Monday, 16 December 2013

Joan Fontaine (1917-2013)

Joan Fontaine was one of the last true stars from classic Hollywood left. From memory, and excluding child stars (e.g. Shirley Temple and Mickey Rooney), the only ones left are Fontaine's sister, Olivia de Havilland, Maureen O'Hara, Angela Lansbury and Luise Rainer. (EDIT: As Judy mentioned in the comments, I forgot a few: Lauren Bacall, Kirk Douglas, Sidney Poitier and Doris Day.)

While her career dwindled after the mid-1960s, she left, mostly in the 1940s, a strong string of performances for which she is deservedly remembered. She went from minor role into minor role (most of which I don't think I have ever seen) in the 1930s until Cukor's "The Women" which was followed by her breakout and unforgettable performance as the second Mrs DeWinter in Hitchcock's "Rebecca". This film brought her recognition but also typecasted her as the suffering virginal damsel. She did this very well in the 1940s, in films that I love - "Suspicion", Ophüls' "Letter from an Unknown Woman" - and films that I don't  - "Jane Eyre", "The Constant Nymph". The one exception was "Frenchman's Creek", where (to quote my post) she was "not the Joan Fontaine Hitchcock and Ophüls showed the world, [she was] something else. Something much, much sexier." If I have to chose one performance other than "Rebecca" this would be it.

As the 1940s turned into the 1950s, despite an unforgettable performance in the Ophüls film, she found her limelight stolen by dogs (in Wilder's "The Emperor Waltz") or younger actresses (such as Elizabeth Taylor in "Ivanhoe"). She also did very well in a couple of darker roles, for instance in Nicholas Ray's "Born to Be Bad" (she makes the film watchable on her own) and more ambiguously in Lang's "Beyond a Reasonable Doubt". After that her roles became fewer and far between.

She got an Oscar for "Suspicion", which really should have been for "Rebecca"  (she lost to Ginger Rogers), making it the only performance in a Hitchcock film to win the award.  She was also nominated for "The Constant Nymph", which I find beyond my understanding.

Note: I have added a proper text to this post, which I didn't have a chance when the news first broke.

My thoughts on "The Constant Nymph" and "Frenchman's Creek".


Judy said...

There are quite a few more classic stars still with us, Miguel, like Lauren Bacall, Doris Day, Kirk Douglas and Sidney Poitier, though sadly their numbers are dwindling. I loved Fontaine's performances in 'Rebecca', 'Suspicion' and 'The Constant Nymph', which I think I liked more than you did... but I still need to see 'Letter from an Unknown Woman'. The one film of hers I've seen where she was somewhat miscast was 'A Damsel in Distress', where she has to dance with Fred Astaire, despite her not being a dancer!

Miguel said...

You are absolutely right. I tend to think of Doris Day as 1950s, but either all of those should be there.

My original point was stars from the 1930s, but of course that changed by including Angela Lansbury.

The Ophüls is one of his best and one of her best too. Strongly recommended. And Louis Jourdan is also still alive... (as is Danielle Darrieux)