Google+ Cinema Viewfinder: RIP Joan Fontaine

Monday, December 16, 2013

RIP Joan Fontaine

by Tony Dayoub

"At age 108, flying around the stage in Peter Pan, as a result of my sister cutting the wires. Olivia has always said I was first at everything; I got married first, got an Academy Award first, had a child first. If I die, she'll be furious, because again I'll have got there first!"
-Joan Fontaine, when asked how she'd like to die.

Well, she came pretty close. Joan Fontaine died this weekend at the age of 96. I found out last night while I was strolling with my family in Midtown Atlanta, less than a few hours after posting a small tribute to Peter O'Toole. Her death caps off a week in which we lost O'Toole, Eleanor Parker, Audrey Trotter, and Tom Laughlin. But in many ways it's Fontaine's passing that touches me most personally.

When I started this film writing gig, I had a sufficient amount of hubris to think I knew what I was talking about, at least when it came to American cinema. But I soon learned how small a dent even an incessant moviewatcher like myself makes on the totality of film that there is to experience. For that, the person I mostly have to thank is a writer who started in the online world and has now gone on to become a critic with the New York Post; a benefactor, mentor, and dear friend, Farran Smith Nehme. At her blog, The Self-Styled Siren, I learned all manner of things about classic film, how to write, and sometimes about an actress I had never really known much about before. That actress was Joan Fontaine.

Forgive me for having started this modest tribute to Fontaine with a quote that has been and will continue to be trotted out in nearly every obituary you might read. But it perfectly encapsulates what I liked about the woman. Her air of elegance and mystery, perpetuated by her frequently cocked left eyebrow and a sly half-smile, belied a feisty dame that could deliver sharp barbs wrapped in pillowy-soft compliments that preserved an immeasurable amount of class. A running feud with her equally famous older sister, Olivia de Havilland, led to a rupture that reportedly began in 1975 and apparently remained unresolved at the time of her death. But if Fontaine ever felt any regrets about it, she never really voiced them. Fontaine was just as likely as praise and recommend her sister for parts as she was to sneakily insult her.

I soon became a fan of Fontaine's for her work as much as for her fascinating personal life. As with O'Toole's death, I am reminded of just how many of her most important movies I've yet to see. But it's probably her most atypical—as a gold-digging femme fatale in the neo-noirish Nicholas Ray film, Born to Be Bad (reviewed here)—that I'll most remember her for. Usually playing the virtuous heroine, here Fontaine plays the manipulative Christabel, who never met a rich man she didn't want to marry-then-divorce. Sweet, demure, little Fontaine proves she can brass-knuckle anyone into submission, as she does tough guy Robert-Fuckin'-Ryan, the prole she can't deny she's turned on by, but can't allow herself to be distracted by.

I'm still accumulating DVDs and DVR recordings of Fontaine films the Siren has recommended. But I was a little proud I got to that one first, that I was able to repay what I owe Farran in some small way by recommending it to her, and that she liked it.

(This post is dedicated to Farran, on the sad occasion of the passing of her favorite actress. You can read her own tribute here.)

Recommended Films - Born to be Bad, Ivanhoe, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea

And an even better list of movies I haven't seen but should: A Damsel in Distress, Gunga Din, The Women, Rebecca, Suspicion, The Constant Nymph, Jane Eyre, Letter from an Unknown Woman,

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