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Joan Fontaine

Movie star

Movie star

Born: October 22, 1917; Died: December 15, 2013

Joan Fontaine, who has died aged 96, was an Oscar-winning actress who became a star after appearing in two of Alfred Hitchcock's early Hollywood films. The first was Rebecca, based on the novel by Daphne du Maurier, in which she played the naive young Mrs de Winter.

Later, she played Cary Grant's wife in Hitchcock's 1941 film Suspicion which includes the famous scene in which he slowly climbs the stairs to her room with a glass of milk that may, or may not, be poisoned.

In her personal life, Fontaine was also famous for another reason: the life-long antipathy and rivalry between her and her sister, Olivia de Havilland, also an actress and star of Gone with the Wind.

There was frequently jealously and bitterness between the sisters, and it was fuelled by the fact that it was the younger one, Fontaine, who often achieved success first - she was the first to marry, the first to win a large movie contract, the first to win an Oscar.

De Havilland once said of the feud: "Can you imagine what it's like to be an elder sister and have the younger one do everything first?"

But Fontaine's take on the rivalry was that her parents had always preferred her sister. "From birth," she said, "we were not encouraged by our parents or our nurses to be anything but rivals, and our careers only emphasised the situation."

Both of the sisters were born in Japan where their parents had moved from Britain. Their father Walter de Havilland was a lawyer from Kent who left for Japan with his wife Lilian in search of a more exciting life.

However, he had affairs and eventually Lilian decided she had no alternative but to leave, taking her children with her. She moved to California, where she met and married a department store manager called George Fontaine.

It was not a happy arrangement and the new stepfather raised the children strictly and ruthlessly. When the young Fontaine started biting her nails, for example, her stepfather dug a grave in the garden and showed it to her. "That's where you'll end up if you don't stop biting her nails," he told her. She called him the Iron Duke.

The girls's mother was ambitious for her daughters - although Fontaine always said she was focused on de Havilland - and sent them to classes in deportment and dancing. It was de Havilland who started to act first, in school productions and then theatre and film, and it was this early success that helped feed the rivalry.

Fontaine began her career in theatre, where she was spotted by an agent who encouraged her to try films. Her first role was small, in Quality Street with Katharine Hepburn, but her second The Man Who Found Himself in 1937 offered her a starring role as a wartime nurse -- a role she would occupy for real during the Second World War.

Later, when Fred Astaire decided he no longer wished to make movies with Ginger Rogers, auditions began for a replacement and Fontaine was considered. She endured difficult dance training that left her feet covered in blisters but, in the end, Astaire decided he would dance alone and although Fontaine appears in the finished film, A Damsel in Distress, she does not dance.

Around the same time, Gone with the Wind was in pre-production and Fontaine, like almost every other actress, coveted the part of Scarlett O'Hara. However, when she went to see the director George Cukor, he dismissed the idea and said she could audition for the part of the do-gooder Melanie. Fontaine was furious. "Melanie!" she said. "If it's a Melanie you want, call Olivia," and de Havilland did indeed eventually play the part.

Later, when Alfred Hitchcock was casting Rebecca, the opposite happened: de Havilland was initially the favourite to play Mrs de Winter, but the role eventually went to Fontaine. It did nothing for sisterly relations.

Rebecca was Fontaine's first major role, but it was not a happy experience for her. She resented Hitchcock's attempt to control every detail and his desire for total loyalty.

He even encouraged the largely British cast to be cool and distant towards her so she could understand how Mrs de Winter really felt in the novel. Her co-star Laurence Olivier needed no encouragement in this - he had wanted his wife Vivien Leigh in the film and resented the fact Fontaine won the role instead.

However, Fontaine was superb in the finished film: delicate, exposed, frightened at first, but slowly strengthening and finding the will to stand up to the terrible Mrs Danvers and tell her: "I am Mrs de Winter now."

It reflected what was going on in her own life too - she had finally broken away from her parents and her career was beginning to go just as well as her sister's. To top it all, she was nominated for an Oscar for the role as well.

Despite the pressures of making Rebecca, she quickly worked for Hitchcock again in Suspicion, which was released in 1941, and it is perhaps her finest performance.

She plays Lina McLaidlaw who falls for the dashing Johnnie Aysgarth, played by Grant. But she becomes increasingly suspicious of his motives in marrying her and begins to believe he wants her dead.

In the film's most famous scene, Grant climbs the stairs to her bedroom with a glass of milk. Hitchcock hid a lightbulb in the glass to make the milk glow ominously in the gloom. Fontaine was nominated for an Oscar again for the role and won this time.

The films that followed Suspicion were not always of the same quality, although she did make the period comedy The Emperor Waltz for Billy Wilder. All too often, there were box-office failures including Kiss the Blood off My Hands with Burt Lancaster.

Around the time she made Ivanhoe with Elizabeth Taylor - and after divorcing her second husband William Dozier, with whom she had a daughter Deborah - Fontaine travelled to Peru where she met a young girl, Martita, who was living in poverty; she adopted her almost on impulse and, with the permission of her family, took her back to Hollywood.

"Martita had captured me," she said, "and I was helpless." However, the young girl struggled to adjust and she and Fontaine became estranged as adults.

In 1954, Fontaine took over from Deborah Kerr in Tea and Sympathy on Broadway and two years later made Island in the Sun, in which she appeared in love scenes with Harry Belafonte.

As a result, she received hate mail, much of which came from members of the Ku Klux Klan. She was also offered the lead in From Here to Eternity, the role that eventually went to Kerr, but turned it down, much to her later regret.

By the 1960s and 1970s, Fontaine's career was much less successful and high profile.

One of her last films was the adventure movie Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea which she dismissed as horrendous. She later made appearances on television, including on shows such as The Love Boat. In her later years, she lived in Carmel, California

Her first husband was the actor Brian Aherne, her second Dozier, her third the film producer Collin Hudson Young, and her fourth the writer Alfred Wright. She is survived by her sister, her daughter Deborah and adopted daughter Martita.

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