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Oscar-winner dies at age 96

Academy Award-winning actress Joan Fontaine, who found stardom playing naive wives in Alfred Hitchcock's "Suspicion" and "Rebecca", died Sunday. She was 96.

Fontaine, the sister of fellow Oscar winner Olivia de Havilland, died in her sleep in her Carmel, California, home Sunday morning, said longtime friend Noel Beutel. Fontaine had been fading in recent days and died "peacefully," Beutel said.

In her later years, Fontaine had lived quietly at her Villa Fontana estate, south of Carmel, enjoying its spectacular view of windswept Point Lobos.

Fontaine's pale, soft features and frightened stare made her ideal for melodrama and she was a major star for much of the 1940s. For Hitchcock, she was a prototype of the uneasy blondes played by Kim Novak in "Vertigo" and Tippi Hedren in "The Birds" and "Marnie." 

Fontaine appeared in more than 30 movies, including early roles in "The Women" and "Gunga Din," the title part in "Jane Eyre" and in Max Ophuls' historical drama "Letter from an Unknown Woman." She starred on Broadway in 1954 in "Tea and Sympathy" and in 1980 received an Emmy nomination for her cameo on the daytime soap "Ryan's Hope."

"You know, I've had a helluva life," Fontaine once said. "Not just the acting part. I've flown in an international balloon race. I've piloted my own plane. I've ridden to the hounds. I've done a lot of exciting things."

Fontaine had minor roles in several films in the 1930s, but received little attention and was without a studio contract when she was seated next to producer David O. Selznick at a dinner party near the decade's end. She impressed him enough to be asked to audition for "Rebecca," his first movie since "Gone With the Wind" and the American directorial debut of Hitchcock.

Just as seemingly every actress had tried out for Scarlett O'Hara, hundreds applied for the lead female role in "Rebecca," based on Daphne du Maurier's gothic bestseller about haunted Maxim de Winter and the dead first wife — the title character — he obsesses over. With Laurence Olivier as Maxim, Fontaine as the unsuspecting second wife and Judith Anderson as the dastardly housekeeper Mrs. Danvers, "Rebecca" won the Academy Award for best picture and got Fontaine the first of her three Oscar nominations.

Fontaine said she left Hollywood because she was asked to play Elvis Presley's mother. "Not that I had anything against Elvis Presley. But that just wasn't my cup of tea," she said.

Show business had come naturally. Besides her Oscar-winning sister, her mother, Lillian Fontaine, appeared in more than a dozen films.

Fontaine was born Joan de Havilland in 1917 in Tokyo, where her British parents lived. Both she and her sister, born in 1916, were sickly, and their mother hoped a change of climate would improve their health when she moved the family to California in 1919 after the breakup of her marriage.

She returned to East Asia at the age of 15, taking up amateur theatricals and studying art. After returning to California, Fontaine appeared in a play called "Call It A Day" in Los Angeles in 1937, gaining the attention of an agent who signed her to her first film, "Quality Street." Her sister was already an established film actress. Fontaine changed her last name, taking that of her mother's second husband.

She married four times. Fontaine's first husband was actor Brian Aherne; the second, film executive William Dozier; the third, film producer Collin Hudson Young. The ex-husband of actress Ida Lupino, Young produced "The Bigamist," with Lupino and Fontaine starring and Lupino directing. Fontaine's last husband was Sports Illustrated golf editor Alfred Wright Jr.

Dozier and Fontaine had a daughter, Deborah Leslie, whose godmother was actress Maureen O'Sullivan. Fontaine later adopted a child from Peru, Maritita Pareja.

Despite divorce, Fontaine remained philosophical about love and marriage.

"Goodness knows, I tried," she said after her second marriage failed. "But I think it's virtually impossible for the right kind of man to be married to a movie star."

"Something happens when he steps off a train and someone says, 'Step right this way, Mr. Fontaine.' That hurts. Any man with self-respect can't take it, and I wouldn't want to marry the other kind."

The Canadian Press


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