Sunday, December 15, 2013

Joan Fontaine: Everyone's Favorite Second Mrs. de Winter, and Much More

December 15, 2013 was the last day on earth for two Hollywood legends, Peter O'Toole and Joan Fontaine. I felt a connection to the O'Toole because of my high school love of T.E.Lawrence Seven Pillars of Wisdom. My connection to Joan Fontaine is through my parents.

Impressionistic memories swirl of my mother reciting that famous first line of Dauphne DuMaurier's Rebecca: "Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again" . . .  My father buying me 2 Dauphne du Maurier novels, Rebecca, and My Cousin Rachel, both important to read. When I finally saw the films, there was Joan Fontaine as the second Mrs. de Winter with Laurence Olivier as her Maxim, and then there was her sister, Olivia de Havilland as Rachel Ashley, along with Richard Burton in his Hollywood debut in 1952 My Cousin Rachel. I always loved that the siblings were a matched set for for these two great novels, in spite of their own longstanding feud. (Joan also starred in the less successful 1944 film Frenchmen's Creek, wonderfully articulated by Farran Nehme as Self-Styled Siren, based on another great DuMaurier novel.)

Bringing to life a character who has no first name is a particular challenge.  Every note of Joan's performance in Rebecca is stellar, from the girl paid companion, to the unsure bride, to the chew toy for Mrs. Danvers, to the sleuth who insists on working through all the little clues. Her Mrs. de Winter is like Vivien Leigh as Scarlett---you can't imagine anyone else in the role---except much more quietly.

My father had a crush on Olivia de Havilland in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) when he was a boy, Joan was in the later swashbuckler Ivanhoe. . . My father could recite most of Kipling's Gunga Din by memory, and Joan was in the classic 1939 film.

Joan won her Oscar for Best Actress in 1941 for her Linda in Hitchcock's Suspicion, another timid bride, this time trying to suss out if her husband is trying to kill her. For me Cary Grant's performance as Johnnie is the more compelling one, but either way Joan got to be associated with the most sinister milk in film history, and I love that.

The panoply of characters that the sisters brought to life is extraordinary.  And they played against some of Hollywood's greatest leading men: Joan got Laurence Olivier, Cary Grant, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.;, Olivia got Errol Flynn, Richard Burton, Montgomery Cliff. That's a lot of sibling connection to the golden age of Hollywood.

Joan also made a crazy movie with Billy Wilder, costarring Bing Crosby, called The Emperor's Waltz (1948). It did not turn out the way Wilder intended, and Joan said that Crosby wasn't very courteous to her, and seemed to not know who she was. But it adds a lovely bauble to her overall career.

Variety said the film "has a free-and-easy air that perfectly matches the Crosby style of natural comedy. Costar Joan Fontaine, better known for heavy, serious roles, demonstrates adaptability that fits neatly into the lighter demands and she definitely scores with charm and talent as the Crosby foil." In the clip below, a skeptical Fontaine dares Bing to sing ("The Kiss in Your Eyes").

It is a privilege to have gown up with an appreciation of this film work, and the connected memories.