In the age of the tell-all Academy Award winning actress Joan Fontaine told more than most. She named names with an almost gleeful vindictiveness, but stood behind her 1978 autobiography, No Bed of Roses, that fall when the press quizzed her about some of its juicier contents.
With both Miss Fontaine and her sister Olivia De Havilland still with us (Fontaine turns 96 this October; De Havilland just celebrated her 97th birthday) and having just read the Fontaine perspective of their longtime rift in No Bed of Roses, my favorite Fontaine tidbit comes courtesy of the final question in one of those late ‘70s promotional pieces. Christopher P. Andersen of People asked Miss Fontaine, “How do you want to die?”
The then 61-year-old actress replied:
“At age 108, flying around the stage in Peter Pan, as a result of my sister cutting the wires. Olivia has always said I was first at everything—I got married first, got an Academy Award first, had a child first. If I did, she’ll be furious, because again I’ll have got there first!”
Hey, it could still happen!
Joan Fontaine Summer Under the Stars
Turner Classic Movies celebrates the movies of Joan Fontaine all day Tuesday, August 6, 2013 with 24-hours of Summer Under the Stars programming beginning at 6:00 am EST.
All three of Joan Fontaine’s Oscar nominated performances are on the schedule with the title she won her Academy Award for, Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion (1941), playing at 6:00 pm. Suspicion is followed at 8 pm by the film Fontaine received her first nomination for the previous year, Rebecca (1940), another Hitchcock title based on the bestselling Daphne Du Maurier novel and filmed under the auspices of David O. Selznick for Selznick International.
The film that garnered Fontaine her third Best Actress nomination, The Constant Nymph (1943), which had been tied up by rights issues for nearly sixty years until TCM brought it back at their 2011 Film Festival, plays later that night at 2:15 am. While The Constant Nymph has now aired several times on TCM and even received a DVD release from Warner Archive, it is still the least known of Fontaine’s big three films and to my mind the best of that trio of performances. Fontaine herself repeatedly named it as her favorite of her own films. I’m with her—don’t miss it!
Other popular titles on TCM’s Fontaine day include the Max Ophuls classic Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948) at 10:30 pm and Fontaine in support in Gunga Din (1939) at 4:00 pm. The day begins with a pair of early RKO features from 1937 and is rounded out by Fontaine’s screen work from the 1950s.
Joan Fontaine Biography
She was born Joan de Beauvoir de Havilland in Tokyo, where her father was a patent attorney, on October 22, 1917. Her parents separated in 1919 with mother Lilian taking Joan and older sister Olivia, also Tokyo born, with her to settle in Saratoga, California.
Joan attended high school in Saratoga, but returned to Japan when she was sixteen to live with her father. As detailed in No Bed of Roses the relationship between father and daughter quickly soured and Joan returned to the States in 1935.
She followed her sister’s footsteps to an acting career, but not wanting to impinge upon Olivia’s fame began acting under various pseudonyms. She was Joan Burfield for a bit part in MGM’s No More Ladies (1935) and Joan St. John in a San Francisco stage production of Kind Lady that same year.
“I did resent having to change my name. Terribly. I still do,” she said in 1978. “Joan Fontaine. I don’t know who she is. I’m Joan de Havilland. I was born that. Joan Fontaine is sort of a fictitious person I’m looking after, doing the best I can for her” (Flander).
The name Joan Fontaine came courtesy of a fortuneteller stopping by her table at the Trocadero nightclub. “Think of a name with an e on the end” (71), the woman suggested. Joan blurted out her stepfather’s surname, Fontaine, an especially odd choice given that on page 33 of her memoirs Fontaine all but directly accuses George Fontaine of molesting her and Olivia when they were children.
Fontaine played an unbilled role in RKO’s Quality Street (1937) starring Katharine Hepburn and was Fred Astaire’s first leading lady not named Ginger Rogers in A Damsel in Distress later that year. Like many young contract players Fontaine was mostly tested in a series of “B” movie leads in the late 1930s with her best film appearance to date coming on loan out to MGM for The Women (1939).
The next portion of Joan Fontaine’s Hollywood career, her most successful period, came courtesy of a chance comment about current bestsellers with a gentleman seated next to her at a dinner party. When Fontaine mentioned how she had just read Du Maurier’s Rebecca the man replied, “I just bought the novel today. My name is David Selznick” (90).And so began Joan Fontaine’s wildly successful 1940s on film, a period in which she appeared in just 13 titles but garnered those three Academy Award nominations, including her victory for Suspicion, plus additional popular titles such as Jane Eyre (1943), The Affairs of Susan (1945), Ivy (1947), and Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948).
An aside to those of you who read my review of My Lunches with Orson, it’s now clear to me that the distaste Welles felt for Jane Eyre co-star Fontaine was mutual. Extremely mutual, in fact, as Fontaine dedicates two full pages (153-154) to tearing Welles apart in her autobiography, before casually tossing a couple of additional daggers later in her story.
Fontaine continued to appear in movies through the 1950s at the same pace as the decade before, though without any roles as plum as those classic few from the ‘40s. She also kept busy on the stage, where she replaced Deborah Kerr in 1954’s Tea and Sympathy on Broadway, and with television appearances. Fontaine’s last movie to be released to theaters was her contribution to the ‘60s cycle of horror films featuring noted actresses of Hollywood’s Golden Age, The Witches (1966) made for Hammer Films in England.
Joan Fontaine continued to make television guest appearances and even received a Daytime Emmy nomination for her 1980 work on the soap opera Ryan’s Hope. Her final film appearance was in 1994’s Good King Wenceslas, which originally aired on The Family Channel.
No Bed of Roses
“When you become a legend,” Fontaine told New York Times service writer Judy Flander in 1978, “people become experts on your life.”
Fontaine attempted to put a lid on all that by setting the record straight with No Bed of Roses, but the moody memoirs really wound up adding fuel to the fire and tying her legacy even tighter to that of her sister, Olivia De Havilland, the villain of the piece.Whether she knew it or not, Fontaine presented herself as a difficult character to get along with, barely taking time to mention a famous name without torching a bit of the legacy behind it along the way. As the years pass and the pages progress Fontaine becomes a bit more likable, though I spent most of my reading perplexed by what is at the very least a totally unforgiving nature.
After 270 pages where practically everyone she’s ever known or worked with is tossed under the bus, Fontaine concludes No Bed of Roses with a touching seven page epilogue that is a beautiful essay of love and appreciation to her recently departed mother. Mother Lilian seems both pawn and chess master when it comes to the decades long bitterness between her two surviving daughters. Fontaine’s parting words to mother complicate all that has come before it in No Bed of Roses leaving us with only a hint of the true relationship between mother and daughter that no one else could ever know.
It seems a shame that 35 years later it still stands as the final word. Olivia de Havilland was said to be working on her own autobiography from the time that her sister’s book was published. It has never materialized. In 2010 French President Nicholas Sarkozy presented Olivia with the Légion d’honneur. Coverage concentrated upon Joan Fontaine’s absence from the ceremony.
Olivia remains in Paris, Joan in California.
That seems to be the final page … unless someone books Peter Pan under the big top for some time in 2025.
- Andersen, Christopher P. “In No Bed of Roses, Joan Fontaine Talks About the Thorns in Her Life.” People 20 Nov 1978. Web. People Archive. 5 Aug 2013.
- Flander, Judy. “Joan Fontaine Claims Stardom Is Hard Work.” Sarasota Herald-Tribune 16 Oct 1978: 6B. Web. Google News. 5 Aug 2013.
- Fontaine, Joan. No Bed of Roses: An Autobiography New York: William Morrow, 1978.