Joan Fontaine, Who Beat Sister for Academy Award, Dies at 96

Joan Fontaine, who won an Academy Award for best actress in director Alfred Hitchcock’s 1941 movie “Suspicion,” fanning a lifelong feud by beating her sister, Olivia de Havilland, for the honor, has died. She was 96.

She died yesterday in her sleep at her home in Carmel, California, the Associated Press reported, citing her longtime friend, Noel Beutel.

Her Oscar was the only one claimed by an actor in any Hitchcock film. Hitchcock himself didn’t win an Academy Award until 1979, when he was cited for lifetime achievement. Fontaine also got Oscar nominations for performances in Hitchcock’s “Rebecca” (1940) and in “The Constant Nymph” (1943).

She was the younger sister, by almost 16 months, of De Havilland, who could lay claim to more fame and an overall greater film career. De Havilland, now 97, won Oscars for “To Each His Own” (1946) and “The Heiress” (1949) and was nominated for three others, including as supporting actress in “Gone With the Wind” (1939).

The sisters snubbed each other at the Oscar ceremonies when each took the top prize, according to witnesses. Their lifelong rivalry began in a battle for their mother’s affection. In her 1978 autobiography, “No Bed of Roses,” Fontaine said she remembered “not one act of kindness” from Olivia during their childhood.

“You can divorce your sister as well as your husbands,” Fontaine told People magazine in 1978. “I don’t see her at all and I don’t intend to.”

Aircraft Family

Joan de Beauvoir de Havilland was born on Oct. 22, 1917, in Tokyo to Lilian and Walter Augustus de Havilland.

Her father, a relative of the British aircraft pioneer Geoffrey de Havilland, was a patent lawyer in Tokyo. He was lecturing at Waseda University when he met his future wife, who had come from England to visit her brother, a teacher there.

The marriage didn’t last, and in 1919 Lilian took her two young daughters to California, where they settled in the San Francisco area. Five years later, she married George Milan Fontaine, who turned out to be a harsh disciplinarian. He once dug a shallow grave to frighten Joan from biting her nails, according to her account, and conducted military-style inspections of their housekeeping.

Lilian, a former actress, drilled the girls in diction, etiquette and dinner-table conversation. They studied piano and ballet with local teachers.

Childhood Illnesses

Olivia, a good athlete and student, was a ringleader at school. Joan, a sickly child, was hospitalized with German measles, strep throat and rheumatic fever. She missed three months in high school with pneumonia and pleurisy.

Family tensions boiled over in 1933 when Joan, 15, suffered a fractured collarbone in a poolside fight with her sister. Her father answered Joan’s pleas and brought her to Japan, where she boarded at the American School in a Tokyo suburb and partied on weekends.

Father-daughter relations grew strained and, at 17, she returned to California around the time sister Olivia was making her acting debut in Max Reinhardt’s production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the Hollywood Bowl.

Fontaine soon found her own way to Hollywood. She got a break in 1935, playing an English ingénue in the Los Angeles production of a Broadway play, “Kind Lady,” starring the Australian actress May Robson.

To avoid being confused with her sister, she used Burfield as her surname in her first movie, “No More Ladies,” then switched to Fontaine.

Early Promise

After some forgettable roles, she starred in Hitchcock’s psychological thriller “Rebecca” opposite Laurence Olivier. She had won the role, and critical acclaim, following screen tests over such stars as Vivien Leigh and Anne Baxter.

Fontaine’s sensitive portrayal was rewarded with the stardom that brought her major roles over the years. Still, critics said her career never fulfilled its early promise.

She settled often for romantic parts that had little emotional impact, critics complained, and the tearjerkers she appeared in left audiences mostly dry-eyed. Aside from her much-praised performance in “Letter From an Unknown Woman” (1948), she made 40-odd films that often received cursory notice.

Fontaine was married and divorced four times, starting with actor Brian Aherne. Her second marriage to studio executive William Dozier produced a daughter, Deborah Leslie Dozier, in 1948, and frequent custody fights after their divorce in 1951.

Maternal Role

Fontaine brought an Incan child from Peru to be a companion for her daughter and became legal guardian to the girl, Martita Pareja, sending her to boarding schools in Switzerland and California before placing her at an employee’s Maine farm for three years.

At 16, Pareja refused to cooperate with Fontaine’s plan to send her to Peru to see her biological parents. Fontaine then cut off financial support and didn’t see her ward again.

Forced at one point to relinquish custody of her own daughter, Fontaine said she never wanted to see the child again. She later recanted, but the relationship remained rocky. She didn’t attend her daughter’s wedding in 1979.

She ran her household staff in Beverly Hills with precision that almost matched her stepfather’s.

Fontaine prospered later from shrewd investments. Aside from movies, she also appeared in regional theater, television and on the lecture circuit.

She moved to an ocean-view home in Carmel, California, after selling her New York apartment in 1984.

“I’ve arranged my life sensibly at last,” she said in a 1992 interview. “No family worries, no economic worries, no career worries.”

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