Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Celebrating Joan Fontaine's Finest Hour in Rebecca

I'm a little late to the Joan Fontaine birthday party. The screen legend reached a landmark (her 90th) on Monday, and I'm ashamed to admit I had no idea the lady was achieving this milestone (In regards to classic films, I'm very good with dates, but I draw a blank concerning stars' birthdays). Good genes obviously run in the family, as Joan's rival sister, Olivia de Havilland, turned 91 last July. I feel a little under-qualified to do a Fontaine post, as I'm merely a fan, while others have come into much closer contact with one of these extremely famous siblings. As part of Self-Styled Siren's wonderful Fontainefest, she relates a by-proxy encounter with one of her favorites; dear Stinky Lulu recalls a time wherein de Havilland offered him a large measure of praise; and J.J. over at As Little as Possible reveals he actually kept up a correspondence with the lady of the hour. By contrast, last year I managed to make it to a function honoring the still-spry de Havilland, but I had to share her time with about 1,000 others, from a seat near the back row. I also checked out the beach at Carmel last summer, but Joan must have forgot I was coming to her hometown, as she wasn’t there with the Welcome Wagon to greet me.

Outside of viewing Fontaine in her signature roles in Letter From an Unknown Woman and Rebecca, the most fitting method I can think of to pay tribute to Joan's talent is via her truly brilliant screen tests for Rebecca (found on the Criterion 2-disc Special Edition of the film). Besting competition is one thing, but beating out Vivien Leigh, Margaret Sullivan, Loretta Young, and Anne Baxter for the showcase role in one of Hollywood's great romantic dramas is something else. The other four candidates have some good moments in their tests, and Baxter and (especially) Young come across as capable enough to meet the major requirements of the role (youth, beauty, sensitivity), but Joan Fontaine's extraordinary. Eyes cast downward, and alternating her voice between a monotone and a quavering tentativeness, she’s the only actress to fully comprehend the many facets that make up the character of "I" (faithful to the Daphne du Maurier novel, the heroine's name is never mentioned). Fontaine's so on-target, vibrant, and original in her interpretation, it's stupefying producer David O. Selznick supposedly hemmed and hawed over casting her in director Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 classic. In her autobiography, Fontaine relates Selznick kept asking her to do another test (which she refused to do- watching her tests, one can understand why Joan didn't feel it necessary to twice prove herself the ideal choice for the lead), and even came close to signing Baxter instead.

Aided by George Cukor's coaxing (and probably his own common sense), Selznick made the right decision and cast Fontaine. She's even better in the movie, offering a subtle, quite, assured performance as the shy, nervous young woman who, before the final fadeout, develops the fortitude to stand up to some fairly imposing adversaries. Fontaine pulls off the difficult task of coming across as sweet without being cloying, while also managing to suggest many complexities exist behind the inexperienced I’s charming manner. The actress easily holds her own against (and often, betters) co-star Laurence Olivier (who's properly handsome and gloomy, but a bit too stoic and rigid), Judith Anderson (playing the infamous "Mrs. Danvers" with ominous zeal), George Sanders, and Florence Bates. The believable intensity Fontaine brings to every scene is compelling to the utmost degree, and her performance is the foremost reason viewers of Rebecca adopt a state of fascination as they watch the story unfold.

The film would go on to win the Best Picture Academy Award, but Joan lost the Best Actress Oscar she richly deserved to Ginger Rogers. Happily, Fontaine only had to wait a year to pick up her own prize for a fine (if not quite as impressive) performance in her follow-up Hitchcock-directed vehicle, Suspicion (she beat her sister, who was up for Hold Back the Dawn, in the process). After scoring additional screen successes during the next decade or so in The Constant Nymph, Jane Eyre, Unknown Woman, and Ivanhoe, among others, Fontaine pared back her film output after the 1950's, but she didn’t slow down as she pursued other interests, including aviation, golfing, cooking, and interior decorating. However, Fontaine’s primary legacy rests on her filmography and, in particular, her enchanting, memorable work in Rebecca. Seldom has a performer been so exactly right for a role, and the film’s enduring appeal is immeasurably indebted to Fontaine’s accomplished, perceptive performance.


At 6:52 AM, Blogger Emma said...

Brilliant post. I consider Fontaine's turn in Rebecca one of the best female performances of all time, and her turns in Letter from an Unknown Woman and The Constant Nymph masterful too. Truly a lovely talent.

At 7:36 PM, Blogger Vertigo's Psycho said...

Thanks for your comments, Emma. Fontaine's Rebecca work definitely ranks very high on my list, too. There's a refreshing naturalness to everything Joan does in the film, which helps lend a contemporary feel to her performance, nearly seventy years after the film's release.

At 5:47 AM, Blogger jwri1981 said...

Good genes indeed! Her mom lived to be in her late 80s' and her dad lived to be 96. Even her step-mother (not related by blood of course) died in 2005, a few weeks shy of 101.

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