expectations and low opinions of your ability, had to be a nightmare. But the performance is a revelation, and it made Joan Fontaine a star. From the first moment you see her, encountering Laurence Olivier standing on the edge of a cliff, you see what would be the trademarks of Fontaine’s entire career. She calls out to him to stop him from jumping (we hear her voice offscreen), and he whirls around to look at her. She stands there, in a simple sweater and skirt, flats, looking at him with both concern and alarm. He barks a retort back at her, and she cringes backward at his tone, but there is still that kindness in her eyes, eyebrows lifted in empathy. But she obeys him, and walks off down the path away from him. It’s all there, the entire performance, in that first moment. Hitchcock had to have seen it. Selznick had sensed it.

During filming, Selznick fired off one of his many memos to Hitchcock, and had this to say about Hitchcock’s handling of Fontaine:

“I think that Joan has been handled with great restraint, but I think we’ve got to be careful not to lose what little variety there is in the role by underplaying her in her emotional moments – whether these be the emotional moments of a young girl, or the emotional moments of the more mature woman, as particularly at the end of the ‘confession’ scene. From this point on to the end I’d like to urge that you be a little more Yiddish Art Theater in these moments, a little less English Repertory Theater, which will make the restraint of the rest of the performance much more effective, in my opinion, and will not make it seem as though Joan is simply not capable of the big moments.”

That was the fear: that Fontaine was “not capable of the big moments”. That was what all of those screen tests had been about. Could she swing for the fences? Could she go where the role needed her to go?

Knowing all of this background only adds to the feeling of awe at what Fontaine was able to accomplish. Perhaps it was a matter of the insecurity of the filming process bleeding into the performance. Fontaine felt that people were not pleased with her. And so she was trying to please everyone. Her role, Mrs. de Winter, requires her to step into a mystery-laden situation with her new husband, where nobody is telling her the whole truth, and where she has to live up to impossible expectations. She senses this, she senses the presence of a mysterious Third in their marriage, and proceeds to try to be the most pleasing wife who has ever been born. She breathlessly plays that part (Fontaine, at her best, always seemed just slightly out of breath), and her eagerness to please is heartbreaking. You want her to stand up to those who doubt her, are cruel to her, make her feel bad about herself. But with Fontaine’s best roles, that will always take some time. When she finally does begin to show some agency, it comes with a tsunami of anxiety and guilt that make you fear for her sanity.

Fontaine was nominated for an Oscar for her performance in “Rebecca” (she would lose to Ginger Rogers), but she won the following year for her role as Lina, another trusting wife overcome by horrible doubts, in “Suspicion”, directed again by Alfred Hitchcock, and co-starring Cary Grant, in his first outing with Hitchcock. Grant’s performance as Johnny, the fun-loving and yet ultimately suspicious husband (is he a user? Is he going to kill his wife?), was a huge break in style and genre for the man who had become a star with screwball comedies. Fontaine’s role as “Lina” built on what had been set up in “Rebecca”. Lina is swept away by the glamorous smooth-talking guy in the slick suits, and the film is explicit in the sexual hold he has over her. Whatever is going on between them after the coy fade-outs is hot and powerful, a strong bond and yet dangerous. Again, as in “Rebecca”, we get the sense that in marrying this particular man, Joan Fontaine’s character is joining a cult rather than a duo of domestic bliss. In order to survive her own marriage, she must turn off her critical thinking skills. All evidence points to Johnny being up to no good, and Lina is driven (literally) to madness in trying to suppress her doubts.


But the sex they’re having acts as a narcotic, blissing her out. Is Johnny doing that on purpose? Silencing her with sex? Or isn’t it just a natural thing, for a man to love his wife in that way? Hitchcock keeps us out of balance for the majority of the film. Grant is seen as totally appealing and also super suspicious (the famous shot of him ascending the staircase holding the glowing glass of milk – they put a lightbulb into the glass to get the effect – is one of Hitchcock’s many masterpieces).


The main fight in the film is against herself. She knows what she sees and perceives, and yet she feels guilty at seeing it. Such an inner division would drive anyone mad.


Fontaine won the Best Actress Oscar for her role in “Suspicion” (and her sister had also been nominated in the same category for “Hold Back the Dawn”). Maybe that’s where their famous feud began, with Joan winning an Oscar before her sister. Who knows. Both sisters would go on to more successes, although Fontaine’s career was far more uneven. She had other successes, beautiful performances in “Letter From an Unknown Woman” and “Born to Be Bad”, among others. She kept working, on the stage and on television, although she would always be associated with her roles in “Rebecca” and “Suspicion”, a one-two punch that has rarely been matched.


Her way of looking up at the powerful men who held her in their sway, her eager and concerned expression, her hopeless swoon of love for them, the breath catching high in her throat, is not just a “signature”. It’s not schtick. It was an organic understanding that the most important thing in cinema, the thing you must have if you are going to have anything, is the ability to, in the words of Cukor, think and feel. Joan Fontaine was one of our most emotional and thoughtful actresses.


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21 Responses to Happy Birthday to the Great Joan Fontaine

  1. Jennchez says:

    Beautiful essay, for a true a legend

  2. sheila says:

    Thank you! I’m sure you’ve read Farran’s emotional tribute? http://selfstyledsiren.blogspot.com/2013/12/in-memoriam-joan-fontaine-1917-2013.html

  3. doreen says:

    She was as gracious and kind in personal life as she was on screen.
    20 years ago I had personal contact with her, I wrote her because I had founded an organisation for classic movies, it was unbelievable unprofessional – I was 14 at that time -, I didn´t even have a letterhead and my english was very bad too.
    But she promptly answered back and became my “honorable member”.
    For several years she wrote me every easter and christmas beautiful cards.
    Can you imagine that?
    I´m so sad that she has passed away today but I will always remember her and cherish her memory.
    Thanks for your beautiful tribute!


  4. DeAnna says:

    Oh wow. This was amazing, Sheila.

    I wrote a 36 page research paper on the making of GWTW my senior year in high school (can you IMAGINE??) and according to my research, Joan wanted to play Scarlett and when they mentioned Melanie to her, she stormed out but stopped to say something along the lines of, “You should talk to my sister.”
    But I now read conflicting accounts of that scene.

  5. Lesley says:

    An essay full of thought and feeling. Thanks, Sheila…

  6. Melissa says:

    When her most famous characters fall in love, it is more like joining a cult than anything else.

    Love this. A perfect description of her portrayal of those characters. Thanks for your lovely remembrance, Sheila. Joan Fontaine was a wonderful actress.

    • sheila says:

      You always fear for her because she always has to buy this huge LIE in order to be with the damn guy.

      Wonderful actress. There’s a quote from her, something like, “I’d like to die at the age of 105, onstage, playing Peter Pan.”

      That’s the best attitude. I will miss knowing she is out there.

      • Melissa says:

        Have you seen her in “September Affair” with Joseph Cotten? What you said about her buying a big lie reminded me of that movie. He’s an unhappily married man with a teenage son, she’s a concert pianist, and they meet and fall in love in Italy. When the plane they were supposed to go home on crashes (they missed their flight), he talks her into faking their deaths so they can stay on in Italy together. It’s an interesting movie. Another one where she goes against her better judgment and jettisons her own life because she joined the cult of love.

  7. d.c. says:

    Myrna Loy writes approvingly of Joan’s wicked sense of humor in her memoirs, apparently she was heckling Luise Rainer while she was delivering a eulogy. No wonder she lasted so long!

  8. Susan Reynolds says:

    Gosh I love the way you write! After reading your and Dan Callahan’s Joan Fontaine tributes, I am moved to revisit her work. Thank you so much for drawing attention to the art of the actors, I have been searching for writers like you and Dan.

    • sheila says:

      Hey thanks! Dan is just one of the best – I’ve linked to his stuff a bunch but there’s just so much more out there. Plus his two books – one on Barbara Stanwyck and one on Vanessa Redgrave. (Disclosure: He quotes me in both of them. Ha! But I’m not recommending them because of my guest-spot. he is truly GIFTED in talking about acting.)

      and I am glad you like my stuff as well. I appreciate your comment!!

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