Earlier this month we lost Joan Fontaine. She was 96 years old. I haven’t seen many of her films, but I’m familiar with the films she is best known for. Two of them happen to be the ones she made with Alfred Hitchcock, and they are two of my favorite Hitchcock films: “Rebecca” (1940) and “Suspicion” (1941).
In both films, Fontaine plays women who start out as presumed spinsters, but, to the shock of her employer/guardian in “Rebecca” and her parents in “Suspicion,” she marries a handsome “catch.” That’s where the two movies diverge, but only slightly.
Fontaine was nominated for a best actress Oscar for both performances, and she won for “Suspicion.” It was the only time an actor won an Oscar for a performance in a Hitchcock film.
It’s hard to write about Fontaine in these films without having seen most of her other work because she plays such similar characters in both. I don’t know about her range as an actress. All I know is that she is thoroughly believable as the woman who starts out meek but ends up empowered by love. And she remains a Hitchcock leading lady despite not being his usual “type” (i.e., icy blondes like Grace Kelly and Tippi Hedren).
The best reasons to watch “Rebecca” are the performances and the story. Fontaine, who received her first best actress Oscar nomination for the film, plays the new bride of Maxim de Winter (a stern Laurence Olivier). Maxim’s first wife, Rebecca, known far and wide for her beauty, intelligence and style, was killed in a boating accident. And no one believes Maxim will ever get over her, including his new wife and the de Winter housekeeper Mrs. Danvers (a chilling Judith Anderson).
Through her own low self-esteem and the taunting of Mrs. Danvers, Mrs. de Winter believes she can never live up to Rebecca in society, in her home and, most critically, in Maxim’s heart. But while Fontaine is good as the self-conscious new bride trying to live in the vast, unbearable shadow of her husband’s first wife, Anderson steals the show as the obsessed and belittling housekeeper Mrs. Danvers. Mrs. Danvers’ subtle undermining of the new Mrs. de Winter’s confidence leads up to overt ridicule and a climactic scene in which Mrs. Danvers tries to persuade the new bride to kill herself.
We subsequently get to the film’s big twist – one of the most satisfying twists in the suspense film genre. I won’t reveal it here, but it has much to do with how perception can play tricks on you – how things can appear one way but be exactly opposite. The twist leads to a suspenseful denouement, including a terrific courtroom sequence, and some entertaining scenes with the incomparable George Sanders as Rebecca’s nefarious “cousin” Flavell.
“Rebecca” was Hitchcock’s first Hollywood movie, and it won the Oscar for the best picture of 1940. But Hitchcock wanted nothing to do with the finished product. Producer David O. Selznick interfered so much with how Hitchcock wanted to shoot the film and steer the story that Hitchcock considered it Selznick’s picture.
But the role of Mrs. de Winter was all Joan Fontaine’s. She conveyed the fragility and terror of being an unassuming young woman in an unfamiliar world of wealth and privilege as well as the determination and strength of a woman defending her man and her marriage.
“Suspicion” is more a “classic Hitchcock” suspense tale because you are presented with a concrete mystery: Is Cary Grant trying to murder his wife or not? Fontaine and Grant star as Lina and Johnnie, newlyweds who didn’t know each other very well before they married. She’s a modest girl from an affluent family, and he’s a charming society ne’er-do-well who gambles away whatever money he finds. They have a swift courtship, including a funny scene atop a hill when he gives her the nickname Monkeyface.
One of my favorite scenes in the film is when it becomes clear to Johnnie that Lina is in love with him – after he has proposed to her in her father’s study – and he says, “Poor Monkeyface.” He knows that once you’re in love, you’ll endure nearly anything. Pretty soon, the young bride begins to wonder if her lovable new husband is capable of anything to get his hands on a fortune, including bumping her off for an inheritance or insurance money. The great thing about Lina is she’s not entirely naïve, and she recognizes rather quickly that Johnnie isn’t as savvy as he pretends to be. Yet there’s an underlying tension because neither is fully aware of the other’s limits.
The audience has a hard time deciding what to think because Grant does a great job of dancing between the dark, relentless Johnnie and the affable, harmless Johnnie. We want to believe in Johnnie’s innocence even in the face of one damning piece of evidence after another. That was the brilliance of putting Grant in the role – so thoroughly likable even when he has to be dastardly.
“Suspicion” also featured two great character performances from Nigel Bruce as Johnnie’s friend Beaky and Auriol Lee as an Agatha Christie-like mystery writer.
Fontaine earned her only best actress Oscar for her performance in “Suspicion.” She had some pretty stiff competition, including her sister Olivia de Havilland for her performance in “Hold Back the Dawn” and Bette Davis in “The Little Foxes.” Grant was nominated for best actor that year, but not for “Suspicion.” He was nominated for “Penny Serenade,” one of his rare purely dramatic turns.
Hitchcock had more control over this film than he had with “Rebecca,” but he did decide to change the ending based on test audiences’ reaction to his original ending. Without having to indicate a spoiler alert, I’ll write that what he intended is essentially the opposite of what you see in the last scene.
I'm grateful for these two Hitchcock-Fontaine collaborations. Perhaps there were other actresses who could have done justice to the lead actress roles in the two films, but none of them could have brought more of the earnest and fragile quality Fontaine had to these characters who lived those qualities through her seemingly effortless work.