Happy Birthday, “Unknown” Joan

22 Oct

I’m reposting this piece from October in tribute to Ms. Fontaine, who passed away over the weekend at the age of 96…


Okay, today is Tuesday, October 22. If I’ve timed this just right, it’s Joan Fontaine’s 96th birthday.  Hopefully, she’s still alive. Maybe she is, maybe she isn’t. See, I began writing this piece on Monday, July 8, and my goal is to take as long as I need to write it, my way, and present it on her b’day. Hopefully, she’s  still with us. 96, can you believe that?

Fontaine’s parents were English though she was actually born in Japan and lived there for a number of years before settling down, with her mum and older sister, in California. Her sis, btw, is no less than renowned actress Olivia de Havilland, a two-time Best Actress Oscar winner (To Each His Own, 1946; The Heiress, 1949) though Joan actually beat her to the gold, earning the Academy’s Best Actress award for 1941’s Suspicion, directed by Alfred Hitchcock–and co-starring Cary Grant. Indeed, Fontaine’s Oscar came at her sister’s expense as she was nominated the same year for Hold Back the Dawn. Talk about an awkward moment though, again, de Havilland went on to win two of the golden statuettes.  Anyway, prior to working with Hitch on her own Oscar winner, Fontaine starred in the director’s 1940 Best Picture winner Rebecca, from Daphne du Maurier’s best selling gothic novel, for which Fontaine scored her first Oscar nod.

Joan and sister Olivia, also still living (as of this writing) have famously feuded for decades, including a well-publicized backstage row one year at the Oscars–after de Havilland won; actually, I think the sisters used to feud. These days, I don’t think they even speak to each other, according to most reports–and haven’t for quite some time.  (Since they’re both close to 100, they might not be lucid these days to carry on conversations with anybody, anyway.) I’ve never really understood what has fueled their mutual distaste for one another,  the specific trigger, that is, but I guess it’s easy enough to chalk it up to sibling rivalry.

I guess that as time goes by, de Havilland is probably more fondly remembered than is Fontaine; after all, the former’s filmography includes the seemingly immortal blockbuster Gone with the Wind, in which she portrayed my too-saintly-to-be-true namesake: Melanie Hamilton Wilkes. Namesake, Schmamesake, I’ve just never cared for that character.  She’s insufferable, and I want to lash out against her somehow, but I digress.  De Havilland boasts a total of five Oscar nominations, including not only a supporting bid for GWTW, but also for her leading role in  The Snake Pit, a for-the-times frank look at mental institutions, the predecessor to the likes of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Frances though, again, this piece is really about Fontaine.

My point is that I’ve always been more impressed by Joan Fontaine–the other Joan (sorry, Miss Crawford) than I ever have been by de Havilland.  To me, Fontaine is something akin to an acting savant: wind her up and watch her act.  Yes, maybe, but, not exactly. It’s almost as though she doesn’t need to be wound up in order to do what she does. Instead, it appears that she almost can’t help herself, that she must act–and must do so with every scintilla of her being.  Incredibly, Fontaine only boasts three Oscar nods.  Again, she won for Suspicion after being nominated for Rebecca. I’ll be frank. Fontaine’s character in Rebecca, known only as the second Mrs. de Winter (after the mysterious passing of the titular first Mrs. de Winter), doesn’t excite me as much as some of her other performances. Oh, of course, she’s convincing as a guileless young bride who may very well be in over her head, but it would be hard for anyone to stand out in a crowd that includes such hammy divas as Dame Judith Anderson, Laurence Olivier, and George Sanders.  I mean, come on, Anderson, a well-deserving Best Supporting Actress nominee (who lost to Jane Darwell as Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath) just eats the screen as Mrs. Danvers, a deliciously cuckoo housekeeper with titanium nerve. Anderson’s portrayal deserves every bit of its legendary status. Poor Fontaine never stood a chance. On the other hand, maybe that was the point.


Joan Fontaine on Oscar night way back when she won for  1941’s Suspicion. The actress was a mere 24 years old when she earned her industry’s highest accolade, only two years older than the most recent Best Actress winner, Jennifer Lawrence (Silver Linings Playbook).  The youngest ever winner in the category is Marlee Matlin (Children of a Lesser God, 1986) who was all of 21 when it happened for her.

Fontaine’s Oscar winning Suspicion might as well be called Rebecca-2.0 because in many ways it seems like a retread of the earlier film; that noted,  du Maurier’s Rebecca itself owes more than a little to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, in which Fontaine co-starred opposite Orson Welles in a 1943 adaptation….but I digress. In Suspicion, Fontaine plays a bookish heiress, a tad too naive for her own good, who falls in love, recklessly it seems, with a charming social climber played by Grant. Once again, a Fontaine heroine comes to realize that her marriage is fraught with dark underpinnings.  I have to say  that even though Suspicion is not quite vintage Hitchcock, and, believe me, it’s not, I remember being more than just a little impressed by Fontaine the first time I saw it. It’s not an especially flashy role, that’s not it, it’s just that Fontaine is so good at inhabiting a character, a woman, who feels love as deeply as she does. Oh, and she’s elegant and beautiful and all that (much more so than in Rebecca).

Even so, the script is wobbly though Hitchcock tries hard to make it visually interesting, what with a lighting scheme that casts a spidery shadow over much of Fontaine’s home. Elsewhere, we’re treated to a macabre dinner party featuring a mystery novelist, an undertaker, and, oh, yes, a tight lipped butch lesbian. Then, there’s that famous scene of Grant carrying an eerily lit glass of milk (that might very well be poisoned) up a winding staircase.  Sure it looks great, but, again, given all the tinkering involved with the script (at the behest of the studio heads and/or censors), the scene doesn’t work nearly as well in retrospect. Ask me why only after you’ve seen the movie yourself.  Oh, and then you might also be able to help me settle a bet. I hate spoilers, but here goes: in the last shot, do you think Hitchcock used body doubles for Fontaine and Grant? It wouldn’t surprise me one bit.

Fontaine’s final Oscar nomination was for The Constant Nymph, a film that was out of circulation for a great long while (seven decades, per…) , but was resurrected on Turner Classic Movies about a year or two ago.  The plot is bizarre, maybe a little underwhelming even, but Fontaine delivers emotional authenticity even with a script as patchy as this one. Simply, Fontaine plays a school girl who has a crush on her cousin’s famous composer husband.  Nothing is easy in this saga, I assure you, including the casting. Alexis Smith plays the cousin while Charles Boyer portrays the composer. Oh, I’ve always been a fan of Boyer, but pairing him with Fontaine makes me uneasy.  Still, the thing to remember here is that Fontaine was 26 when she made this movie, but she’s playing a teenager, again, a school girl, and she does so effortlessly, or seemingly effortlessly, and that’s part of what makes her performance so compelling.


Joan Fontaine (r) is certainly aided in the early sequences of Letter from an Unknown Woman by loose fitting, shapeless dresses and long, girlish hair. These combined elements definitely help create a convincing illusion that thirtyish Fontaine is actually a gawky teen. Still, cosmetic details only go so far. Fontaine’s body language and her intense wide-eyed gaze work wonders. When the camera is focused on her while adults are speaking, she actually listens like a 14 year old.

Really, this whole article is one great big build-up for me to plug my all-time favorite Fontaine film, for which she was incredibly NOT nominated for an Oscar, and that is 1948’s Letter from an Unknown Woman (directed by Max Ophüls though his screen credit reads “Max Opuls’). Adapted from a novella by Austrian writer Stefan Zweig,  Letter from an Unknown Woman tells the story of a Viennese school girl  who develops a secret crush on a neighbor, a famous pianist, and spends most of her life (beginning in the late 1800s) pining for a man who scarcely knows she’s alive. Of course, being a gentleman, sort of, the pianist (Louis Jourdan) pays almost no mind to the mild flirtations of the girl other than a polite nod, a kind word, here and there. Maybe he admires her pluck, but he certainly does not view her in a romantic light.  (How old can she be, after all, 13 or 14?) Mostly, because he’s a bit of a cad when he’s not playing the piano, he simply dismisses her–and then forgets all about her.

Fortunes change, and Fontaine’s Lisa moves with her mother and stepfather to the town of Linz, but even as Lisa grows from gawky adolescent to poised young woman, she clings to her crush on this idealized male. Well, who can blame her, right? Louis Jourdan is quite the specimen of masculine beauty–and this was well before he enacted a similar role in MGM’s Oscar winning Gigi.  Anyway, though the now blossoming Lisa is not without suitors, no one  can possibly live up to her romantic expectations, which distresses her parents as they are, well, a little anxious to see her married. When Lisa’s refusal to accept a proposal prompts her parents to turn her out of their house, she finds work as a model in a dress maker’s salon. Then, she catches up with the pianist (okay, she stalks him, and not for the first time), and they enjoy a brief fling, resulting in a life-changing pregnancy.

I’ll stop there, but just know that the story spans one more act–and several more years.  Make no mistake, however, this is pure melodrama, but it’s done with incredible style, starting with the startlingly vivid black and white cinematography by Franz Planer,  whose many, many credits (162 per the IMDb) include 20,000 Leagues under the Sea and Breakfast at Tiffany’s as well as Oscar nods for the likes of  Champion (1949, B&W),  Death of a Salesman (1951, B&W), Roman Holiday (1953, a shared nod with Henri Alekan, also B&W), The Nun’s Story (1959, Color), and The Children’s Hour (1961, B& W). Planer never won an Oscar, and, shockingly, he wasn’t even nominated for this film though its beauty is incomparable. Well, of course, in those days, black and white movies still outnumbered color offerings, so competition for one of five slots on Oscar’s final ballot was fierce, indeed. Still, what a smashing enterprise: the blackest blacks, the whitest, crispest, whites, and seemingly every shade of grey in between (way more than fifty, I bet).  The palette is so rich that brings out the textures in every fabric, every landscape, and every surface. For example, has any polished marble floor in any black and white movie ever ever gleamed as much as the one in the opera house featured in the final act?

Oh, and about that marble floor. The art direction by legendary Alexander Golitzen (14 Oscar nods, 3 wins) is miraculous in its completeness.  Has Vienna, and the less glamorous  Linz, ever looked so lushly romantic?  Well, of course, it’s strictly old Hollywood magic, with all of it created on studio soundstages and backlots. Oh, and the movie opens with a late night downpour, another tricky technical feat.

Lush visuals aside, Letter from an Unknown Woman benefits immensely from Fontaine’s magnificent performance. Indeed, I think this is one of the most remarkable feats of acting I’ve ever witnessed, and Fontaine’s omission from the Academy’s roll call is hard to reconcile. I hate to go so far as it to call it an injustice since I don’t know that the Oscars have anything to do with justice. Indeed, I’m pretty sure justice has nothing to do it. I would call it unfathomable, but even then I’m not sure that’s the case, but it is perplexing and more than a little regrettable.


In the movie’s final act, the now fully grown Lisa wears elegant updos, full makeup, and the wardrobe of a well-connected society matron. Also, whereas Fontaine as the younger Lisa speaks softly, hesitantly, and wistfully, her voice changes over the course of the picture.  The adult Lisa speaks confidently, drawing from her lower register  and adding a slight lilt to her impeccable diction.

That noted, Fontaine’s portrayal captures my imagination and damn near leaves me breathless with every viewing; most of the time, it’s so nuanced that it doesn’t even seem like acting, but, then, wait a second: Fontaine is a grown woman enacting the role of a girl who’s still very much unformed; however, that’s part of what makes this movie so utterly compelling. Opuls invites viewers to take a lifelong journey with this character, starting from about the exact moment when she feels the first stirring of sexual longing, even if she can’t fully process it.  I saw hints of something similar in Todd Solondz’s Welcome to the Dollhouse, but whereas Solondz’s movie is an edgy black comedy about junior high (middle school) in the ‘burbs, Letter from an Unknown Woman is grand and tragic.

Of course, as I mentioned previously,  a lot of what the young Lisa does comes across  like stalking, and that’s because, well, that’s exactly what she’s doing. I don’t necessarily think the filmmakers condone it, per se, but I do think context is everything; after all, Lisa is a still a child, so she thinks and behaves like one.  Plus she never puts herself or her intended in any danger.  One very old and wise critic once observed that we should all beware movies that present audiences with a thesis statement of some kind. Yikes!  Even so, I think that Opuls might very well have a thesis here, and I think he needed an actress as gifted or skilled as Fontaine to make it work, so here goes: Romantic love makes a school girl feel like a grown woman and makes a grown woman feel like a school girl; however, whereas the young Lisa is impossibly controlled by her urges, the more mature Lisa has seen enough and has lived long enough to know when to let go.  Even so, when she breaks, to quote Dylan, “she breaks just like a little girl.” With this in mind, the entire film hinges on Fontaine’s ability to portray Lisa as both a starry-eyed lass and a wizened adult.  Casting a child actress to play the character during the first third or so (as is sometimes the case when a character ages significantly from beginning to end) simply would not make sense as the emotional arc has to be projected through a single lens, a single instrument.

I also mentioned earlier that ‘unfathomable’ would not be the best word to describe Fontaine’s omission from that year’s Oscar honor roll because in some ways it is indeed possible to see the situation from another viewpoint. First, there’s the possibility that Fontaine’s movie was simply not much of a hit in its time, and that can often be a factor when it comes to awards recognition. Also, and possibly most significantly, is the notion that at first glance, Fontaine isn’t doing anything in this movie that she hadn’t already done in the likes of Rebecca, Suspicion, and The Constant Nymph, that is,  that she’d already played one too many naive brides or school girls with unhealthy crushes on older men (as most apparent in the flick opposite Charles Boyer).  In every case, Fontaine’s heroines can’t seem to separate themselves from the men they so love, adore, worship, etc. even though that, what? tunnel vision doesn’t always work out so well. If Fontaine was “penalized” by Academy voters because this movie too closely resembled earlier efforts, that’s too bad because this indeed is the real deal. It feels fresh with every viewing, and its reputation has grown immensely over the years whereas, say, Suspicion is arguably more famous for Grant and that spookily lit glass of milk than it is for Fontaine’s Oscar winning work.

Also, in 1948, people were just wild over Jane Wyman’s work as a deaf character in Johnny Belinda. Well everybody except Wyman’s soon-to-be-ex, Ronald Reagan (the future President of the United States) who apparently cracked wise that his wife’s commitment to the role helped destroy their marriage. At any rate, the critics loved Wyman, the public responded enthusiastically, and an Oscar frontrunner was born. If that weren’t enough, Fontaine’s sister Olivia de Havilland  earned raves in the previously noted The Snake Pit, which like Johnny Belinda was also a big hit. Furthermore, on hand to make the race even tighter was perennial Oscar bridesmaid Barbara Stanwyck in the suspense classic Sorry, Wrong Number (which would be Stanwyck’s final Oscar contender). Regardless, Fontaine in Letter from an Unknown Woman more than holds her own against the likes of the Academy’s of all-time greats, such as Vivien Leigh (Gone with the Wind), Holly Hunter (The Piano), Maggie Smith (The Prime of Miss jean Brodie) and a few others. I even think Fontaine transcends parts of all of those in certain scenes. I especially think she’s more convincing as a teen than Leigh is in the opening scenes of Gone with the Wind–and Fontaine was actually older when she filmed her movie than Leigh was during production of GWTW.

Of course, you need not take my word for it; after all, as I noted, Letter from an Unknown Woman‘s reputation has grown immensely in the 65 years since it was first released.  For example, writing in his 1993 book Alternate Oscars, Danny Peary takes away Wyman’s Oscar and gives it to Fontaine (though he keeps de Havilland as the sole runner-up); moreover, in 1992, the Library of Congress ushered the film into the National Film Registry as a classic American film worth preserving, That’s a big deal.  I’d read about Letter… for a number of years before the  registry  induction or the Peary book; however, my curiosity, as well as my determination, surged in light of those developments since they pretty much occurred back-to-back. Well, it took several years,  but it finally happened.  The trouble was that for the longest time, Letter… was out of circulation in the U.S. (who knows why–something legal, I’m sure) though it was available in other countries, meaning other formats.  I don’t want to say that my first copy was a bootleg, because it really wasn’t,  but it was difficult to obtain. Luckily, Olive Films, the same company that resurrected HIgh Noon, Johnny Guitar, The Quiet Man, and a few others, brought back Letter...earlier in this year. Alas, there are no extra features on this edition though the picture quality is superb.

Of course, you might ask what’s so great, original, or otherwise distinctly American about this movie that it’s worthy of being  considered a certifiable classic, per the LOC? After all, the text’s origin is Austrian; the director hailed from Germany; the leading lady was British, and the leading man was French. Maybe what makes it so American is that Hollywood often attracts the best talent from all over the world.

I think the easy answer is that it represents a whole genre, the “woman’s picture,” that really no longer exists, which is  not to say that today’s top actresses never catch a break, but the types of movies they’re offered have changed. Of course, the whole nature of moviemaking has also changed, and that’s something else significant about Letter from an Unknown Woman. Back in the day, big studios regularly cranked out film after film, more often than not, shot on Hollywood soundstages and backlots. Almost no era or destination seemed beyond the reach of dedicated designers and crafts persons. Indeed, Letter from an Unknown Woman is no exception. Again, it unfolds in a stunningly detailed recreation of Vienna, via the fabled Universal  facilities,  that might very well be too ‘magical” to be true though it’s still a  hell of an illusion, made even more thrilling by the fact that it’s in black and white, which is actually more difficult than it seems at first glance,  After all, designing in color, while  by no means rote, is relatively straightforward when compared to the intricacies of preparing a film in black and white, which calls for extraordinary attention to textures, contrasts, and shading so that multitudes of colors are suggested yet balanced. Just as almost nothing in any film is ever really left to chance, the same is especially true in a black and white production. It’s not as simple as replacing one kind of film stock for another. Every element must be  carefully considered knowing that the finished product will not have the advantage of  the full color spectrum. (I intend to review a movie soon enough that will show how this  can go wrong. ) As I told a friend just recently, Letter from an Unknown Woman is the Barry Lyndon of black and white films.  It’s so rich, and does what it does so well, that I can’t even imagine wanting to see it in color.

Btw:  Though you will not see Fontaine’s name in the credits as one of the film’s executives, the truth is that Letter, while shot on the Universal lot (per the IMDb) was actually produced through Rampart, the company she established with her then husband, William Dozier (who would later produce–and provide voiceovers for–the short-lived TV sensation Batman).  Also, John Houseman serves as the film’s producer. Houseman, one of the key players in the founding of the influential Mercury Theatre group, which later became synonymous with Orson Welles, is also remembered as a giant among acting coaches who won an Oscar as Best Supporting Actor (The Paper Chase, 1973), which was his first film role of any consequence after decades of working behind the scenes.

Fascinating stuff about Houseman, but not as fascinating as the woman herself. Still, 3,000 words is a bit long for a lover letter that I began writing a few months ago.

Happy birthday, Ms. Fontaine.


One Response to “Happy Birthday, “Unknown” Joan”

  1. listen2uraunt 16 December 2013 at 4:32 am #

    Reblogged this on Confessions of a Movie Queen and commented:

    I’m reposting this piece from October in tribute to Ms. Fontaine, who passed away over the weekend at the age of 96…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: