CARMEL -- Joan Fontaine, who struggled to mature in Saratoga then flowered to fame in the golden age of Hollywood, died Sunday at her Carmel home. She was 96.
Fontaine was more than a half-century removed from the height of her stardom. She won an Academy Award as best leading actress in 1941 when she was 23. She produced a 40-year career also noteworthy for a bitter rivalry with her sister, Olivia de Havilland, that started during their childhood in Saratoga.
In her triumphs -- "Rebecca," "Suspicion" and "The Constant Nymph" -- she put glamour in Hollywood, on and off the screen. And the names of her leading men were made for the marquee: From Fred Astaire to Harry Belafonte, and Charles Boyer, Rossano Brazzi, Joseph Cotten, Bing Crosby, Mel Ferrer, Cary Grant, Bob Hope, Louis Jourdan, Burt Lancaster.
Mario Lanza sang to her. Ray Milland shared the spotlight with her, as did Paul Newman, Laurence Olivier, Jack Palance, Walter Pidgeon, Tyrone Power, Jason Robards, Robert Ryan, Jimmy Stewart, Robert Taylor, Orson Welles.
Some of her self-acknowledged liaisons with men of wealth, power and politics were as recognizable: Charles Addams, John Houseman, Howard Hughes, Aly Khan, Joseph Kennedy, Conrad Nagel, Adlai Stevenson.
She married four times and divorced as many. She bore one daughter and took in another.
From the mid-1930s to the '70s, she was celebrity personified.
The word "feud" seemed to define the the lives of her and her sister, from childhood to retirement, and Fontaine's Oscar in 1941 focused the rivalry for public consumption.
In 1939, de Havilland had won acclaim and a supporting-actress Oscar nomination for her role as Melanie in "Gone With the Wind." Eight films with Errol Flynn had elevated her to stardom. Her younger sister, however, was about to turn the tables.
In the 1941 Alfred Hitchcock thriller "Suspicion," Fontaine played the plain country girl who fell for the cad, Cary Grant, and earned nomination for the best-actress Oscar, as well as the New York Film Critics Circle Award.
Because de Havilland was also nominated for best actress that year, in "Hold Back the Dawn," it provided Hollywood columnists Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper opportunity in the speculation leading up to Oscar night.
In her autobiography, "No Bed of Roses," Fontaine recalled the moment the following year when she was announced as the winner over Bette Davis, Greer Garson, Barbara Stanwyck and her sister:
"I froze. I stared across the table, where Olivia was sitting directly opposite me. 'Get up there; get up there,'" she whispered commandingly. Now what had I done!"
"All the animus we'd felt toward each other as children, the hair-pullings, the savage wrestling matches, the time Olivia fractured my collarbone, all came rushing back in kaleidoscopic imagery.
"My paralysis was total. I felt Olivia would spring across the table and grab me by the hair. I felt age 4, being confronted by my older sister. Damn it, I'd incurred her wrath again!"
The feud earned little public attention for five years until de Havilland won her first Oscar for "To Each His Own." Fontaine had made the presentation for best actor during the ceremonies. Afterward, as she tried to offer congratulations, de Havilland turned away and, according to the newspaper Daily Variety, told her agent, Henry Rogers, "I don't know why she does that when she knows how I feel."
Daily Variety added, "Joan stood there looking after her with a bewildered expression and then shrugged her shoulders and walked off." A photograph by Hymie Fink of Photoplay captured the moment.
Olivia de Havilland and Joan de Beauvoir de Havilland were born 16 months apart in World War I to English parents living in Tokyo. Walter de Havilland, whose family owned an airplane manufacturing company, was a patent attorney and college professor in Japan when he met and married Lilian Ruse on a cruise back to England.
A soon-troubled marriage prompted Lilian de Havilland to sail with her daughters for California, where she met George M. Fontaine, then manager of the O.A. Hale department store in San Jose. Sisters Olivia and Joan would come to "resent bitterly" their mother's and Fontaine's eventual marriage, Joan said her in autobiography. The two balked "at the heavy yoke" of Fontaine's authority, she said, although she later took Fontaine as her stage name.
Their stepfather's discipline notwithstanding, both sisters in later years had no such reaction to growing up in Saratoga. "I feel so grateful about being brought up here," Joan Fontaine told Mercury News columnist Leigh Weimers in a 1978 interview.
George Fontaine's "military camp" did, however, indirectly result in both sisters' decisions to leave, Fontaine wrote. De Havilland chose to act in a school play against her stepfather's orders and was told not to return home. Joan chose not to stay without her sister. She managed a sojourn to Japan to escape, she said.
It didn't last. Fontaine had a falling out with her father, and on her return to Saratoga was still on the outs with her stepfather. Her support came from her sister, whose success in the touring "Midsummer Night's Dream" in the meantime also spurred Joan toward an acting career of her own.
Fontaine obtained some minor parts in the late 1930s and a supporting role in "The Women." Then David O. Selznick decided she would play the lead in "Rebecca" with Laurence Olivier under Alfred Hitchcock's direction. Her performance gained her a 1940 film critics award and a best-actress Oscar nomination.
She followed that with "Suspicion," again with Hitchcock, and Selznick decided that he had a real star under contract, according to Charles Higham in his book "Sisters: The Story of Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine.''
She did achieve critical acclaim for "The Constant Nymph" with Charles Boyer, "This Above All" with Tyrone Power and "September Affair" with Joseph Cotten, but few of her films were like "Casanova's Big Night" with Bob Hope, which, she said, shouldn't have been made.
Fontaine married British actor Brian Aherne in 1939, but that lasted only three years. She also wed William Dozier, president of RKO Pictures, and gave birth to their daughter, Deborah; and she was married to Collier Young, a producer, for a dozen years. Her final husband was Alfred Wright Jr., a golf writer for Sports Illustrated.
While visiting Peru in 1951, Fontaine also took the daughter of a caretaker of the Machu Picchu ruins to live with her, although she never officially adopted the girl. Martita Pareja Calderon acted as a companion for Deborah Dozier until she left Fontaine in her teenage years.
In the 1960s, Fontaine increasingly made New York City her home, acting on Broadway in "Tea and Sympathy," for example, and on location in a few films, such as "Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea" with Walter Pidgeon and "Island in the Sun" with Harry Belafonte. She did some television in the 1970s and was praised by critics for her performance in "A Lion in Winter" at a theater in Vienna.
For eight years late in her career, Fontaine was "spoiled" by a New York physician she identified in her autobiography as Dr. Noh. When Dr. Ben Kean left her in 1974, Higham said, de Havilland cared for her sister when Fontaine had a near breakdown. It was the one brief friendship between the sisters, Higham said.
Lilian Fontaine died in 1975, and it caused what both sisters at the time acknowledged to be their final split. Fontaine maintained she had written her autobiography in part because she had not been invited to her mother's memorial service at Villa Montalvo in Saratoga. The organizers contended otherwise, but Fontaine said in her autobiography:
"Only after burning the telephone wires from coast to coast were my daughter and I permitted to attend. It was then that I felt I must eventually straighten out misconceptions, erroneous conclusions, ill-considered judgments concerning my relationship to my family."
In setting the record straight, she said, she would write of events as she saw them.
"There is much in my life that might make me the envy of many ... fame, fortune, romance, self-expression, independence. Yet I have found no lasting romance, no marriage that I could salvage without jeopardizing my own happiness or freedom, my own brand of integrity. My career is the result of opportunity and luck as much as anything."
Born: Oct. 22, 1917, Tokyo, Japan
Died: Dec. 15, 2013, Carmel
Survived by: Daughter, Deborah Dozier; sister, Olivia De Havilland.
Joan Fontaine's movie credits:
1966: "The Devil's Own."'
1962: "Tender is the Night."
1961: "Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea."
1958: "A Certain Smile."
1957: "Island in the Sun," "Until They Sail."
1956: "Beyond a Reasonable Doubt," "Serenade."
1954: "Casanova's Big Night."
1953: "The Bigamist," "Decameron Nights," "Flight to Tangier."
1952: "Ivanhoe," "The Tragedy of Othello: the Moor of Venice," "Something to Live For."
1951: "Darling, How Could You?"
1950: "Born to be Bad," "September Affair."
1948: "The Emperor Waltz," "Kiss the Blood off my Hands," "Letter From an Unknown Woman," "You Gotta Stay Happy."
1946: "From This Day Forward."
1945: "The Affairs of Susan."
1944: "Frenchman's Creek," "Jane Eyre."
1943: "The Constant Nymph."*
1942: "This Above All."
1939: "Gunga Din," "Man of Conquest," "The Women."
1938: "Blond Cheat," "The Duke of West Point," "Maid's Night Out," "Sky Giant."'
1937: "A Damsel in Distress," "The Man Who Found Himself," "A Million to One,"' "Music for Madame," "Quality Street," "You Can't Beat Love."
1935: "No More Ladies"'(used name Joan Burfield.)
1994: "Good King Wenceslas."
1986: "Crossings"'miniseries, "Dark Mansions."
1978: "The Users."
1962-'65: "To Tell the Truth"'(panelist).
** Academy Award, Best Actress. * Academy Award nomination.