The star of Hitchcock's Rebecca and Suspicion, sister of Olivia de Havilland, died in her sleep at home in California
Associated Press in Carmel, California
Fontaine, the sister of fellow Oscar winner Olivia de Havilland, died in her sleep in her Carmel, California, home on Sunday morning, her longtime friend Noel Beutel said. Fontaine had been fading in recent days and died peacefully, Beutel said.
Fontaine's pale, soft features and frightened stare made her ideal for melodrama and she was a big 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. The director would later say he was most impressed by Fontaine's restraint.
Fontaine appeared in more than 30 movies, including early roles in The Women and Gunga Din, and the title part in Jane Eyre. She was also in films directed by Wilder (The Emperor Waltz), Lang (Beyond a Reasonable Doubt) and in 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.
Hundreds applied for the lead female role in Rebecca, based on Daphne du Maurier's gothic best-seller about haunted Maxim de Winter and his 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.
Rebecca made her a star, but she felt as out of place off screen as her character was in the film. She remembered being treated cruelly by Olivier, who openly preferred his then-lover Vivien Leigh for the role, and being ignored by the largely British cast. Her uncertainty was reinforced by Hitchcock, who would insist that he was the only one who believed in her.
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 dramatised one of Hollywood's legendary feuds, between Fontaine and de Havilland, a losing nominee for Hold Back the Dawn.
Competition for the prize hardened feelings that had apparent roots in childhood 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. "This goes back for years and years, ever since they were children," de Havilland's publicist said.
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.
Fontaine was featured in Jane Eyre with Orson Welles and she and Bing Crosby got top billing in Emperor Waltz. Her most daring role came in the 1957 film Island in the Sun, in which she had an interracial romance with Harry Belafonte. Several cities in the US south banned the movie after threats from the Ku Klux Klan.
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.
While making New York her home for 25 years she appeared twice on Broadway, replacing Deborah Kerr in the hit 1953 drama Tea and Sympathy and Julie Harris in the long-running 1968 comedy Forty Carats.
In 1978, she played a socialite in the made-for-TV movie based on Joyce Haber's steamy novel, The Users. In the '70s and '80s she appeared on the television series such as The Love Boat, Cannon, and in Ryan's Hope.
Fontaine was born Joan de Havilland in 1917 in Tokyo, where her British parents lived. Their mother moved her and her sister, born in 1916, to California in 1919 after the breakup of her marriage. Fontaine took the name of her mother's second husband.
She married four times: the actor Brian Aherne; the film executive William Dozier; the film producer Collin Hudson Young; and journalist Alfred Wright.
Dozier and Fontaine had a daughter, Deborah Leslie. 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."