Joan Fontaine: British American actress (1917-2013) (1917 - 2013) | Biography
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Joan Fontaine
British American actress

Joan Fontaine

Joan Fontaine
The basics

Quick Facts

Intro British American actress
A.K.A. Joan de Beauvoir de Havilland
Was Actor Writer Television actor Designer Interior designer Film actor Stage actor
From United Kingdom United States of America
Field Arts Creativity Film, TV, Stage & Radio Literature
Gender female
Birth 22 October 1917, Tokyo, Japan
Death 15 December 2013, Carmel-by-the-Sea, Monterey County, California, USA (aged 96 years)
Star sign Libra
Mother: Lilian Fontaine
Father: Walter Augustus de Havilland
Siblings: Olivia de Havilland
Spouse: Brian Aherne (1939-1945)Collier Young (1952-1961)William Dozier (1946-1951)Alfred Wright, Jr. (1964-1969)Alfred Wright, Jr. (27 January 1964-)
Children: Deborah Lesley Dozier
American School in Japan
Academy Award for Best Actress  
Joan Fontaine
The details


Joan de Beauvoir de Havilland (October 22, 1917 – December 15, 2013) known by the stage name Joan Fontaine, was a British-American actress, best known for her starring roles in classic Hollywood films. Fontaine appeared in over 45 feature films in a career that spanned five decades.

Early life

Joan de Beauvoir de Havilland was born on October 22, 1917, in Tokyo to British parents. She moved with her mother and sister, actress Olivia de Havilland, to California following her parents' divorce. She was an anemic child and her childhood was subsequently marred by poor health, which did, however, improve by her teen years. 

Her father, Walter Augustus de Havilland (August 31, 1872 – May 20, 1968), was educated at the University of Cambridge and served as an English professor at the Imperial University in Tokyo before becoming a patent attorney. Her mother, Lilian Augusta de Havilland Fontaine (née Ruse; June 11, 1886 – February 20, 1975), was educated at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London and became a stage actress who left her career after going to Tokyo with her husband. Her mother returned to work with the stage name "Lillian Fontaine" after her daughters' achieved prominence in the 1940s. Joan's paternal cousin was Sir Geoffrey de Havilland (1882–1965), an aircraft designer known for the De Havilland Mosquito, and founder of the aircraft company which bore his name. Her paternal grandfather, the Reverend Charles Richard de Havilland, was from a family from Guernsey, in the Channel Islands.

De Havilland's parents married in 1914 and separated in 1919 when Lilian decided to end the marriage after discovering that her husband used the sexual services of geishas; the divorce was not finalized, however, until February 1925.

Taking a physician's advice, Lilian de Havilland moved Joan‍—‌reportedly a sickly child who had developed anemia following a combined attack of the measles and a streptococcal infection‍—‌and her elder sister, Olivia de Havilland, to the United States. The family settled in Saratoga, California, and Fontaine's health improved dramatically. She was educated at nearby Los Gatos High School and was soon taking diction lessons alongside her elder sister. When she was 16 years old, de Havilland returned to Japan to live with her father. There she attended the Tokyo School for Foreign Children, graduating in 1935.


After living and attending school in Japan for a short while, she began her stage career in 1935, signing a film contract with RKO Pictures the same year. Her film debut was a small role in No More Ladies (also 1935) in which she was credited as Joan Burfield.

After some minor roles (including A Million to One and Quality Street (both 1937), opposite Katharine Hepburn), she received her first starring role in The Man Who Found Himself (1937); however, she failed to make a significant impression and her contract was not renewed upon its expiration. 

She next appeared in a major role alongside Fred Astaire in his first RKO film without Ginger RogersA Damsel in Distress (1937), but audiences were disappointed and the film flopped. She continued appearing in small parts in about a dozen films, including The Women (1939) but failed to make a strong impression, and her contract was not renewed when it expired in 1939.

Fontaine's luck changed one night at a dinner party when she found herself seated next to producer David O. Selznick. Selznick and she began discussing the Daphne du Maurier novel Rebecca, and Selznick asked her to audition for the part of the unnamed heroine. She endured a grueling six-month series of film tests, along with hundreds of other actresses, before securing the part sometime before her 22nd birthday.

Her career prospects improved greatly after her starring role in the Alfred Hitchcock-directed Rebecca (1940, starring Laurence Olivier alongside Fontaine), for which she received her first of three nominations for the Academy Award for Best Actress. The film also marked the American debut of Hitchcock. Fontaine did not win the Academy Award that year (Ginger Rogers took home the award for Kitty Foyle), but she did win the following year for Best Actress in Suspicion, which co-starred Cary Grant and was also directed by Hitchcock. This was the only Academy Award-winning acting performance to have been directed by Hitchcock.

During the 1940s, Fontaine excelled in romantic melodramas. Among her memorable films during this time were The Constant Nymph (1943) (for which she received her third Academy Award nomination), Jane Eyre (1943), Ivy (1947), and Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948).

By the next decade, her career began to decline and she moved into stage and television roles. Her film successes slowed a little during the 1950s, and she also began appearing in television and on the stage. She won good reviews for her role on Broadway in 1954 as "Laura" in Tea and Sympathy, opposite Anthony Perkins. She also appeared in numerous radio shows during the 1940s for the Lux Radio Theater.

She appeared in fewer films into the 1960s, her final feature film being The Witches(1966). Fontaine was active in radio, television, and the stage for most of her middle to later life. She released an autobiography, No Bed of Roses, in 1978; she continued to act until her last performance in 1994. 

Later career

During the 1960s, Fontaine appeared in several stage productions, including Private Lives, Cactus Flower, and an Austrian production of The Lion in Winter. Her last theatrical film was The Witches (1966), which she also co-produced. She continued appearing in film and television roles throughout the 1970s and 1980s and was nominated for an Emmy Award for the soap opera Ryan's Hope in 1980.

Fontaine's autobiography, No Bed of Roses, was published in 1978.

Fontaine's last role for television was in the 1994 TV film Good King Wenceslas, after which she retired to her estate, Villa Fontana, in Carmel Highlands, California, where she spent time in her gardens and with her dogs.

For her contribution to the motion picture industry, Fontaine has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1645 Vine Street. She left her hand and footprints in front of the Grauman's Chinese Theatre on May 26, 1942.

Personal life

Fontaine held dual citizenship; she was British by birthright (both her parents were British) and became an American citizen in April 1943. She lived in Carmel Highlands, California, where she owned a home, Villa Fontana. She died there of natural causes at the age of 96 in 2013. Having won an Academy Award for her role in Suspicion, Fontaine is the only actor to have won an Academy Award for acting in a Hitchcock film. Furthermore, her sister and she remain the only siblings to have won major acting Academy Awards.

Married four times, she had one child and adopted another, from whom she was later estranged. Her relationship with her sister was long known to be acrimonious, and included long periods of estrangement, especially in later life.

Marriages and children

Fontaine was married and divorced four times. Her first marriage was to actor Brian Aherne, in 1939 in Del Monte, California; they divorced in April 1945. 

In May 1946, she married actor/producer William Dozier in Mexico City. They had a daughter, Deborah Leslie, in 1948, and separated in 1949. Deborah is Fontaine's only biological child. The following year, Fontaine filed for divorce, charging Dozier with desertion. Their divorce was finalized in January 1951. 

Fontaine's third marriage was to producer and writer Collier Young on November 12, 1952. They separated in May 1960, and Fontaine filed for divorce in November 1960. Their divorce was finalized in January 1961. Fontaine's fourth and final marriage was to Sports Illustrated golf editor Alfred Wright, Jr, on January 23, 1964, in Elkton, Maryland; they divorced in 1969.

While in South America for a film festival in 1951, Fontaine met a four-year-old Peruvian girl named Martita, and informally adopted her. Fontaine met Martita while visiting Incan ruins where Martita's father worked as a caretaker. Martita's parents allowed Fontaine to become Martita's legal guardian to give the child a better life. Fontaine promised Martita's parents she would send the girl back to Peru to visit when she was 16 years old. When Martita turned 16, Fontaine bought her a round-trip ticket to Peru, but Martita refused to go and opted to run away. Fontaine and Martita became estranged following the incident. While promoting her autobiography in 1978, Fontaine addressed the issue, stating, "Until my adopted daughter goes back to see her parents, she's not welcome. I promised her parents. I do not forgive somebody who makes me break my word."

Sibling rivalry

Fontaine and her sister, Olivia de Havilland, are the only set of siblings to have won lead acting Academy Awards. Olivia was the first to become an actress; when Fontaine tried to follow her lead, their mother, who allegedly favored Olivia, refused to let Joan use the family name. Subsequently, Fontaine had to invent a name, taking first Joan Burfield, and later Joan Fontaine. Biographer Charles Highamrecords that the sisters had an uneasy relationship from early childhood, when Olivia would rip up the clothes Joan had to wear as hand-me-downs, forcing Joan to sew them back together. A large part of the friction between the sisters allegedly stemmed from Fontaine's belief that Olivia was their mother's favorite child.

De Havilland and Fontaine were both nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress in 1942. Fontaine won for her role in Alfred Hitchcock's Suspicion over de Havilland's performance in Hold Back the Dawn. Higham states that Fontaine "felt guilty about winning given her lack of obsessive career drive...". Higham has described the events of the awards ceremony, stating that as Fontaine stepped forward to collect her award, she pointedly rejected de Havilland's attempts at congratulating her and that de Havilland was both offended and embarrassed by her behavior. Fontaine, however, tells a different story in her autobiography, explaining that she was paralyzed with surprise when she won the Academy Award and that de Havilland insisted she gets up to accept it. "Olivia took the situation very graciously," Fontaine wrote. "I was appalled that I'd won over my sister." Several years later, however, de Havilland apparently remembered what she perceived as a slight and exacted her own revenge by brushing past Fontaine, who was waiting with her hand extended, because de Havilland allegedly took offense at a comment Fontaine had made about de Havilland's husband.

Contrary to press reports, the sisters continued their relationship after the 1940s. After Fontaine's separation from her husband in 1952, de Havilland came to her apartment in New York often, and at least once they spent Christmas together there, in 1961. They were photographed laughing together at a party for Marlene Dietrich in 1967. Fontaine also went to visit de Havilland in Paris in 1969.

The sisters reportedly did not completely stop speaking to each other until 1975, after their mother's funeral, to which Joan, who was out of the country, was not invited.

Both sisters largely refused to comment publicly about their relationship. In a 1978 interview, however, Fontaine said of the sibling rivalry, "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!" The following year, in a 1979 interview, Fontaine claimed the reason her sister and she stopped speaking to each other was that de Havilland wanted their mother (who was suffering from cancer) to be treated surgically at the advanced age of 88, which Fontaine apparently did not think was a good idea. Fontaine claims that after their mother died, de Havilland did not bother to try to find where Fontaine could be reached (Fontaine was on tour in a play). Instead, de Havilland sent a telegram, which did not arrive until two weeks later at Fontaine's next stop. According to Fontaine, de Havilland did not invite her to a memorial service for their mother. De Havilland claims she informed Fontaine, but Fontaine brushed her off, claiming she was too busy to attend. Higham records that Fontaine had an estranged relationship with her own daughters, as well, possibly because she discovered that they were secretly maintaining a relationship with de Havilland.

Death and legacy

On December 15, 2013, Fontaine died in her sleep of natural causes at the age of 96 in her Carmel Highlands home. Her longtime friend Noel Beutel said, "She had been fading in recent days and died peacefully." Her Academy Award for best actress in Suspicion was initially going to be sold at an animal rights auction; however, the Academy threatened to sue since it was not offered back to them for $1. After Fontaine's death, de Havilland released a statement saying she was "shocked and saddened" by the news. Fontaine was cremated.


1935No More LadiesCaroline 'Carrie' RumseyCredited as Joan Burfield
1937A Million to OneJoan Stevens 
Quality StreetCharlotte ParrattUncredited
The Man Who Found HimselfNurse Doris King 
You Can't Beat LoveTrudy Olson 
Music for MadameJean Clemens 
A Damsel in DistressLady Alyce Marshmorton 
1938Maid's Night OutSheila Harrison 
Blond CheatJuliette 'Julie' Evans 
Sky GiantMeg Lawrence 
The Duke of West PointAnn Porter 
1939Gunga DinEmmy 
Man of ConquestEliza Allen 
The WomenMrs. John Day (Peggy) 
1940RebeccaThe second Mrs. de WinterNominated – Academy Award for Best Actress
nominated – New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actress – directed by Alfred Hitchcock
1941SuspicionLinaAcademy Award for Best Actress
New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actress – directed by Alfred Hitchcock
1942This Above AllPrudence Cathaway 
1943The Constant NymphTessa SangerNominated – Academy Award for Best Actress
Jane EyreJane Eyre (as an adult) 
1944Frenchman's CreekDona St. Columb 
1945The Affairs of SusanSusan Darell 
1946From This Day ForwardSusan Cummings 
1948Letter from an Unknown WomanLisa Berndle 
The Emperor WaltzCountess Johanna Augusta Franziska 
You Gotta Stay HappyDee Dee Dillwood 
Kiss the Blood Off My HandsJane Wharton 
1950September AffairMarianne 'Manina' Stuart 
Born to Be BadChristabel Caine Carey 
1951Darling, How Could You!Alice Grey 
1952Something to Live ForJenny Carey 
1953Decameron NightsFiametta/Bartolomea/Ginevra/Isabella 
Flight to TangierSusan Lane 
The BigamistEve Graham 
1954Casanova's Big NightFrancesca BruniAlternative title: Mr. Casanova
1956SerenadeKendall Hale 
Beyond a Reasonable DoubtSusan Spencer 
1957Island in the SunMavis Norman 
Until They SailAnne Leslie 
1958A Certain SmileFrançoise Ferrand 
1961Voyage to the Bottom of the SeaDr. Susan Hiller 
1962Tender Is the NightBaby Warren 
1966The WitchesGwen MayfieldAlternative title: The Devil's Own


1953–1954Four Star PlayhouseTrudyepisode: "Trudy"
episode: "The Girl on the Park Bench"
1956The Ford Television TheatreJulieepisode: "Your Other Love"
1956The 20th Century Fox HourLynne Abbottepisode: "Stranger In the Night"
1956–1957The Joseph Cotten ShowAdrienneepisode: "Fatal Charm"
episode: "The De Santre Story"
1956–1960General Electric TheaterLinda Stacey
Laurel Chapman
Melanie Langdon
Countess Irene Forelli
episode: "A Possibility of Oil"
episode: "The Story of Judith"
episode: "At Miss Minner's"
episode: "The Victorian Chaise Lounge"
episode: "In Summer Promise"
1959Westinghouse Desilu PlayhouseMargaret Lewisepisode: "Perilous"
1960StartimeJulie Forbesepisode: "Closed Set"
1960Alcoa Presents: One Step BeyondEllen Graysonepisode: "The Visitor"
1961The Light That FailedHostess(TV movie)
1961CheckmateKaren Lawsonepisode: "Voyage Into Fear"
1962The Dick Powell ShowValerie Baumerepisode: "The Clocks"
1963Wagon TrainNaomi Kaylorepisode: "The Naomi Kaylor Story"
1963The Alfred Hitchcock HourAlice Pembertonepisode: "The Paragon"
1965The Bing Crosby ShowMrs. Taylorepisode: "Operation Man Save"
1975CannonThelma Cainepisode: "The Star"
1978The UsersGrace St. George 
1980Ryan's HopePaige WilliamsFive episodes
nominated – Daytime Emmy Award Outstanding Guest/Cameo Appearance in a Daytime Drama Series
1981The Love BoatJennifer Langleyepisode: "Chef's Special/Beginning Anew/Kleinschmidt"
1983Bare EssenceLauraepisode: "Hour Four"
episode: "Hour Five"
1986CrossingsAlexandra Markham 
1986HotelRuth Eastonepisode: "Harassed"
1986Dark MansionsMargaret Drake(TV movie)
1994Good King WenceslasQueen Ludmilla(TV movie)

Broadway credits

September 30, 1953 – June 18, 1955Tea and SympathyLaura Reynolds
December 26, 1968 – November 7, 1970Forty CaratsAnn Stanley

Radio appearances

1946Lux Radio TheatreFrom This Day Forward
1946Academy Award"Portrait of Jennie"
1946Hollywood Players"The Constant Nymph"
1952Hallmark Playhouse"Miracle on the Blotter"
1952Broadway Playhouse"Manhattan Serenade"
1952Theatre Guild on the Air"The House of Mirth"
1952Hollywood Sound Stage"Ivy"
1953Theater of Stars"The Guardsman"
1953Radio Theater"Undercurrent"

Awards and nominations

YearAwardCategoryTitle of workResult
1940Academy AwardBest ActressRebeccaNominated
1941Academy AwardBest ActressSuspicionWon
1941NYFCC AwardBest ActressSuspicionWon
1943Academy AwardBest ActressThe Constant NymphNominated
1947Golden Apple AwardMost Cooperative Actress Won
1980Daytime Emmy AwardOutstanding Guest/Cameo Appearance in a Daytime Drama SeriesRyan's HopeNominated
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