Joan Fontaine died today. Joan was a star in a Hollywood that no longer exists. She worked with Alfred Hitchcock, Norma Shearer, George Cukor, Joan Crawford, Elizabeth Taylor, Jimmy Stewart and Fred Astaire, just to drop a few of her colleagues’ names. She was the heroine in Orson Welles’ Jane Eyre, the eager to please, submissive wife in The Women and the frightened, bewildered bride to Cary Grant in Suspicion, for which she won the Oscar. But it’s probable that her most identifiable part was as the second Mrs. de Winter in the film, Rebecca. For those who haven’t seen it, Rebecca is a dreamy but sinister story that still holds all these years later and in a dark way, enchants. Credit is due to Hitchcock of course, but Joan Fontaine’s deliverance is something to be lauded. The atmosphere is chilling and romantic and she is so damn on point as the fresh, simple girl who is having her eyes opened for the first time to a bigger, nastier world of complicated sex and ill intentioned motives. She conveys that wide eyed girl so well, alternating between repulsion, fascination and devotion, it still leaves a mark on me. The clip above features one of her best moments in Rebecca, where the demonic and obsessed housekeeper shows her the preserved bedroom of her long dead predecessor, the first Mrs. de Winter. Barely uttering a sentence in the entire scene, you see her intrigued, stunned, finally rattled. Joan grips you and takes you with her and her nerves.
Later on, as she got older she got to show that she could play characters beyond the doe types who were always drenched behind the ears. She played women with an edge to them, characters who were quite sure of themselves, in films like Ivy and Serenade. My favorite of her sophisticated lady films is Born to Be Bad. A second rate movie for sure, made ten years after Rebecca,when Fontaine’s career was slowly beginning to make tracks downwards on the Hollywood hills. But she is delectable in the slithering role of Christabel Caine, a golden piranha who beams through the movie, eating up men with money for her own sinful gain. Her favorite roles came later on the stage, feeling her personal best was in the form of the staunch Eleanor of Aquitaine in The Lion in Winter.
I have an older friend, named James, who got to see her on the stage. She was in her fifties at the time. Not getting good roles in Hollywood anymore, truthfully probably not getting any roles in Hollywood anymore, she was touring the states in a production of 40 Carats. Lucky dog that he was, Jim got the opportunity to meet her backstage after the show. Relating the story it was like hearing of someone presented at court. An audience with Joan Fontaine. He was about 14 at the time. When he walked into her dressing room, she was seated in front of her mirror with her back to him. It was one of those great show biz mirrors with the mega-watt light bulbs surrounding all sides like search lights for any crinkle or imperfection. And as hers was the star dressing room, the mirror took up a generous piece of the wall for her to appraise herself. She was swathed in a white dressing gown with maribou feathers trimmed all around. She saw him enter from the mirror in front of her, she turned around and greeted him with her trained cadence, “Hello, my dear boy,” she said. Naturally, he melted.
MGM, the studio Fontaine started her career under contract to, used to boast that it had “more stars than there are in the heavens.” And now one of the last stars from its heyday has joined the rest in the heavens. I have no doubt that Joan Fontaine wore that white feather trimmed dressing gown without the tiniest bit of irony. And I know she must have called out that salutation to Jim with complete conviction. Today a scene like that in any reality would never play. Today it would seem so affected and put on that you would have to snicker. But not for Joan Fontaine, because that was her truth. And that era, that piece of truth has come a little closer to extinction with her passing. Rest in Peace, movie star lady.