Joan Fontaine

John Florens | Jun 5, 2023

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Joan Fontaine, stage name Joan de Beauvoir de Havilland (Tokyo, October 22, 1917 - Carmel Highlands, December 15, 2013), was a Japanese-born British-American actress. She was the only performer who managed to take an acting Oscar - best lead actress - for a film by director Alfred Hitchcock, the so-called master of suspense, who directed her in Rebecca (1940) and Suspicion (1941), the latter being the one that won her the award.

The younger daughter of fellow actress Lillian Fontaine, her older sister Olivia de Havilland became, as Joan herself would soon after, one of the most admired stars in cinema - both are, to this day, the only sisters to have won an Academy Award in the acting categories. In 1999 she was named one of the 500 most important stars in American cinema according to the American Film Institute.

For her contribution to the film industry, Fontaine has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, located at 1645 Vine Street. On May 26, 1942 she left her autograph and the mark of her hands and feet on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in front of Grauman's Chinese Theatre.

Born Joan de Beauvoir de Havilland on October 22, 1917, in Tokyo, Japan, her parents were from the United Kingdom. Her father, Walter Augustus de Havilland (August 31, 1872 - May 23, 1968), was the son of the Reverend Charles Richard de Havilland, who came from a family in Guernsey in the Channel Islands. Walter graduated from Cambridge University and worked as a professor of English at the Imperial University of Tokyo, before becoming a patent attorney with a practice in Japan. Joan's mother, Lilian Augusta de Havilland (June 11, 1886 - February 20, 1975), studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London and became a stage actress, leaving the career after going to Tokyo with her husband. Her mother would return to work under the stage name Lillian Fontaine in the 1940s.

Her older sister, Olivia Mary de Havilland (July 1, 1916 - July 26, 2020), was the one who first followed in her mother's footsteps in choosing the acting profession; Fontaine and de Havilland are, to date, the only actresses to be sisters to have won the Academy Award for Best Actress.

Fontaine was a cousin of Sir Geoffrey de Havilland (July 27, 1882 - May 21, 1965), who was the son of a half-brother of her father. Geoffrey was a British aviation pioneer and aircraft designer, having been responsible for the creation of the De Havilland Mosquito aircraft, and also founder of the aircraft company that bore his name.

His mother had left England for Japan to visit a brother who was working as a professor at the University of Tokyo; this is when he met his father, then a professor at the University, and married him in 1914. But this was not a happy union, due to Walter's infidelities. In February 1919, Lilian convinced her husband to take the family back to England, where they would find a more suitable climate for their daughters' health. The family stopped in California, USA, to treat Olivia, who was in poor health due to bronchitis. When Joan contracted pneumonia, Lilian decided to stay with her daughters in California, where they settled in the town of Saratoga, about 50 miles south of San Francisco. Her father abandoned the family and returned to his Japanese mistress, who would become his second wife. His parents' divorce was not finalized until February 1925.

Although she had abandoned her acting career, Lilian taught her daughters to appreciate the arts, always reading Shakespeare to the children (Olivia's own name was chosen after the character Lady Olivia from Shakespeare's Kings Night), and also teaching them music and recitation. In April 1925, after the divorce from Walter was finalized, Lilian remarried, this time to a department store owner named George Milan Fontaine, a severe man hated by both girls. The latter's last name, which had been adopted by Lilian because of her second marriage, would be used by Joan when, upon becoming an actress, she decided to create a stage name. Joan and Olivia's childhood would be marked by disagreements between them, disagreements that in turn would generate a rivalry between the sisters that would extend throughout their lives.

Joan and Olivia went to Los Gatos High School and Notre Dame Convent Roman Catholic Girls School in Belmont, California.

At 15 she returned to Japan where she lived with her father for two years. When she returned to the United States, she followed in her sister's footsteps and began appearing in films.

Hollywood Home

Upon her return to the United States in September 1934, she was introduced to actress May Robson, beginning to follow her career with the play "Kind Lady" and soon after with her participation in "Call it a Day". It was during one of the performances of this play at the Duffy Theatre in Hollywood that she was spotted by producer Jesse Lasky, resulting in a film contract with RKO Pictures. Her film debut came with a small appearance in the film Goodbye, Ladies ("No More Ladies", 1935), starring Joan Crawford. She would later appear on Broadway in "Forty Carats."

She was also selected to appear in Fred Astaire's first film without Ginger Rogers by RKO: Captivating and Captivating ("A Damsel in Distress", 1937), but the film was a flop.

He continued to appear in small roles in a dozen films, but failed to make a strong impression, and his contract was not renewed when it ended in 1939.


One night at a party at Charlie Chaplin's house, where she was having dinner next to the producer David O. Selznick, the producer responsible for Gone with the Wind, which had become the biggest box office hit in the history of cinema (Joan herself was considered for the cast of the film, but her sister Olivia de Havilland got the part), she and Selznick began discussing Daphne du Maurier's novel Rebecca, and he invited her to audition for the film version of the novel, which in Brazil was given the title Rebecca, a mulher inesquecível. The film marked the American debut of English director Alfred Hitchcock. Fontaine faced a grueling 6-month audition series alongside hundreds of other actresses, including Vivien Leigh and Anne Baxter, before finally being cast in the role. In 1940, the film was released to glowing reviews, and for her performance, Fontaine was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress, though she did not win (Ginger Rogers taking the award that year for her performance in Kitty Foyle).

After Rebecca, Fontaine was directed by Hitchcock again in the film Suspicion (1941). She became, along with Madeleine Carroll, Ingrid Bergman, Grace Kelly, Vera Miles, and Tippi Hedren, one of the only ones to star in more than one of the director's films.

For her performance in Suspicion, the actress was again nominated for and won the Oscar for Best Actress; she was competing with her sister, nominated for her performance in Hold Back the Dawn. Brazilian film critic Rubens Ewald Filho evaluates the situation as follows: "Joan Fontaine was awarded the Oscar for her performance in Suspicion, but it was a kind of consolation prize for not having won the statuette for her role in Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca, which had made her a star. But she really works in victim roles, as the passionate, fragile, and distraught woman who doesn't know how to deal with the suspicion that her husband (Cary Grant) is a murderer Fontaine became the only performer to win an acting Oscar for a film directed by Alfred Hitchcock. In 1961, Janet Leigh, in a Hitchcock film, would be nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance in Psycho (1960), but would not win it.

Fontaine and de Havilland are, to this day, the only actresses to be sisters who have been awarded the Oscar. Only in 1966 would two other sisters be nominated again for the same award, in the same category: Vanessa Redgrave and Lynn Redgrave. Vanessa managed to win a statuette years later as Best Supporting Actress; Lynn, however, never won the award.

Throughout the 1940s Joan Fontaine continued to be successful, excelling mostly in dramas and novels. Her memorable works during this time also include Of love also dies ("The Constant Nymph," 1943), for which she received her third and final Oscar nomination), Jane Eyre (ditto, 1944), Ivy, the story of a woman ("Ivy," 1947), and Letter from an Unknown Woman ("Letter from an Unknown Woman," 1948), the latter of which was in 1992 selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the U.S. Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."

In the movies, the actress acted with her mother, Lillian Fontaine, on two occasions: in 1947, in the movie Ivy, the story of a woman, and in 1953, in "The Bigamist".

After 1950

In the mid-1950s, as her success in the movies waned somewhat, she turned more to theater and also turned to television, where she appeared in numerous episodes of successful television series. In 1954, she acted on Broadway alongside Anthony Perkins in the play Tea and Sympathy, which was a hit and won her many accolades.

In 1956, she appeared with Eduard Franz on the anthology NBC series "The Joseph Cotten Show." She appeared as herself in 1957 in the CBS sitcom "Mr. Adams and Eve," starring Howard Duff and Ida Lupino.

In the 1960s, he continued to be successful on Broadway with several plays, including "Dial M for Murder," "Private Lives," "Cactus Flower," and an Austrian production of "The Lion in Winter." That same decade, she began investing in citrus fruits, cattle ranches, oil, and real estate. She became president of Oakhurst Enterprises, a California Corporation formed to manage her various companies. She earned a pilot's license, was a champion balloonist, did interior decorating as a professional, won a fishing tournament award, and even earned a Cordon Bleu degree in cooking.

Fontaine made an appearance on ABC's sitcom "The Bing Crosby Show" in the 1964 - 1965 season. Her last film work was in the film Witch - the face of the devil ("The Witches", 1966), which she also co-produced. She went on to appear on TV during the subsequent years, until 1994.

In 1980, she was nominated for an Emmy for her performance in the series "Ryan's Hope."

His last performance was in the TV movie Good King Wenceslas (1994).

Fontaine held two citizenships: she was British by birthright, since both her parents were British citizens, and American, since she became an official citizen of the United States on April 15, 1943.

His autobiography, "No Bed of Roses", was published in 1978.

Marriages and children

Joan Fontaine married and divorced four times, to:

While in South America for a film festival in 1951, Fontaine met a 4-year-old Peruvian girl named Martita, and shortly thereafter adopted her informally. Fontaine met Martita while visiting Inca ruins where the girl's father worked as a guard. Martita's parents allowed Joan to become her legal guardian in order to give her a better life. Fontaine promised them that when Martita turned 16 she would send her back to Peru to visit them; however, on Martita's 16th birthday, the girl did not want to return to see her parents again and eventually ran away. Fontaine, who had even bought Martita's passport to Peru, addressed the issue while promoting her autobiography in 1978, stating, "As long as my adopted daughter does not see her parents again, she will not be welcome in my house. I promised her parents. I don't forgive someone who makes me break my word."

Rivalry with Olivia de Havilland

Of the two sisters, Olivia de Havilland was the first to become an actress. When Joan tried to pursue the same profession, her mother, who supposedly favored Olivia, refused to let Joan use the same last name as her sister. Thus Joan was forced to come up with a stage name, taking first Joan Burfield and later Joan Fontaine.

According to biographer Charles Higham in his book Sisters: The Story of Olivia De Haviland and Joan Fontaine, the sisters have always had a difficult relationship, beginning in childhood when Olivia allegedly tore one of Joan's clothes, forcing her to sew it back on. The rivalry and resentment between the sisters also allegedly stems from Joan's perception of Olivia being her mother's favorite daughter.

In 1942 both sisters were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress. Fontaine was nominated for her performance in Alfred Hitchcock's "Suspicion," 1941, and De Havilland was nominated for her performance in "Hold Back the Dawn," 1941. Fontaine was the one who ended up taking the statuette. Biographer Charles Higham described the events of the awards ceremony, stating that as Joan excitedly advanced to receive her award, she clearly rebuffed Olivia's attempts to greet her, and that Olivia was eventually offended by this attitude. Higham also stated that afterwards, Joan felt guilty for what occurred at the award ceremony. Years later, it would be Olivia de Havilland's turn to win the award, in 1947, for her performance in the film "To Each His Own" (1946). According to the biographer, at the award ceremony Joan made a comment about Olivia's husband at the time, and Olivia was offended and did not want to receive her sister's compliments for this reason.

The relationship between the sisters continued to deteriorate after the two incidents. In 1975, something would happen that would cause them to stop speaking to each other for good: according to Joan, Olivia did not invite her to a memorial service in honor of her mother, who had recently died. Later, Olivia claimed that she tried to communicate with Joan, but she was too busy to attend.

Charles Higham also says that Joan had a distant relationship with her own daughters, perhaps because she discovered that they were in a secret relationship with their aunt, Olivia.

Both sisters have always refused to comment publicly on their rivalry and family relationship. In a 1978 interview, however, Fontaine said, I married first, I won an Oscar before Olivia, and if I died first, no doubt she would be livid because I would have beaten her at that too! After Fontaine's death, De Havilland, from her home in Paris, released a statement saying, "I am shocked and saddened, and thankful for all the expressions of sympathy and kindness from fans."

Joan Fontaine died on Sunday, December 15, 2013 at the age of 96 - ironically the date that Gone with the Wind (1939), the film that immortalized her sister, Olivia de Havilland, in American cinema, had celebrated its 74th anniversary. As Susan Pfeiffer, the actress's assistant, reported, Fontaine died of natural causes in her sleep. According to her friend Noel Beutel, Joan passed away peacefully at her home after a few weeks in which her health had been deteriorating; "she was an incredible woman, she had a huge heart, and she will be missed" - Beutel told Reuters, adding that she had lunch with the actress a week before her death.

After the news of the actress's death, the BBC's Nick Higham stated that "young Joan Fontaine had been one of Hollywood's most attractive stars: beautiful, stylish, and a real actress.

His body was cremated and the ashes were scattered in the Pacific Ocean in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California in the United States.

On October 14, 2014 it was reported that the Best Actress Oscar statuette awarded to Joan Fontaine would go up for auction. According to auction house Christie's, which would also sell Fontaine's estate at various auctions between November 2014 and January 2015, the statuette would be worth between $200,000 and $300,000 at an auction scheduled for December 11, 2014 in New York City. The proceeds from the sale of Fontaine's estate would benefit the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in Monterey, Northern California, thus fulfilling the wish of the actress (as is well known, Fontaine was engaged in animal advocacy projects).

On December 12, 2014, however, Reuters reported that representatives of Joan Fontaine's estate withdrew the Oscar won by the actress from the highly anticipated auction after the Hollywood Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences threatened to file a lawsuit against the sale. Oscar statuettes have rarely gone up for auction because, since 1950, the Academy has required its winners, their heirs, or estates not to sell the award without first offering it to the Academy itself for one dollar's worth. Representatives of the actress's estate said in a statement that although Joan's Oscar was awarded well before the now mandatory agreement regarding any sale, the Academy was unmoved by the requests of all involved, announcing that it would take legal action if the sale went through.


  1. Joan Fontaine
  2. Joan Fontaine
  3. ^ a b Weatherford 2009, p. 302.
  4. ^ a b Thomas 1983, p. 20.
  5. ^ French, Philip. "Screen Legends No.73". The Observer, Review Section, 2009.
  6. ^ Beeman 1994, p. 24.
  7. «Sibling rivalry: Hollywood's oldest feud». The Independent (em inglês). 23 de outubro de 2011. Consultado em 19 de outubro de 2021
  8. «Suspeita». UOL. Consultado em 19 de setembro de 2018
  10. a et b Samuel Blumenfeld, « L’actrice de 101 ans Olivia de Havilland refuse de passer pour une peste dans la série « Feud » », Le Monde,‎ 20 mars 2018 (lire en ligne).
  11. Thomas Sotinel, « L'actrice Joan Fontaine, égérie d'Hitchcock, est morte à 96 ans », Le Monde,‎ 16 décembre 2013 (lire en ligne).
  12. Conaway, Peggy (2004). Los Gatos. Images of America (en inglés). Charleston, Chicago, Portsmouth, San Francisco: Arcadia Publishing. p. 104. ISBN 0-7385-2903-6.
  13. Booker, M. Keith (2011). Historical Dictionary of American Cinema (en inglés). Lanham, Toronto, Plymouth: The Scarecrow Press. p. 134. ISBN 978-0-8108-7192-2.

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