Being a woman, I have found the road rougher than had I been born a man. Different defenses, different codes of ethics, different approaches to problems and personalities are a woman's lot. I have preferred to shun what is known as feminine wiles, the subterfuge of subtlety, reliance on tears and coquetry to shape my way. I am forthright, often blunt. I have learned to be a realist despite my romantic, emotional nature. I have no illusions that age, the rigors of my profession, disappointments, and unfulfilled dreams have not left their mark.
I am proud that I have carved my path on earth almost entirely by my own efforts, proud that I have compromised in my career only when I had no other recourse, when financial or contractual commitments dictated. Proud that I have never been involved in a physical liaison unless I was deeply attracted or in love. Proud that, whatever my worldly goods may be, they have been achieved by my own labors.
Joan Fontaine, No Bed of Roses
I have written many times about Joan Fontaine, but at the moment I’m sad about the movies I never wrote about while she was still with us. Such as The Constant Nymph, in which Fontaine plays a teenage girl, Tessa, who is deeply in love with the adult composer played by Charles Boyer. Fontaine’s performance walks a delicate line. Tessa’s feelings have all the force of an adult woman’s, perhaps even more because first love is always such a cataclysmic thing. At the same time, Tessa is only 14 when the action begins, and Fontaine (25 at the time) plays her innocence in a way that makes it natural that Boyer wouldn’t realize what is going on until quite late in the game. Without Fontaine’s acting, the entire movie loses its romantic glow.
And there’s Kiss the Blood Off My Hands, where Fontaine is a lonely nurse, living by herself in London just after the war's end. And what should climb her through her window one night but godlike masculinity in the form of Burt Lancaster. Fontaine reacts (naturally) with fear, but as she warily eyes this fugitive, there's also a dazed recognition that life has abruptly dropped pure, animal sex appeal right into her bedroom. The film is, despite the pulpy title, a noir love story more than anything. Fontaine has a later scene where she’s set to meet Lancaster, and she looks in the mirror, debating with herself over whether her hat is too dowdy. Played without a word, this little scene tells you all you need to know about her character’s desires, and her inner conflict about whether or not to indulge them.
“If Joan Fontaine does not presently attain real stardom, this is because she looks, behaves and dresses like that extraordinarily unfashionable thing, a lady. And by that I mean the properly nurtured daughter of gentlefolk,” wrote James Agate, in a review of Suspicion. This exceedingly British observation has truth: Indeed, Fontaine was nearly always ladylike, even when she was, say, poisoning her bothersome husband in Ivy. But that didn’t mean she was sexless — far from it. Not in life, and certainly not on screen. The desire that a proper lady feels for an improper man is just as strong as the lust of a temptress.
And it takes perhaps more courage for a lady to speak up for herself, to reach out for what she wants. Think of Fontaine’s character in Rebecca, stepping forward to call Maxim de Winter back from the cliff. Think of her standing up to Mrs. Van Hopper, and later even to Mrs. Danvers: “I am Mrs. de Winter now.” Joan Fontaine made you cheer for such small triumphs.
She had courage and intelligence in her own life. I would like people to remember, when paying tribute to Letter From an Unknown Woman, that we have that great movie because Joan Fontaine put its elements together. She chose the Stefan Zweig story because, she said, she wanted something that would appeal to women. It was produced by her joint venture, Rampart Productions, which she ran with her husband at the time, William Dozier, and released through Universal. She was instrumental in getting Max Ophuls to direct.
The Internet is speckled with people who find it ridiculous to grieve at the death of a 96-year-old movie star. That’s a good run, they say. For goodness sakes, did you expect her to live forever? And besides, did you know her?
No, I didn’t know her. But when I watched Rebecca, Suspicion, Ivy, The Constant Nymph, Kiss the Blood Off My Hands, Jane Eyre, A Damsel in Distress, Born to Be Bad, Something to Live For, Gunga Din, The Women, September Affair, Island in the Sun, Frenchman’s Creek, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, Ivanhoe, Darling How Could You?, Until They Sail, and Letter From an Unknown Woman, I felt a little flame of happiness that Joan Fontaine was still alive somewhere. I feel colder without it.
Here are a few of the things I have written over the years about Joan Fontaine.
A birthday post from 2007 that includes the one personal story I have to tell about her.
Joan's autobiography, No Bed of Roses, and some early films, including Blond Cheat.
Rebecca and Suspicion, and a bit about her small role in The Women
Born to Be Bad
Something to Live For
A personal favorite: the little-known, wonderful Ivy
This one has a brief, but delightful, anecdote about why dating Adlai Stevenson didn't work out.
There's a bit about her marriage to Brian Aherne in an essay about his autobiography, A Proper Job.
Letter From an Unknown Woman
(The banner, courtesy of Zach Campbell, is the hat scene from Kiss the Blood Off My Hands.)