If Joan Fontaine, who died today at the age of 96, had followed through on a plan to stop acting after RKO dropped her contract in 1939, she would have been remembered as a footnote, a promising young actress who never quite made it, watching as her sister, Olivia De Havilland, enjoyed the success she could never find. Instead, as Variety recounts in its obituary for Fontaine, she found herself talking to producer David O. Selznick about starring in Alfred Hitchcock’s film adaptation of the bestseller Rebecca. She took the part, and the film became a huge success, earning Fontaine the first of three Oscar nominations. From there, her course was set. Fontaine reteamed with Hitchcock the following year for Suspicion, again playing a woman whose marriage has led her to live in fear. For that role, she won a Best Actress award, beating out De Havilland and confirming a rivalry that often played out in public.
At times, that rivalry has overshadowed her accomplishments, which are considerable. In her two films for Hitchcock, Fontaine kept the tension grounded in her characters’ mounting fear, while helping create the template for the Hitchcock heroine: cooly beautiful, put together, and imperiled. Fontaine would go on to play Jane Eyre opposite Orson Welles in Robert Stevenson’s 1943 adaptation of the Charlotte Brontë novel. That same year, she won another Oscar nomination for The Constant Nymph and her subsequent work included Frenchman’s Creek (like Rebecca an adaptation of a Daphne Du Maurier novel), Billy Wilder’s The Emperor Waltz, and Max Ophuls’ Letter From An Unknown Woman. The latter two were produced by Rampart, a company Fontaine founded with future Batman producer William Dozier, the second of her four husbands. Other notable film turns included 1952’s Ivanhoe and Ida Lupino’s The Bigamist.
In the ‘50s, Fontaine began to focus more on stage and television than movies. Her last film appearance was in The Witches, a Hammer horror film from 1966. Her final on-screen appearance was in 1994’s made-for-TV Christmas film Good King Wenceslas opposite Perry King and Stefanie Powers. From there, she committed to the retirement she first entertained over 50 years earlier, one that would have made Hollywood’s Golden Age a little less golden had she not reconsidered.