Joan Fontaine, 1917–2013

The actress who steered clear of her sister

When Joan Fontaine’s name was announced at the 1942 Academy Awards, she knew she was in trouble. The 24-year-old had been nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion, but her older sister, Olivia de Havilland, was in the running for Hold Back the Dawn. “Now what had I done!” Fontaine later wrote. “All the animus we’d felt toward each other as children, the hair-pullings, the savage wrestling matches, the time Olivia tried to fracture my collarbone, all came rushing back in kaleidoscopic imagery.” Fontaine’s win cemented those childhood grievances, and the sisters rarely spoke thereafter.

Joan de Beauvoir de Havilland was born in Tokyo to British parents, who separated when she was a toddler. Her actress mother, Lillian, took her two daughters to California, where she married retail executive George Fontaine, whose surname Joan adopted as her stage name. Lillian encouraged her daughters to take up acting, and their sibling rivalry grew more intense as Olivia’s “career met with early success,” said the Los Angeles Times. “In our family Olivia was always the breadwinner,” Fontaine said in 1949, “and I the no-talent, no-future little sister.” After several years doing B movies and minor parts, Fontaine shot to fame after starring in Hitchcock’s 1940 adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s Gothic Rebecca, winning acclaim “for her complex and expressive performance,” said The Washington Post. She followed with more fine work—in Suspicion, as a young girl in love with a mature composer in The Constant Nymph (1943), and in the same year’s Jane Eyre.

The rest of her career consisted mostly of bit parts in mediocre movies, but her off-screen life was a constant adventure. She became a licensed pilot, an accomplished interior decorator, and a Cordon Bleu–caliber cook, said The Hollywood Reporter. “Olivia has always said I was first at everything—I got married first, got an Academy Award first, had a child first,” she said in 1978. “If I die, she’ll be furious, because again I’ll have got there first!” De Havilland survives her.

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