OFF BEAT

OFFBEAT: Actress Joan Fontaine dead at age 96

Phil Potempa's daily entertainment news column
2013-12-17T00:00:00Z 2013-12-17T17:40:14Z OFFBEAT: Actress Joan Fontaine dead at age 96By Philip Potempa philip.potempa@nwi.com, (219) 852-4327 nwitimes.com

Academy Award-winning actress Joan Fontaine, who found stardom playing naive wives in Alfred Hitchcock's "Suspicion" and "Rebecca," died Sunday at age 96.

Her wire service obituary tribute (including the paragraph above) was written by movie writer Bob Thomas of the Associated Press, who himself turns 92 next month. (AP writer Hillel Italie also contributed to the piece).

AP reported Fontaine, the sister of fellow Oscar winner Olivia de Havilland, died in her sleep in her Carmel, Calif., home Sunday morning, according to longtime friend Noel Beutel, who added Fontaine had been fading in recent days and died "peacefully." In her later years, she lived quietly at her Villa Fontana estate about 5 miles south of Carmel.

As of press time, her sister de Havilland, who is 97 and lives in Paris, had not issued a statement or commented on her sister's death.

Fontaine credited George Cukor, who directed her in the all-star cast 1939 film "The Women," for urging her to "think and feel and the rest will take care of itself."

She starred on Broadway in 1954 in "Tea and Sympathy" and in 1980 received an Emmy nomination for her cameo on the daytime soap "Ryan's Hope."

Just as seemingly every actress had tried out for Scarlett O'Hara, hundreds applied for the lead female role in "Rebecca," based on Daphne du Maurier's gothic best-seller about haunted Maxim de Winter and the dead first wife — the title character — he obsesses over. With Laurence Olivier as Maxim, Fontaine as the unsuspecting second wife and Judith Anderson as the dastardly housekeeper Mrs. Danvers, "Rebecca" won the Academy Award for best picture and got Fontaine the first of her three Oscar nominations.

"Rebecca" made her a star, but she felt as out of place off screen as her character was in the film. She remembered being treated cruelly by Olivier, who openly preferred his then-lover Vivien Leigh for the role, and being ignored by the largely British cast. Her uncertainty was reinforced by Hitchcock, who would insist he was the only one who believed in her.

Hitchcock's "Suspicion," released in 1941, and featuring Fontaine as the timid woman whose husband, played by Cary Grant, may or may not be a killer, brought her a best actress Oscar and dramatized one of Hollywood's legendary feuds, between Fontaine and de Havilland, the latter being a losing nominee for "Hold Back the Dawn."

Her AP wire obit said competition for the prize hardened feelings that had apparent roots in childhood ("Livvie" was a bully, Joan an attention hog) and endured into old age, with Fontaine writing bitterly about her sister in the memoir "No Bed of Roses" and telling one reporter that she could not recall "one act of kindness from Olivia all through my childhood." While they initially downplayed any problems, tension was evident in 1947 when de Havilland came offstage after winning her first Oscar, for "To Each His Own." Fontaine came forward to congratulate her and was rebuffed. Explained de Havilland's publicist: "This goes back for years and years, ever since they were children."

Fontaine said she left Hollywood because she was asked to play Elvis Presley's mother. "Not that I had anything against Elvis Presley. But that just wasn't my cup of tea," she said.

Show business came naturally for Fontaine and her sister. Besides her Oscar-winning sister, her mother, Lillian Fontaine, had appeared in more than a dozen films. (When Fontaine's sister served as executor for their mother's estate, it caused more friction.)

She married four times. Fontaine's first husband was actor Brian Aherne; the second, film executive William Dozier; the third, film producer Collin Hudson Young. Fontaine's last husband was Sports Illustrated golf editor Alfred Wright Jr.

"I married first, won the Oscar before Olivia did and if I die first, she'll undoubtedly be livid because I beat her to it!," Fontaine said in a 1978 People magazine interview.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer. He can be reached at philip.potempa@nwi.com or (219) 852-4327.

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