Of all the actresses Alfred Hitchcock put through the mill in stories designed to torment their women protagonists, Joan Fontaine, who died last Sunday at the age of 96, was the most defiantly romantic. Even before she chose a screen name meaning “fountain” in French, Joan de Beauvoir de Havilland sounded like someone whose couldn’t prevent her emotions cascading.
Fontaine twice played brides for Hitchcock: “I” who dreamt she “went to Manderley again last night” in the 1940 film of Daphne du Maurier‘s “Rebecca”; and Lina McLaidlaw who fetches up in an ivory tower in “Suspicion” (1941), based on Anthony Berkeley‘s “Before the Fact.” In both, the director tasked Fontaine with eliciting the anxiety provoked by loving a complicated man who may or may not be a murderer.
Both films are set in a Hollywood-fantasy version of upper-class rural England. “Rebecca,” which brought David O. Selznick the Best Picture Oscar, is a Gothic ghost story masquerading as a melodrama. Manderley, the palatial Cornish home of Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier), has become a spooky mausoleum for the eponymous first wife who widowed him – a wild adulteress whose spirit is both protected by and channeled by the sinister housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson). Such is this witch’s effect on the jittery “I,” the second Mrs. de Winter, she almost makes a death leap.
Fontaine, born like her older sister Olivia de Havilland (who survives her) to British parents in Tokyo and raised in Los Angeles, was meanwhile a Selznick-fantasy version of demure English young womanhood, though she is very different in her two Hitchcock films. Though “Rebecca” preceded “Suspicion” by only a year, Fontaine made “I” look about 21 and Lina 30.
“I” is gauche, and tremulous, a girl intimidated by authority, who initially draws the sneers of the society dragon (Florence Bates) who employs her as a companion, and later those of Mrs. Danvers. Lina, who flees spinsterhood, to marry the wastrel and seducer Johnnie Aysgarth (Cary Grant), is more knowing and confident than “I,” but no less burdened by a sense of inadequacy.
Hot for Maxim, a father surrogate ten years her senior who had swept her off her feet with Monte Carlo drives, dances, roses, and his decisiveness and protectiveness, “I” exhibits a nervous sexual energy. It’s seemingly attributable to his repression and implicit necrophiliac desire for her rival, the dead Rebecca. She demonstrates her insecurity and frustration by accidentally breaking things. It suggests nothing much was broken on their wedding night.
Lina demonstrates her insecurity by becoming Johnnie’s enabler in his gambling and get-rich-quickly schemes. More restrained than “I,” she seems overpowered by Johnnie’s weird priapism, refusing him the right to sleep with her one night – because she fears he will ravish her or kill her?
Hitchcock delights, of course, in Johnnie’s constantly referring to his beautiful wife as “Monkey Face,” an insult to which she never once objects. Suspecting he wants to poison her for insurance money, she becomes increasingly paranoid; “I,” in contrast, becomes more assertive, heroically so.
Though Hitchcock was self-evidently more interested in the suspense generated by these women’s predicaments, there is a sense in which both films are metaphors for the trials of any uncertain bride’s early married life. “Rebecca” and “Suspicion” were made when the Hollywood women’s picture was approaching its zenith, and it’s impossible to overestimate how eloquently Fontaine’s performances must have spoken to thousands of young women viewers embarking, or embarked, on the adventure of marriage. Notwithstanding that some viewers must have taken masochistic pleasure in “I”‘s and Lina’s swoony suffering, Fontaine made their devotion to their unstable husbands touching in a way few Hollywood A-listers interested in playing strong women would care to today.
Fontaine’s naturalistic flow in “Rebecca” – which Hitchcock had to coax from her – earned her a Best Actress Oscar nomination, though it was her less tactile work in “Suspicion” that won her the award. Ambitious and well-connected – Selznick, Howard Hughes, John Houseman, Aly Khan, and Adlai Stevenson romanced her – Fontaine subsequently made an erratic career. Noticeably, though, she continued to be attracted to films about women in love with rogue males.
She was 25 when she persuasively played a 14-year-old smitten with a composer friend (Charles Boyer) of her family in Edmund Goulding‘s “The Constant Nymph” (1943); one of her most physical performances and a personal favorite, it earned her a third and last Oscar nomination. In Mitchell Leisen‘s “Frenchman’s Creek” (1944), another du Maurier adaptation, she was a 17th-century aristocrat in love with a French pirate.
More startling was Nicholas Ray‘s “Born to Be Bad” (1950), in which Fontaine excelled as a girl with a sweet veneer who ruthlessly manipulates her way into San Francisco high society. Before and after her marriage to the wealthy industrialist (Zachary Scott) she steals from a woman (Joan Leslie) who has supported her, Fontaine’s Christabel beds the bohemian writer (Robert Ryan) who also loves her. Their expressions of mutual lust remain something to behold, though Christabel luxuriates as much in her viciously achieved social triumphs. Anne Baxter‘s cunning ingénue in the same year’s “All About Eve” might have flinched at competing with Christabel.
A religiose conviction in romance remained Fontaine’s strongest suit, however. Thus, she was at most affecting as Lisa Berndle, a Viennese woman who is saddened and inexorably weakened by her lifelong unrequited love for a concert pianist (Louis Jourdan) in “Letter From an Unknown Woman” (1948).
He does not recognize Lisa as a teenaged neighbor he once encountered when, years later, he impregnates her during their only tryst – nor when they meet for the third and last time. Even more so than she did in “Rebecca” and “Suspicion,” Fontaine conveyed in Max Ophuls‘s masterpiece the terrible vulnerability of a woman consumed for all time by the first flush of idolatrous passion. No leading lady now is so invested in the ideal of love or so borne along by romanticism.
Tags: Alfred Hitchcock, Born to Be Bad, Cary Grant, Daphne du Maurier, David O. Selznick, Graham Fuller, Joan Fontaine. Olivie de Havilland, Laurence Olivier, Letter From an Unknown Woman, Max Ophuls, Nicolas Ray, Rebecca, Robert Ryan, Suspicion