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Joan Fontaine dies at 96 of natural causes

December 15, 2013 12:00:00 AM PST
Actress Joan Fontaine, best known for her role in Alfred Hitchcock's "Suspicion," has died of natural causes. She was 96.

The Oscar-winning actress passed away in her sleep at her home in Carmel Sunday morning, according to longtime friend Noel Beutel.

Fontaine surged to fame in the 1940s, and was nominated for three Best Actress Academy Awards. She earned an Oscar for her role as a naive wife in Hitchcock's thriller "Suspicion."

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 was also in films directed by Billy Wilder ("The Emperor Waltz"), Fritz Lang ("Beyond a Reasonable Doubt") and, wised up and dangerous, in Nicholas Ray's "Born to be Bad." 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 best-seller 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.

Hitchcock's "Suspicion," released in 1941, and featuring Fontaine as the timid woman whose husband (Cary Grant) may or may not be a killer, brought her a best actress Oscar and dramatized one of Hollywood's legendary feuds, between Fontaine and her sister, Olivia de Havilland, a losing nominee for "Hold Back the Dawn."

Competition for the prize hardened feelings that had apparent roots in childhood ("Livvie" was a bully, Joan an attention hog) and endured into old age, with Fontaine writing bitterly about her sister in the memoir "No Bed of Roses" and telling one reporter that she could not recall "one act of kindness from Olivia all through my childhood." While they initially downplayed any problems, tension was evident in 1947 when de Havilland came offstage after winning her first Oscar, for "To Each His Own." Fontaine came forward to congratulate her and was rebuffed. Explained de Havilland's publicist: "This goes back for years and years, ever since they were children."

While Fontaine topped her sister in 1941, and picked up a third nomination for the 1943 film "The Constant Nymph," de Havilland went on to win two Oscars and was nominated three other times.

A few other Fontaine films: "Bed of Roses," ''A Damsel In Distress," ''Blonde Cheat," ''Ivanhoe," ''You've Gotta Stay Happy" and "You Can't Beat Love." Her most daring role came in the 1957 film "Island in the Sun," in which she had an interracial romance with Harry Belafonte. Several Southern cities banned the movie after threats from the Ku Klux Klan.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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