Tuesday, December 17

RIP Baby Sister

I wonder if she can rest in peace.  I always thought Joan Fontaine was a troubled lady, that peace eluded her, and I thought it shone through in her film roles as well.  The actress died this past week along with a number of others... Eleanor Parker, Peter O'Toole, Audrey Totter and Tom Laughlin.  All lived to ripe old ages... Fontaine was 96.

Like Parker, Joan Fontaine was a longtime leading lady with a similar versatility and also like Parker, we have not heard a whisper about Fontaine in years.  She had lived for years in the Carmel area where she could borrow sugar from Doris Day, Kim Novak or Clint Eastwood... if they spoke to her.  Fontaine apparently wasn't the easiest person to get along with.  She and sister Olivia deHavilland had an ongoing feud that began in childhood.  While lots of silly, trumped-up nonsense has been made about their rivalry, it actually stems from childhood, the attentions of their domineering mother and the fact that Fontaine felt she was treated as runnerup to her
elder sister.

Their mother was a stage mother and a tough hombre.  Perhaps because both girls were a bit wan for Mama's tastes (and Olivia often sickly), she wanted to make them stronger, more independent and capable.  So she designed sibling rivalry for them.  It didn't happen gradually or by accident, it was planned and plotted by the mother.  Perhaps she didn't realize the long and psychological implications of doing so, but it was bred into these daughters.

The sisters were born in Japan to British parents with Olivia a year older (and still alive and living in Paris as of this writing).  The family name was de Havilland and since Olivia's showbiz fame preceded her sister's, Joan took her stepfather's last name for the marquee so as to not seem to be joined at the hip with Olivia.  It was the last thing either one of them wanted.

Joan was the first to win an Oscar but Olivia would win two of them. Olivia usually seemed the more approachable of the two; she may have been acting or simply unctuous but she seemed somehow nicer.  Fontaine was more remote, her glacial blondness rarely welcoming.  While she was never a great favorite of mine, I admired her work and her standoffishness somehow compelled me to buy another ticket for the latest film.

Joan (l) and Olivia making nice-nice

In the mid-70s she wrote an autobiography called No Bed of Roses, a provocative title in a number of ways.  One thing that fascinated me about the read was discovering how many of her films she thoroughly disliked and dismissed.

One of those was 1937s Damsel in Distress, where she was just about the worst partner Fred Astaire ever had.  She soldiered on with small roles in big films like Gunga Din and The Women, both 1939, the same year that Olivia wowed 'em in that Civil War movie.  It certainly can be said that Fontaine became a big movie star but it is fair to say she never got out from the shadows of her sister.

Soon she was working for Alfred Hitchcock.  She qualified to be one of his blonde actresses he was so attracted to although he never went overboard as others would claim.  As the mousy second wife in 1940s Rebecca, she more than held her own against the formidable Laurence Olivier and Judith Anderson.  The film itself would win the Oscar.  The following year she made Hitchcock's Suspicion, opposite Cary Grant in a rare dramatic role, as a young wife who comes to believe he is trying to do her in.

As the innocent second Mrs. DeWinter

She would win the best actress Oscar for Suspicion and become the youngest actress to do so and the only performer to ever win an Oscar for a Hitchcock film. 

The 1940s were certainly her busiest decade and she would go on to make such films as the delightful This Above All, a war film with Tyrone Power; her favorite The Constant Nymph opposite her favorite leading man, Charles Boyer; the title character in Jane Eyre opposite Orson Welles.  She would have less success with Letter to an Unknown Woman, Ivy and You Gotta Stay Happy.

As with the Astaire film, she was hopelessly miscast when in musicals or comedies such as The Emperor's Waltz with Bing Crosby or Casanova's Big Night with Bob Hope.  I'm guessing it's because Fontaine had little humor in her and could not really pull off comedy lines... likewise musicals which require lightness.  Another piece about her autobiography, No Bed of Roses, is that there is little lightness.  It seems honest.  It is without a doubt a fun read.  It draws one into the many dramas.  It is never light.  The lady did not know of whimsy.

In 1950 she starred in Born to Be Bad.  In her book she completely dismisses this film.  She did not particularly get on with most of the cast, including Robert Ryan, Zachary Scott, Joan Leslie and Mel Ferrer, and she loathed its director Nicholas Ray.  He later said that along with his experience of working with Joan Crawford in Johnny Guitar, working with Fontaine was the worse time of his working life.

One wonders where it went wrong especially considering that Fontaine had purchased the rights to the book for herself.  What happened?  Well, other than probably needing a hit or at least another paycheck, she likely saw something of herself in the role of Christabel, a backstabbing, scheming golddigger with ice cubes running through her veins.  In my opinion it was the best acting she ever pulled off.  Since the best acting is generally about those parts of yourself that you bring to the role, Fontaine should have gotten another Oscar.  It was also apparent that the sweet young wife from Rebecca, an adroit performance from the early Fontaine, had morphed into a searing, head-snapping turn from the older actress.  She was simply fascinating.  Maybe she dismissed the film and was a hell-on-wheels making it because it hit too close to home.

Fontaine, like all good movie queens, was married several times... four, in fact.  Her first stab at it was to handsome and debonair actor, Brian Aherne.  Then it was to producer William Dozier and then to producer Collier Young.  All were ill thought-out.  With Young she would do 1953s The Bigamist for director and co-star, Ida Lupino, who had once been married to Young herself.  Only in Hollywood!  A year earlier she made Ivanhoe, very successful, and snatched one Taylor, Robert, away from another Taylor, Elizabeth.

In 1956 she made the semi-silly Serenade, one of a cluster of films to topline MGM operatic bad-boy, Mario Lanza.  I mention it because Fontaine is at the zenith of her beauty in this film and at her most supercilious.  One can only imagine that when they were looking for a woman to assume the role of the manager of a budding singer, they knew she must be beautiful, wear clothes gloriously and evoke a haughty manner and of course they thought of Joan Fontaine.

I dare say that while Fontaine herself likely always felt a bit inferior to Olivia and while the public itself put Joan in second position, Joan far eclipsed Olivia in the beauty department and was a far better grand dame.

In 1957 she made one of my favorite Fontaine films, the imperfect Island in the Sun.  She played Harry Belafonte's paramour among a glittering cast that included James Mason, Dorothy Dandridge, Michael Rennie, Joan Collins and Stephen Boyd.  It was a colorful but tepid rendering of murder and inter-racial love in Barbados and unfortunately too ahead of its time.  You'll hear a bit more about Island in the Sun one day.

In 1962 she slipped to second-lead actress status by playing Jennifer Jones' sister in the much-maligned Tender Is the Night, based on F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic, a film I adored.  You'll hear more about this one someday as well.

That film also brought about my drawing the curtain on Fontaine.  From here on out she made some pretty bad films but also went on to television dramas and game shows.  She also bounced the boards on Broadway and regional theater.

In addition to the rivalry with her sister, Fontaine also had some issues with her two daughters, including an adopted one who chose to run away from her life with Fontaine and, according to her book, never speak with her again.

Acting was not all she excelled at or was interested in.  She was a trained pilot and a gourmet cook and took on a number of other tasks that caught her attention.

I have often wondered which of these two, long-living sisters would die first.  Now I know.

RIP to a Film Noir Queen

Here are the answers to my last posting of the Meryl Streep picture quiz:

 1. The River Wild
 2.  Iron Lady
 3. The Devil Wears Prada
 4. The French Lieutenant's Woman
 5. Kramer v.s. Kramer
 6. Cry in the Dark
 7. Evening
 8. The Bridges of Madison County
 9. Death Becomes Her
10. A Prairie Home Companion

(And congrats to my friend Sarah for nailing this quiz.)

No comments:

Post a Comment