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 as a teenager. 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.
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.