A Q&A With Joan Fontaine in Honor of Her 96th Birthday

Joan Fontaine cuddles with a dog on the set of The Constant Nymph, 1943.

By Lara Gabrielle Fowler

October 22 marks the 96th birthday of Oscar-winner Joan Fontaine, an actress with the exceptional talent and intelligence to become a veritable Hollywood legend. Graced with a delicate, porcelain beauty, Joan captured Hollywood’s heart early on and with her formidable acting talent became the youngest performer ever to win a Best Actress Oscar, a record that was not broken for 44 years.

Born Joan de Beauvoir de Havilland in Tokyo in 1917, she moved to Saratoga, CA with her mother and older sister Olivia when she was 17 months old. Joan grew up in Saratoga (with a year back in Japan during her high school years) and acted in local productions before heading off to Hollywood following her high school graduation. She started in several small pictures, before her career suddenly took off and began to soar  with her triumphant performance in Rebecca (1940), for which she earned her first Academy Award nomination. She won the Oscar the following year for her role in Suspicion, and a third nomination came in 1943 for The Constant Nymph. She replayed many of her roles on radio and later took to the stage, notably in Tea and Sympathy and The Lion in Winter, among others, establishing herself as an extremely versatile performer.

Today, Joan lives in Carmel, CA and enjoys life at home with her 4 dogs (she is a lifelong animal lover) and a large garden. She moved to Carmel from New York City in the mid-1980s as she was just beginning to retire from a long and rewarding working life, and it was from Carmel that Miss Fontaine very kindly and generously agreed to answer some questions for Backlots. It is a great honor for me to be able to share them with you, and I hope that you will enjoy her answers as much as I greatly did.

A very happy birthday to Joan, and many more to come!

A Q&A WITH JOAN FONTAINE IN HONOR OF HER BIRTHDAY

       You have a very unique name—Joan de Beauvoir de Havilland. I understand that the name de Havilland comes from Guernsey. How did your parents come to choose de Beauvoir as your middle name?

My parents paid tribute to a close family friend killed in service.

Shortly after the her arrival in California.

      Your autobiography mentions that you have reaped many benefits from being born in Japan, and there have been few drawbacks. You mention the inquisitions into Japanese-born people after the bombing of Pearl Harbor as one of the drawbacks. What are some of the benefits you have had due to your Japanese birth?

Another culture. The wide world opening up.

      Another question about Japan—having spent some time there as a teenager during the Depression, as well as time at home in the United States during the same period, what were your perceptions of the similarities and differences between Japan and the United States during that difficult time in history?

I was in school, so I wasn’t exposed during that time (Japan). And in the U.S., I was working, so again I wasn’t exposed to the hard times that so many were experiencing.

      You began your career at a relatively young age, and acted alongside some of the most established stars of the period while you were still in your teens. Before your 25th birthday you were an internationally renowned Oscar winner. As a naturally introverted young person, were you aware of any stress or overwhelm due to all the attention that you received?

We were all actors doing a job. Everyone was professional. I respected them and they gave me respect. After the Oscar, things did change, they seemed intimidated.

Winning the Oscar for “Suspicion” at the 1942 Academy Awards ceremony.

      Taking into account your international background, did you identify more as a British actress or as an American actress? I know that you officially became an American citizen in 1943. How, if at all, did that affect your identity within the industry, both within yourself and among your peers?

British. The parts I was given were for a British “lady”. I was cast because I was a young British actress. After becoming an American citizen, really nothing changed. By that time I was established.

With Alfred Hitchcock, a director with whom Fontaine was paired twice. In addition to securing Fontaine her first Academy Award nomination, the first film the two made together, “Rebecca,” was Hitchcock’s debut picture in the United States and the only Hitchcock film that has ever won Best Picture. Fontaine is also the only actress that has ever won Best Actress for a role in a Hitchcock film, for “Suspicion” the following year.

      You are an extraordinarily versatile performer, appearing in films, on television, on the stage, and on radio. Which medium gave you the most pleasure, and for what reasons that you can pinpoint?

I have always enjoyed stage work. You can feel the audience reactions and are able to adjust your performance accordingly.

      Like you, I am a native of the San Francisco Bay Area (born and raised in Oakland). As you are a person who grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and moved back to the general area as an adult, I am very interested in your perspective on how things have changed. Can you tell me a bit about how the demographics, attitudes, pace of life, and landscapes were when you were growing up, as opposed to the way they are now?

This area has grown so much, it is almost unrecognizable.

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The coastline along Carmel, CA, a place I consider to be among the most beautiful spots in the country.

      I understand that you have a love for animals, especially dogs. If I am correct, you have 5** of them! Can you tell me a bit about your passion for animals and how it began?

Animals, all kinds, are one’s friends. As a child, Mother never allowed me to have pets. As an adult I found them to be loyal friends.

      (**NOTE: I was under the impression that Joan had 5 dogs, but she crossed out 5 and wrote 4. One of her dogs unfortunately died, so she now has 4.)

At home with one of the many dogs Joan has had over the years.

      You are a very multi-talented individual. In addition to your gifts for acting, you have also been an interior decorator, a licensed pilot, a cook, a balloonist, and an author. What do you consider to be your crowning achievement in life, regarding your work, your personal life, or your many hobbies?

Receiving the Oscar. Adopting a Peruvian girl.

Joan with her two daughters Martita (adopted from Peru) and Debbie, feeding the pigeons in Paris.

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44 responses to “A Q&A With Joan Fontaine in Honor of Her 96th Birthday

  1. Congratulations on the interview, Lara. Miss Fontaine seems like a charming woman with her head and heart in the right place.

  2. She certainly is. Thank you for reading, and for your lovely comment!

  3. What a most wonderful interview, thanks for sharing. Happy Birthday Miss Fontaine

  4. How cool! She is an admirable actress and person. I also see she is very objective in her answaers ;)
    Kisses!

  5. Thank you! Happy birthday Joan!

  6. She is very objective in her answers, I noticed that too. It was very nice of her to take the time to answer my questions, it is so incredibly rare that she grants interviews, I feel so honored.

  7. Interesting interview with Joan Fontaine.

    Sent from my iPad

    >

  8. Thank you, and thanks for reading!

  9. So pleased to read an interview of one of my all time favorite actresses and to know that she is well. I just picked up her autobiography at the library the other day — very interesting so far. What a thrill and honor to have spoken with Ms. Fontaine! May she celebrate her birthday in good health and happiness!

  10. I am very grateful for your spunk, your perseverance, and your attention to detail because the fruit of your labors has made a lovely interview! Congratulations, Lara!

  11. Oh, what a swell interview with an absolute legend! What a great job, Lara!

  12. Fantastic, Lara! Congrats again on this “get” – such an honor! Well-deserved.

    Aurora

  13. You’re so sweet, Christy, thank you! Here’s to many more happy birthdays for Joan!

  14. Thanks Marsha, I’m thrilled with it. I’m glad you liked it!

  15. Thank you, Aurora! It really is an honor, especially since she never does this. I’m very happy :)

  16. Wow this is such a wonderfully intimate and charming bit of insight into such an iconic woman. Kudos on this interview and for having such a fine lady speak to you and us. I never realized that she as an animal lover. She has always been one of my absolute favorite actresses and knowing how she feels about dogs makes me love her all the more. Unassuming yet captivating. Like Rebecca. I love that she’s still thriving.. Thank you so much for this- it make me glow inside to think of her…. You’re a class act!

  17. What a nice comment! Yes, she’s always had a fondness for animals, I love that about her too. Loving animals is really indicative of a sensitive person. How wonderful to hear that this interview has made you glow inside–three cheers for Joan!

  18. I was soooo happy to see that you got the opportunity to speak with her. And I’ve always felt that she has so much dignity and grace. And such a complex actress. I agree that anyone who cares deeply for animals is a gentle spirit. I think it was Einstein who said, ‘never trust a person who doesn’t like cats’ I love that and I think that goes for dogs too… Yes three cheers for that lovely lady and her legacy and your wonderful interview!!!!! well done

  19. Thank you for sharing this very sweet Q&A. And thanks for stopping by the TCM message boards today, commenting on our Joan Fontaine birthday thread. I know it will bring many forum readers to your blog, all with warm wishes for Miss Fontaine!

  20. Very interesting! It’s always fun to read the thoughts of performers from the classic era.

  21. What a awesome interview! She seems lovely! Congrats Lara!

  22. Great Interview Lara. I highly enjoyed reading it. Joan is a lady of my heart. I highly admire animal lovers.

  23. What an amazing opportunity! It’s great to hear a more recent interview with her! She’s always been one of my favorites, and I remember writing her a (very long) note when I was a kid, and she wrote the sweetest note back to me :) She seems like a sweetheart.

  24. She really is, and she’s very good to her fans. Joan is the only well known person I know who ALWAYS writes a note back :)

  25. Congratulations to you, and thanks to Miss Fontaine for a lovely interview.

  26. Thank you, Rick, I’m glad you enjoyed it!

  27. Yeah! Yay for Joan!

  28. I wanted to focus on that, because that’s one of the things I love most about Joan’s offscreen life :) Thanks for reading!

  29. Yes, many thanks to Joan! And thank you, I’m a lucky gal :)

  30. Oh, thank you! I’m glad the TCM message boards liked it, I never check the message boards but when it showed up on my site stats, I thought I’d go take a look! I’m thrilled that this interview is getting so much attention. It just goes to show how much Joan is loved. Yay!

  31. Nice interview. Short and Sweet! Too bad one cannot ask personal questions. Would love to know what books are on her night stand!

  32. I could have, but I chose not to. I wanted to ask her deep questions so as not to waste her time or make her think this was some sort of silly thing. Since she never does this, it was important to me to make it really worth her while. I’m so glad you liked the interview! It was really fun for me to get her responses :)

  33. Getting an interview with Joan Fontaine was quite a coup for you. Thanks for sharing it with us.

  34. Yes, it sure was. Thank you for reading!

  35. Lara, this is a wonderful interview with Joan Fontaine, with so much fascinating lore about her life, including her love of animals! Your affection for your subject really shows! Hooray for you and Joan! :-D

  36. This was an excellent interview. I’m sure she felt it was worth her while. The questions and answers were concise yet weighty. What an ode to an accomplished artist. Its also a plus that she’s been blessed with longevity and health. My only regret is that she’s never used her name professionally.

  37. Thank you, Cent. I really appreciate your words and I’m sure Joan does, too. She has been wonderfully blessed in so many ways, and I can’t think of a more deserving person to receive those blessings. Yes, she has a beautiful name, doesn’t she? But I think Joan Fontaine has a nice ring to it, too! Her stepfather’s last name was Fontaine, so even though she couldn’t use her actual name, she sort of kept it in the family. Thanks again for your comment!

  38. Yes, Joan Fontaine sounds very clean and simple, good choice of a stage name. Carmel, by the way, is breathtakingly beautiful.

  39. Hello, I’m from Argentina, Congratulations for the interview I like it very much. I wrote it a letter to Joan to her P.O.Box adress. Do you know if that adress is dependable? I’m shooting a documentary about Eva Peron and I know that Joan met her and I would like some words about that moment. Also I’ll travel to Carmel next year. Is Joan a known neighbor there? I mean if I ask to the people they know where is her house? Thanks.

  40. Hi there, Karen! Shoot me an email at fowler.lara@gmail.com. Better to talk about this stuff through email :)

  41. What a wonderful interview. Jane Eyre with Miss Fontaine is my all-time favorite movie. I first watched it as a high school student and fell in love with it. I watch it several times a year. She was perfect in the role. Thank you for the interview as I now know a bit more about her. I just now heard the sad news of her death.

  42. Thank you, Janet. I will miss her dearly.

  43. How wonderful for you to have received and conducted an interview with the gracious Joan Fontaine. I’ve been a fan of her work since I was in elementary school in 1979. I was going thru’ the TV channels,one late evening, and discovered her in “Suspicion” and have loved her every since. I heard of her sad passing,and while I was going on the Internet, I discovered your blogs on her and this wonderful interview. I am glad she meant a lot to you ,as she did to others, and myself. I remember receiving my first reply from her in 1979,and then in the 80′s when I went to high school,and then college.She was always so gracious to reply. What a gracious spirit! As I’ve been searching on the net,I love when I come across her appearances on TV games shows and seeing her in some interviews, because it shows what a lovely lady she was off screen as well,so genuine and charming! While it does sadden my heart that she is gone,I too am glad she lived a long and full filling life. Thank you for the interview.

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