Fontaine died in her sleep Sunday morning at her home in
Carmel, California which overlooked the Pacific Ocean, after
having been in failing health in recent days, said Noel Beutel,
a longtime friend of the actress.
"She was an amazing woman, she had such a big heart and she will
be missed," Beutel told Reuters, adding that she had had lunch
with the actress just last week.
Among Fontaine's most memorable films in a Hollywood career
spanning four decades and some four dozen films was the Alfred
Hitchcock thriller "Suspicion," co-starring Cary Grant, for
which she won an Academy Award in 1942, beating out her sister
in the competition.
The honor gave Fontaine the distinction of being the only
performer, actor or actress, ever to win an Academy Award for a
starring role in one of Hitchcock's many movies.
De Havilland, who was nominated that year for "Hold Back the
Dawn," went on to win two Oscars of her own for leading roles in
the 1946 film "To Each His Own" and the 1949 picture "The
Heiress." Now aged 97, de Havilland resides in Paris.
Her Oscar victories established the feuding sisters as the only
two siblings ever to both win Academy Awards for acting.
Fontaine also earned Oscar nominations for her star turns in
Hitchcock's 1940 American debut, "Rebecca," co-starring opposite
Laurence Olivier as a young bride haunted by the memory of her
husband's deceased first wife; and the 1943 romantic drama "The
Constant Nymph," falling for a dashing composer played by
Fontaine appeared mousy and innocent in her early movies but
later carefully selected her roles and went on to play worldly,
sophisticated women in such films as "Born to be Bad and "Tender
is the Night."
She wrote in her 1978 autobiography, "No Bed of Roses," that her
sickly condition as a child actually helped develop her acting
In her sickbed fantasies — pillow dreams, she called them — Fontaine created "endless scenes of romance, passion, jealousy,
rejection, death. I built and decorated houses, steamships,
ballrooms. I designed sets and costumes, cast roles and played
them all myself," she wrote.
Her childhood marked the beginning of an enduring rivalry with
de Havilland as they competed for parental attention.
"I regret that I remember not one act of kindness from her all
through my childhood," Fontaine wrote.
De Havilland reportedly saw her younger sister as a sneaky
attention-getter, melodramatically playing sick and trying to
The competition was more fierce in 1942 when both sisters were
nominated for Oscars and Fontaine took home the statuette for
"Suspicion," in which she played an English woman who begins to
suspect her charming husband of trying to kill her.
"It was a bittersweet moment," Fontaine later recalled. "I was
appalled that I won over my sister."
When de Havilland won her own Oscar for "To Each His Own," she
snubbed Fontaine by ignoring her congratulatory gesture at the
ceremony. De Havilland reportedly was upset because Fontaine had
made a catty remark about her husband.
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The sisters were said to have stopped speaking altogether in 1975
after their mother died of cancer. Fontaine said de Havilland had
not invited her to the memorial service but her sister claimed
Fontaine had said she was too busy to attend.
"I married first, won the Oscar before Olivia did, and if I die
first, she'll undoubtedly be livid because I beat her to it,"
Fontaine was quoted as telling the Hollywood Reporter in 1978,
according to the Washington Post.
Fontaine was born Joan de Beauvoir de Havilland to British parents
in Tokyo on October 22, 1917. In Hollywood she took her stepfather's
surname to avoid being confused with the already-established Olivia.
Her first movie role was as Joan Crawford's rival in "No More
Ladies" in 1935. It was two years, however, before she returned to
the screen in a small role in "Quality Street," starring Katharine
Hepburn. That was followed by roles in "A Damsel in Distress"
opposite Fred Astaire and "Gunga Din" with Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and
Fontaine was ready to quit movies until a dinner party conversation
with producer David O. Selznick, who encouraged her to test for
Hitchcock's "Rebecca." Her role as Olivier's shy second wife was a
touching performance that brought her enormous attention.
Fontaine often fought with Hollywood studio executives who suspended
her for rejecting assigned roles, but she was determined to play
willful women instead of waifs.
She found the roles she wanted in films such as "Jane Eyre" opposite
Orson Welles in 1944 and "The Affairs of Susan" in 1945, one of her
best pictures, in which she plays a woman as seen through the eyes
of four suitors.
In 1957, Fontaine caught the spotlight again as a white woman loved
by a black man, played by Harry Belafonte, in "Island in the Sun."
Critics praised her for "Tender Is the Night," but by the mid-1960s
her film career was over.
Her last feature film performance was in the 1966 horror picture
"The Witches." She earned a Daytime Emmy nomination for a 1980 guest
spot on the television soap opera "Ryan's Hope" and made her final
small-screen appearance in the TV movie "Good King Wenceslas."
She was married to British actor Brian Aherne, producer William
Dozier, screenwriter-producer Collier Young and sports writer Alfred
Wright Jr. She had two daughters.
In her memoirs, Fontaine maintained she repeatedly turned down
marriage proposals from multimillionaire Howard Hughes, as well as
offers to be the mistress of Joseph Kennedy and other political
In later years she avidly tended her gardens and doted on her dogs,
who numbered as many as five and were taken in from animal rescue
agencies. Fontaine was also known for being exceptionally gracious
to fans, answering correspondence and indulging autograph requests
until shortly before her death.
(Additional reporting by Chris Michaud
in New York; editing by Christopher Wilson and Alister Doyle)
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