CARMEL, Calif. – Academy Award-winning actress Joan Fontaine, who found stardom playing naive wives in Alfred Hitchcocks Suspicion and Rebecca and also was featured in films by Billy Wilder, Fritz Lang and Nicholas Ray, died Sunday. She was 96.
Fontaine, the sister of fellow Oscar winner Olivia de Havilland, died in her sleep in her Carmel, Calif., home Sunday morning, said longtime friend Noel Beutel. Fontaine had been fading in recent days and died peacefully, Beutel said.
Fontaine appeared in more than 30 movies, including early roles in The Women and Gunga Din, the title part in Jane Eyre and in Max Ophuls historical drama Letter from an Unknown Woman. She was also in films directed by Wilder (The Emperor Waltz), Lang (Beyond a Reasonable Doubt) and, wised up and dangerous, in Rays Born to be Bad. She starred on Broadway in 1954 in Tea and Sympathy and in 1980 received an Emmy nomination for her cameo on the daytime soap Ryans Hope.
You know, Ive had a helluva life, Fontaine once said. Not just the acting part. Ive flown in an international balloon race. Ive piloted my own plane. Ive ridden to the hounds. Ive done a lot of exciting things.
Hitchcocks Suspicion, released in 1941, and featuring Fontaine as the timid woman whose husband (Cary Grant) may or may not be a killer, brought her a best actress Oscar and dramatized one of Hollywoods legendary feuds, between Fontaine and de Havilland, a losing nominee for Hold Back the Dawn.
While Fontaine topped her sister in 1941 and picked up a third nomination for the 1943 film The Constant Nymph, de Havilland went on to win two Oscars and was nominated three other times.
Fontaine was featured in Jane Eyre with Orson Welles, and she and Bing Crosby got top billing in Emperor Waltz. A few other Fontaine films: Bed of Roses, A Damsel In Distress, Blonde Cheat, Ivanhoe, Youve Gotta Stay Happy and You Cant Beat Love. Her most daring role came in the 1957 film Island in the Sun, in which she had an interracial romance with Harry Belafonte. Several Southern cities banned the movie after threats from the Ku Klux Klan.