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Joan Fontaine (22 October 1917 – 15 December 2013)

Joan Fontaine

It’s surprising sometimes when you hear that a certain actor or actress has died. A lengthy retirement can often lead to the assumption that someone has died a lot earlier than is actually the case. This was the case – for me, at least – with Joan Fontaine. Her last movie, Good King Wenceslas (1994) was made for TV. During the Eighties she made a handful of TV appearances, and just two in the Seventies. Before then she turned up in Hammer’s The Witches (1966), and it was this movie that introduced me to an actress whose screen presence projected a vulnerable tenacity. In Suspicion (1941), the movie for which she won an Oscar, she was perfectly cast as the shy, emotionally imperilled newlywed “menaced” by Cary Grant. Watching her in further movies it was evident that Fontaine was a talented actress with a much wider range than her earlier performances might have suggested.

My favourite role of hers is Christabel Caine Carey in Nicholas Ray’s Born to Be Bad (1950). As the predatory, unrepentant Christabel, Fontaine was startling. She varied her roles quite successfully throughout her career, and she was dependable even in the most unrewarding of movies – You Gotta Stay Happy (1948) – providing a strong focus for the audience and making the most of the material. She perhaps worked best under the guidance of strong directors like Alfred Hitchcock and Ida Lupino.

She had a famous feud with her sister, Olivia de Havilland, was a pilot and prize winning tuna fisherman, worked as a nurse’s aide during World War II, and was born in Tokyo. She married four times – second husband William Dozier remarked her autobiography, No Bed of Roses, should have been called No Shred of Truth – and lost out on the role of Karen Holmes in From Here to Eternity (1953) because she was embroiled in a custody case involving her daughter Deborah. Her own life would have made for a compelling drama.


1 – The Women (1939)

2 – Rebecca (1940)

3 – Suspicion (1941)

4 – The Constant Nymph (1943)

5 – Jane Eyre (1943)

6 – Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948)

7 – Born to Be Bad (1950)

8 – Ivanhoe (1952)

9 – The Bigamist (1953)

10 – Tender Is the Night (1962)