She was born in Tokyo, to British parents. (Her cousin was Geoffrey de Havilland, the aircraft designer.) When she was only three years old, her mother and her father separated; Lillian de Havilland took Joan and her older sister Olivia to the United States. Lillian de Havilland later married a man named Fontaine so, when Joan signed a contract with RKO at the age of 18, she took the Stage Name of "Joan Fontaine" to avoid confusion with her sister, also a film actress. Minor film roles came throughout the decade, with the most prominent being a part as the Love Interest for Fred Astaire in A Damsel in Distress (1937).
In 1939 she got a part as one of the divorcees in The Women. Fontaine got her big break in 1940 when she won the starring role opposite Laurence Olivier in Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca. This vaulted her to the Hollywood A-list. The next year she won the Oscar for another Hitchcock film, Suspicion. Fontaine's Oscar was the only Academy Award ever given to an actor in an Alfred Hitchcock film; among the competitors she beat was her sister Olivia in Hold Back the Dawn.
Fontaine starred in a series of mostly costume dramas and romances throughtout the 1940s and 1950s. She preferred working with directors whose work she admired. She insisted on working with Max Ophuls on Letter from an Unknown Woman (which she considered her best work) and also worked with Fritz Lang and Ida Lupino. Her last film was The Witches in 1966, but she worked on stage and in television for another thirty years before she finally retired. As noted above, Fontaine was the sister of another Oscar-winning actress, Olivia de Havilland. The two of them formed the most famous case of Sibling Rivalry in movie history (see this famous photo◊ of Olivia blowing off Joan after Olivia finally won an Oscar in 1947.) The two sisters had a final falling-out after their mother died in 1975 and did not speak to each other ever again. Joan was survived by Olivia for nearly seven years.
Films with pages on TV Tropes:
- Gunga Din (1939)
- The Women (1939)
- Rebecca (1940)
- Suspicion (1941)
- The Constant Nymph (1943)
- Jane Eyre (1943)
- Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948)
- Ivanhoe (1952)
- The Bigamist (1953)
- Serenade (1956)
- Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956)
- The Witches (1966)
This actress' work features examples of:
- Dawson Casting:
- In The Constant Nymph Joan was twenty-four playing a teenager.
- In Letter From An Unknown Woman she was thirty and played her character at sixteen in the film's opening.
- Doing It for the Art: When she read the novel that Suspicion was based on, she sent Alfred Hitchcock a letter saying she liked the part so much she would play it for free.
- Enforced Method Acting: Hitchcock told Joan on the set of Rebecca that everyone hated her, resulting in a natural feeling of isolation between her and the rest of the characters.
- Hollywood Homely: Filmmakers liked to cast Joan as heroines that were supposed to be plain. This was apparently a view held by Olivia de Havilland, who wrote a will when she was nine years old saying "I bequeath all my beauty to my younger sister Joan, because she has none."
- Magnum Opus Dissonance: Her favourite film that she did was the lesser known The Constant Nymph.
- Money, Dear Boy: She came out of retirement to star in the Made-for-TV Movie Good King Wenceslas because her house needed repairs after an earthquake.
- Old Shame: She frequently joked that the film A Damsel In Distress set her career back four years.
- Star-Making Role: Rebecca marked her transition from minor roles to superstardom.
- Urban Legend of Zelda: Joan claimed she was up for the role of Melanie in Gone with the Wind but turned down for being "too stylish". She also claims she recommended her sister for it, though Olivia de Havilland's autobiography makes no mention of this.
- What Could Have Been:
- She was offered the role of Karen Holmes in From Here to Eternity but had to turn it down, as she was involved in a lengthy custody battle over her daughter. Deborah Kerr got the role and earned an Oscar nomination for it.
- She was going to be killed off in the finale of Suspicion but test audiences couldn't buy Cary Grant as a murderer, so it was changed.
- Written by Cast Member: She bought the rights of The Witches (1966) and brought the project to Hammer Horror to make herself. She also plays the lead role of Gwen Mayfield.