Today, Oct. 22, Joan Fontaine turns 90 years old. And this week the Siren intends to do her doggonedest to post as much as possible, and devote each post to Joan. There are precious few stars from the glory days of Hollywood who are still with us, and none are dearer to the Siren than Ms Fontaine. Can you guess why?
She was a delicate clinging vine in Gunga Din, one of the greatest of all 1930s action films. She was a teary-eyed, but still sympathetic "sheep" in The Women. She was Fred Astaire's first post-Ginger partner, in A Damsel in Distress. She was Hitchcock's first Hollywood blonde as the terrorized, given-name-less second Mrs. de Winter in Rebecca, the role Ms Fontaine believes most likely to keep her name alive with the public. She won an Oscar with her second film for Hitchcock, Suspicion, beating a roster that included her own sister, Olivia de Havilland. She was nominated for another Oscar for The Constant Nymph. She was the title heroine in Jane Eyre, opposite Orson Welles in one of his few outings as a romantic lead.
Any of this would merit a good long post from any classic movie lover, but for the Siren one reason towers above all. Joan Fontaine didn't merely give her finest performance in Letter from an Unknown Woman, which the Siren firmly believes is the greatest woman's picture of all time. Ms Fontaine also selected the Stefan Zweig story, developed the project with her then-husband William Dozier and was instrumental in hiring the great Max Ophuls to direct.
It just doesn't get much more impressive than that. If there were any justice in the world, they'd be altering the lights on the Empire State Building today for Ms Fontaine. As it is, maybe she is catching up with some of her lesser-known films on Turner Classic Movies today. As of now, the Siren plans to spend the week going through Ms Fontaine's career more or less chronologically, winding up with some thoughts on Letter. If you have the time or can get to your Tivo, do try to catch some of TCM's offerings. The Siren saw Until They Sail a while back, and though Ms Fontaine is hard on it in her memoirs, she is pretty good in it. Unfortunately the Siren won't be able to see Born to Be Bad, but Nicholas Ray directed it and if anyone catches it please let us know what you think. Also, if anyone else posts birthday tributes, drop the Siren a line via email or comments and she will link it up.
The Siren treasures her one tiny personal connection to Ms Fontaine. According to IMDB, she now lives in Carmel, California, but in the early 1990s she still maintained at least a part-time residence in New York City. In those days the Siren's roommate, Bill, managed a chic, high-end costume jewelry boutique on the Upper East Side. This store specialized in pieces that echoed real jewels sold in the legendary stores a few blocks away on Fifth Avenue. The ladies who shopped there were the sort who could throw on a little cubic zirconia and have everyone assume it was the real deal--with none of the insurance risk from taking the genuine sparklers out of the vault. Bill waited on a number of breathtakingly famous women, including Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Imelda Marcos. (Imelda didn't actually speak to him, communicating instead through her companion, a Mrs. Batista--prompting the Siren to wonder forever afterward if New York is home to some sort of Ex-Dictators' Wives Club.)
Anyway, Bill's favorite client was Joan Fontaine. She came in several times a year, still beautiful, always dressed in perfect taste, always warm and courteous and always picking out his favorite pieces. The Siren yearned to dash uptown from her office job and catch a glimpse of Joan, but alas, the rent had to be paid, and the Siren's boss at the time had this dreary insistence on one's bodily presence throughout the working day. (And he never went to the movies. Boy, was the Siren glad when that gig ended.) Every time Bill came home and mentioned Ms Fontaine had been in the store the Siren almost chewed her arm off with jealousy. Finally she made him promise that the next time the lady dropped by, he would at least mention his worshipful roommate.
So some time later, in comes Joan, glamourous as ever. Bill waited until he was almost done wrapping her purchases, then finally remarked, "You know, Miss Fontaine, my roommate is a big admirer of yours." A polite murmur of "how nice" or something from Ms Fontaine. He ventured further. "And she asked me to tell you that her favorite movie of yours is Letter from an Unknown Woman."
At that, Bill said Ms Fontaine lifted her head and gave him the most dazzling smile he had ever seen from her.
"Is it really?" she said. "Mine too."