Remembering Joan Fontaine
On 15 December 2013, Joan Fontaine died. She was 96 years old. She is best remembered for her performances in Rebecca (Alfred Hitchcock, 1940), Suspicion (Hitchcock, 1941) and Letter from an Unknown Woman (Max Ophuls, 1948). While these films are all great movies that I have watched many many times, their currency within the film community is better attributed to the auteur status of Hitchcock and Ophuls than to any star value held by Fontaine. In this essay, I will use a gif from Suspicion to identify some of the meanings her star persona represented at a particular moment in time in order to remember and celebrate this almost-forgotten Hollywood star.
Joan Fontaine was the younger sister of Olivia de Havilland, who was already an established star by the time Fontaine arrived in Hollywood in 1935. Fontaine was soon signed to studio RKO but, after a number of unremarkable performances in unremarkable films, in 1938 RKO decided to not renew her contract. It was after this that Fontaine had her big break. Seated next to David O Selznick at a Hollywood dinner party, she started talking about book she had recently finished that she thought was wonderful and would make a great movie -- Rebecca. Selznick had just bought the film rights to Daphne du Maurier's bestseller and he insisted that Fontaine do a screen test for the much sought-after role of "I" de Winter. Against the wishes of director Alfred Hitchcock and co-star Laurence Olivier (who wanted to role to go to his then-fiancee Vivian Leigh), Fontaine won the part and her performance in Rebecca became her star-making turn.
This origin story was repeated in many of the articles written about Fontaine at that time, with an emphasis placed on the role of men, particularly Selznick and Hitchcock, in her becoming a star. In "Is Fontaine's Future in Hitchcock's Hands?”, Hitchcock is cast as Svengali to Fontaine's Trilby1, while in "I Don't Want to be a Career Girl!", it is reported that if Selznick hadn't hounded Fontaine about taking the role in Rebecca, she would have been content to simply be a married woman2. As was typical in studio-era Hollywood, aspects of this discovery story repeated themselves throughout Fontaine's films, with the characters played by Fontaine transforming themselves under the influence of male figures. In The Affairs of Susan (William A Seiter, 1945), Fontaine's Susan is discovered by a famous producer who, despite Susan's many protestations, takes her to New York where she becomes a great dramatic stage actress. In Letter from an Unknown Woman, Fontaine's Lisa Berndle transforms herself into the ideal she imagines the man she hopes will become her lover wants. And, in the example I am focusing on here, in Suspicion, the bookish spinster Lina McLaidlaw transforms into the glamorous, stylish and deceptively submissive Lina Aysgarth when she marries Johnnie Aysgarth (played by Cary Grant).
In Suspicion, Fontaine's Lina is the daughter of a country gentleman who meets, falls in love with and then marries ne'er-do-well Johnnie Aysgarth. Like many of Cary Grant's movies, Suspicion is not about the formation of the heterosexual couple but about how well the relationship deals with the tests it faces and, over the course of this film, it is sorely tested as Lina starts to suspect that Johnny is a murderer who is planning to kill her for her money. Told almost completely from Lina's perspective, it seems that Johnny's behaviour -- for example, he is fired from his job after embezzling 2000 pounds -- supports his guilt. Much of the tension of the film comes from the oscillation between Lina's firm and fervent love for her gorgeous husband and her growing conviction that he is a murderer who will eventually kill her. Throughout the movie, moments of undeniably bad conduct, like Johnnie lying and gambling, are contrasted with scenes where menace is less tangible; for example, when Lina faints after spelling out "Murderer" during a game of Scrabble or when she is startled by Johnnie's sudden appearance at her elbow.
The moment shown above occurs at a pivotal moment in the film. Lina has just learned that Johnnie's best friend Beaky, who had recently entered into a business partnership with Johnnie, has died in suspicious circumstances. Closing the door behind her, she pauses, as if to take a moment to deal with the shock caused by the news she has just received. Shadows from an upstairs window swirl around her. At first sight, it appears as if she is a fly, caught in a spider's web. But, while the camera focuses on Fontaine's small figure in the large entrance hall, it slowly dawns on the spectator that in fact Lina is no powerless victim. Although the evidence of Johnnie's guilt seems overwhelming, it is only through Lina's eyes that the viewer has experienced the story. It seems possible that Johnnie may be a murderer because Lina believes this may be the case; we see what she feels and the mise-en-scene and film style reflects her fears and emotions. Therefore, rather than being a fly caught in a web, Lina is the spider who has controlled the story. In doing this, Fontaine's Lina was able to manipulate the gendered norms of Hollywood cinema and foreground a feminine point of view, thus subverting what was typically patriarchal system of viewing. Lina is not just clay to be moulded into the perfect wife: her ostensible submission and easy transformation belie the strength with which she controls her own story.
This thread of subversion runs through Fontaine's work and in her professional life. In The Affairs of Susan, after being discovered Susan embarks on a journey of personal exploration, trying on different identities (and men!) until she finds one that fits. Her transformation was not complete until she took an active role in her development. In Letter from an Unknown Woman, Lisa is so busy imagining the perfect relationship that she fails to actually properly interact with the man she adores, thus rendering his role in the narrative one of an ideal love object, a position more commonly occupied by women. And, despite fervent proclamations of not wanting to be "a career girl", Joan Fontaine fought with studios and producers about work conditions and the type of roles that she was offered, risking suspension and loss of wages so she could appear in the type of movie that utilised her talents and skills3.
The moment I have chosen, then, is representative of Joan Fontaine's star persona over a brief period of time. Just as Lina is able to subvert the patriarchal norms of spectatorship and narrative to seize control of the story, so Joan Fontaine used her performances, labour and agency to challenge the controlling and restrictive patriarchal norms of the studio system. Just like Lina, however, the power she had was limited. Suspicion ends with the restoration of the heterosexual couple and the suggestion that Lina is paranoid and hysterical, undermining the strength drawn from her subversive narrative control. Fontaine, likewise, was suspended and forced to perform in movies she did not want to, like Frenchman's Creek (Mitchell Leisen, 1944)4.
Over time, Fontaine's importance to these movies has been erased. Although advertising material of the period contemporary to the film's release gave her headline billing, recent DVD releases of the films Rebecca, Suspicion and Letters appear as part of the Hitchcock, Cary Grant and Max Ophuls collections respectively. I hope I have captured here what she meant to a particular audience at a particular moment of time, thus drawing attention to the role she played in creating these films and the power she exercised through the discourses of transformation and control.