Joan Fontaine had one of the most baffling careers of any star actress of the 1940s and ’50s. She is so breathtakingly good in a handful of her films that it is difficult to understand why she comes off as so stupefyingly phony in so many of them. After an unpromising beginning in the 1930s, when she languished in the shadow of her just-slightly-older sister Olivia de Havilland, Fontaine hit her stride with starring roles in two Alfred Hitchcock films, Rebecca (1940) and Suspicion (1941). She was Oscar-nominated for the first, and won for the second. And while she was good in both, she achieved genuine greatness only twice: in The Constant Nymph (1943), directed by Edmund Goulding, and in Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), directed by Max Ophuls. (This probably sounds like more of a slight than was intended: many actresses more famous than Fontaine never achieved greatness at all.)
Again and again in interviews, Fontaine asserted that The Constant Nymph was her favorite of all the films she made. It was hard to get anyone to agree or disagree with her, since a legal hangup in the estate of Margaret Kennedy, the author of the novel on which The Constant Nymph was based, made it impossible for the movie to be shown publicly for decades. That has been resolved in recent years, and now The Constant Nymph has been shown several times on Turner Classic Movies.
It’s easy to see why Fontaine felt so strongly about it. As an actress, she sheds nearly every layer of skin between her and the camera and comes up with a performance of astonishing spontaneity and immediacy. She plays Tessa Sanger, one of several daughters in a family of high-spirited musical prodigies. Their father is Albert Sanger (Montagu Love), a brandy hound, a composer of modest fame and very little fortune. They live in pitifully reduced circumstances in the Swiss countryside. Although she is only a little more than a child when the film opens, Tessa is passionately in love with Lewis Dodd (Charles Boyer), a close friend of her father’s, and also a composer. But Lewis has not found his compositional voice yet; in London, his recent symphony has premiered to lukewarm reviews. Papa Sanger tells Tessa that Lewis has “good technique … but there’s no blood pulsing through his music .… no heart.” Lewis, Sanger believes, is “ashamed of melody.” Later the very same day, Sanger expires. Tessa has believed her father when he has pronounced that Lewis will never achieve his musical potential until he experiences love and heartbreak. She decides that she is the one to show him the path to artistic greatness.
But for all her long passionate looks, Lewis persists in treating her like a child. When the Sangers’ beautiful and wealthy English cousin, Florence Creighton (Alexis Smith) comes for a visit, she succeeds in snatching Lewis away in record time. They marry and move to London, and Tessa and her sister Paula (Joyce Reynolds) eventually go to live with them. Florence resents Tessa’s pining away for Lewis, and even more deeply resents that she cannot enter into the private musical language that the two of them share. When Lewis performs a dissonant piece he has written, Tessa observes, “It’s a long way from tears … He’s forgotten his heart again.” Tensions build among the trio, as Erich Korngold’s gloriously hyper-Romantic score thunders away on the soundtrack.
It’s a highly intelligent soap opera with a high-culture setting. And it’s a curious film because it doesn’t follow the by-the-numbers conventions so many romantic dramas of the time. Edmund Goulding directs the film with uncommon sensitivity and keen attention to his actors; the large cast of supporting players mills about the movie with charm and ease and appears much less studied and functional than character actors do in most forties films.
Fontaine gives a performance that might easily be taken for the work of an actress trained in the Sanford Meisner method. With the exception of one cloying close-up near the beginning, there isn’t a moment in the film in which she succumbs to the coy, actressy tricks that marred so much of her work. Out of all the great performances I have seen on the New York stage, I think I have seen only one that convinced me that real life, not theatrical artifice, was unfolding before my eyes. That was Janet McTeer, as Nora in the 1997 Broadway revival of A Doll’s House. In cinematic terms, Fontaine’s Tessa has a somewhat similar power. In their scenes together, Alexis Smith does some of her best early work as the haughty Florence, yet she seems stolid and uninteresting next to Fontaine.
Five years later, Fontaine starred in another remarkable film, in which she again played a young girl with a fatal passion for a musician: Max Ophuls’s Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948). This time, she is Lisa Berndle, a teenaged Viennese girl, who lives with her mother (Mady Christians) in a middle-class apartment building. When a handsome young concert pianist, Stefan Brand (Louis Jourdan) moves into the building, Lisa’s obsessive nature goes into full throttle: she eavesdrops on Stefan’s practice sessions and goes to the library and checks out books on the great composers, doing everything she can to immerse herself in his world. Unlike Lewis in The Constant Nymph, Stefan is not worth anyone’s serious attentions; he is a narcissistic womanizer fated never to fulfill his own artistic promise. As Lisa’s love for him overtakes her life, Letter from an Unknown Woman becomes a kind of cautionary tale for all of our hopeless first loves, and our inability to see them for what they really are. Ophuls’s touch is both sure and subtle; as his famously fluid camera glides through the film, no false note is struck. When Lisa tells Stefan that when he plays she sometimes feels that he hasn’t found what he’s looking for, she gives him exactly the kind of attention that every narcissistic performer craves.
Fontaine is once again exquisite. The mannerisms that would all too quickly get out of hand—the eyes that wander to the side, the sudden, crooked smile and sudden jerk of her head to indicate emotional distress, the breaking up of her sentences and rushing the ends of them—here are all beautifully in service to both the film and the character. In the scene in which young Lisa hides on the top landing of the staircase while Stefan spirits a woman into his apartment below, Fontaine makes her deepest emotions register from the back of her head without us ever seeing her face. We can practically feel her revulsion in the scene in which a fatuous lieutenant who is courting her tells her that he once played second trumpet as a cadet and takes her to an outdoor concert in which Wagner’s “Song of the Evening Star” gets an excruciating German-band treatment. One of the finest aspects of Fontaine’s performance is the stubborn strength that we feel emanating from Lisa. She seems unapologetic and uncompromising in her quest to pursue Stefan at any cost.
It’s important to remember that the peak years of most star actresses in the 1940s were fairly brief; Bette Davis’s true golden period lasted only from 1938 to 1945, while Greer Garson’s was only from 1940 to 1945. Olivia de Havilland’s glory years stretched only from 1946 to 1949. Fontaine remained a bankable leading lady for many years after Letter from an Unknown Woman, but the quality of her vehicles declined sharply, and she was often no longer their center attraction; in Ivanhoe (1952), she came in third, after Robert Taylor and Elizabeth Taylor. She acknowledged this turn of events to film historian John Kobal in his book People Will Talk, observing that in the 1950s she tried to make two films a year, but admitting that they were no longer “films to fit me.” Even in this context, however, it is strange that she never again delved as deeply as she had in the past. Her performances became lacquered and labored; a good example is Anthony Mann’s Serenade (1956), as the venomous socialite who pulls the wings off flies for her own amusement, the fly in this case being nervous tenor Mario Lanza. Onscreen, she acted with heart and conviction only once more, as the oldest sister in Robert Wise’s Until They Sail (1957), though she is enjoyable (but, by her own admission, too old) as Fitzgerald’s brittle Baby Warren in Henry King’s Tender is the Night (1962).
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In October of 1990, I had occasion to meet Joan Fontaine in New York. An Opera News colleague, Elizabeth Diggans, and I had embarked on a collection of profiles of Golden Age screen actresses, and Fontaine had agreed to speak with us while she was briefly touching down in New York. The book of profiles never pulled itself together, but several of the actresses we interviewed made indelible impressions on us—in the case of Fontaine, not exactly for the reasons we anticipated. We met her in her suite at the Wyndham Hotel on West Fifty-eighth Street, and from the very first moment, we both felt that we were interviewing not so much a person as a persona.
At the time, she was just about to turn seventy-three, but she was in exceptional shape. Her blonde hair was done up in the chignon that she had favored for many years, and her skin was luminescent. (She said in interviews that during her Hollywood years she had taken care to avoid the sun.)
She seemed cordial and good-humored, and initially we regarded her as a terrific interview. Her responses to our questions were delivered with great energy and no hesitation. She had a habit of chuckling as she spoke, without really pausing to laugh. Her diction was crisp and precise, her speaking voice warm and somewhat deeper than we had expected; it seemed to reverberate off the walls of the hotel room. (She told us that one of the reasons she had done well in the theater was that she had “an enormous voice, perfectly placed.”)
But for all her apparent accessibility, there was more than a touch of the grande dame about her. It wasn’t long before we realized that she wasn’t really giving much thought to our questions; this interview was a carefully orchestrated performance, probably not unlike the ones she had given in a string of well-made plays in summer stock.
She was working hard to convey to us that she was a “solitaire”—an independent woman who had survived the pressures and vicissitudes of Hollywood fame and was now pursuing the life she really had wanted all along: sans husbands (she was a four-time divorcee), children (she was estranged from both of her daughters) or sibling (in her 1978 memoir, No Bed of Roses, Fontaine indicated that she had not spoken with Olivia de Havilland in years, and nothing had changed at the time of our interview.). Having invested her money well during her biggest earning years, Fontaine could afford to live as she pleased. In the 1960s she purchased a spacious co-op on Manhattan’s East Seventy-second Street, but at some point in the 1980s she sold that, returning to California and settling in a big house in Carmel-by-the-Sea. She traveled widely; shortly after her stay in New York, she was heading north to catch the fall foliage, and in subsequent months she was bound for Mexico, Ireland and the Norway Film Festival.
This was the best possible way to live, she told us several times. “I’m not a people person,” she announced. “I am much too impatient. I don’t like chitchat. I have my interests, and most of my interests do not concern other people. They are things I can do on my own.”
And later: “I am not interested in people. They don’t interest me at all. I notice with a lot of people as they get older that they’re not interested in novels. They read detective stories because they’re unemotional. No love/sex business any longer. We’ve been through all that and come out disappointed.”
And later still: “Just start people on themselves, and you’d be surprised at how that autobiography is extended, and you never have to discuss yourself. It’s extraordinary how an individual is absorbed with his own biography. And they should know it, so why are they telling you? But they do.”
And yet, reciting her autobiography was exactly what Fontaine seemed to love to do. We hadn’t gotten halfway through our first cup of coffee before she rattled off a list of her accomplishments. She was in New York to hear operas and concerts. “I imagine I have the worst ear in the world,” she said. “Maybe that’s why I love music so much: because it’s something I cannot do. But I’ve ridden to the hounds. I’m a Cordon Bleu cook; I have the ribbons. I paint. I have, as you know, an Academy Award. I’ve played on Broadway. I’ve had two holes-in-one in golf. I won a hot-air balloon race in Rotterdam. I had my pilot’s license when I was twenty-two.” It was almost if she was still, all these years later, trying to dispel the image of the shy English rose that had marked her early screen career and push the image of a fearless, life-embracing Auntie Mame instead.
Despite her surface charm, Fontaine was clearly a tough cookie, driving the interview that she wanted to see happen rather than allowing it to unfold naturally. For a moment, Liz and I thought that we might do better on the subject of her films, but that didn’t yield anything too surprising either. We brought up Alfred Hitchcock. Donald Spoto’s biography, The Dark Side of Genius, in which he painted the director as someone whose gifts were marred by twisted fantasies and obsessions, was still a somewhat recent shocker. I mentioned some of the more disturbing revelations in the book, particularly the director’s alleged manipulative and abusive treatment of Tippi Hedren, but I barely had the sentence out before Fontaine cut me off. “All the things you hear about Hitch are his own lovely propaganda,” she said, a little too glibly. “He understood acting better than anybody.” [This would be news to the many actors in his films who felt they received only a modicum of attention from the director.] “Other directors are camera directors, or special effects directors, or broad scope directors. Hitch had all of that. He was almost a portraitist. I adored him, and these remarks about his being an old lech make me laugh. He would say, ‘My dear, come onto my casting couch.’ I’m afraid a couple of people believed it.”
She also seemed intent on letting us know that the life of a movie star was, well, no bed of roses. “The biggest thing that all actors suffer from is that it is almost impossible to be one of the crowd, as it were. And most people don’t know what to say to us. Most people avoid you. They skirt you and give you the once-over and say, ‘Well, her slip’s showing’—but not to you.” (Now she seemed to be contradicting her avowed lack of interest in people.)
“The hardest thing about the movies, believe it or not, was the interference,” she continued. “When you’re in a scene, the tugging of your clothes. The hairdresser. The lack of continuity in the script and the way you shot it. Shooting the love scene at nine in the morning after your leading man had had garlic the night before. Getting up at five in the morning and having your breakfast under the hair dryer and a paper cup of coffee. And coming home through the traffic with your make-up running down your face, and getting home and trying to be a good and charming wife and mother. It’s very tough. If I had to do it all over again, I would not marry and I certainly would not have children if I were intent on being an actress. But I wanted to do other things. Acting is just one of my interests, just one of my accomplishments. That’s all.”
It was an appealing idea that she found Hollywood life too one-dimensional and limiting, that her appetite for knowledge and experiences was bound to take her far from the confines of movie-making. But as she spoke, we became suspicious of her determination to relegate her Hollywood achievements to a relatively unimportant corner in her career, a simple means to an end—the end being a rich social life and a freedom to assert her independence, travel, have new experiences. It was a little hard to believe that her film career really meant so little to her; her attitude seemed to border on ingratitude. She had surprisingly little to say about her two Hitchcock classics, Rebecca and Suspicion. Her lack of interest in Suspicion might have been partly explained by the fact that her Academy Award she won for it triggered one of the most difficult periods between her and her sister. (De Havilland had been nominated the same year, for a vastly superior film, Hold Back the Dawn, and it had to have stung to lose the award to her little sister. ) Fontaine always claimed that winning the Oscar was the real start of being in the goldfish bowl, a position which gave her great anxiety. “Success is a very poisonous commodity,” she told us. “You can do no right, if you’re successful, somehow.” To win the Academy Award she also portrayed as a kind of hardship, because suddenly, “you’re the dartboard of the year. If you forget somebody’s first name, you’re in trouble. And the press is so easily snubbed. If you turn down an interview, they don’t understand.”
She didn’t mention that the Oscar put her in an enviable position to make some very good films: This Above All (she is sparkling and unaffected as an aristocratic English girl in love with bitter, jaded Tyrone Power),. She is good in all of them, at a time when her sister was still dealing with mostly run-of-the-mill material at Warner Bros. The difficulties between the two women was something we couldn’t avoid asking about, but Fontaine got around us there, too, dispensing with the matter in record time. “Had that been a sororal, what we could have done together. Just think of the parts that would have been offered us. And our children and the families. Our experiences would not have just doubled but quadrupled. But that didn’t work.” Then, abruptly, she was on to the next subject.
For anyone wondering about the sources of the enmity between the two sisters, it would probably do to look no further than their mother, Lilian Fontaine. Joan’s account of her in No Bed of Roses is one of the oddest portraits of a show business parent ever to wind up in print. She provides many examples of her mother’s rather chilly, selfish, standoffish personality, yet at the end of the book Joan writes her a love letter that feels bizarrely unearned.
Years later, I felt I had a clue about Lilian Fontaine when I saw the 1953 movie The Bigamist, in which Joan co-stars with Edmond O’Brien and Ida Lupino (who also directed). Lilian, who had taught acting, plays a bit part as Lupino’s landlady. Essentially all she is required to do is open the door, greet Edmond O’Brien, and take him upstairs to Lupino’s room. But she plays this tiny role with such over-the-top self-importance (“Yeeeeeeeeeessss?” she says, as she admits O’Brien) that it’s downright laughable.
As our interview went on, we steered Joan Fontaine to the subject of her best films, but she didn’t have much in the way of penetrating insights to offer. She did say that The Constant Nymph was the film she would most like to be remembered for, and she called Letter from an Unknown Woman “a lovely film”—which it undeniably is, although it flopped when it was released in 1948, postwar America being indifferent to a romantic story of old Vienna. “ It was not the right time for it, unfortunately,” she said. “Max Ophuls didn’t speak English, and I don’t speak much German. But we’re about sixty percent Teutonic in the English language, so it wasn’t all that difficult. After a take, if he approached me, I knew exactly what he was going to say: that I shouldn’t have blinked, or maybe a little softer in pitch, or whatever. But like many a director, he had his sadistic streak, and I could not bear it. Almost every director—Henry Hathaway, John Farrow, Otto Preminger—would have a whipping boy.”
We closed with a discussion of her trip to New York to hear the opera. “Why do I love opera?” she said. “First of all, it’s visual. All the wonderful costumes, wonderful sets. And wonderful sounds. It is to me, the culmination of all the arts. And then, being a snob, we dress up. Some people don’t. I don’t criticize a man who goes in blue jeans. At least he’s going to the opera. But in the opera club, we have to dress. Women have to put on the long gown and all that. And so, it embodies almost all the luxuries and arts, and civilities, too. And that’s why it means so much to me.”
When she talked this way, she reminded me a little of a grande dame out of one of her old movies—someone played by Dame May Whitty or Gladys Cooper. What a defiantly stubborn face she presented to us. When she spoke of her life of rich solitude in California, she said, “I have 200 rosebushes and I’m constantly building walls and planting trees. I have three acres and it’s all under my grubby little hands. But naturally, I’m not out of touch with anything. I take all the magazines. The New York Times on Sunday is a ritual. In fact, nobody’s ever allowed to telephone me on Sundays. That’s my day of music and The New York Times. One of the greatest things I have found is the luxury of solitude. It’s a terrific life.”
I hoped it was all true, that she really had gotten what she wanted. Perhaps she had. Certainly she appeared to live her life with a frankly unsentimental, even tough, view of herself and others. But as Liz and I left, I couldn’t help wondering if there was a connection between the artificial performances that dominated Fontaine’s career and the woman we had just encountered. If she had not had so many distractions and pursued acting with greater fervor, would there have been more performances that might have eclipsed even Tessa Sanger and Lisa Berndle, and the nameless, tear-stained wife in Rebecca, watching helplessly as Manderley burns to the ground?