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

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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.

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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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Remember How Much I Loved You–Joan and Lilian Fontaine

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Joan Fontaine shares a laugh with her mother, Lilian.

By Lara Gabrielle Fowler

First off, thank you to Jill at Sittin’ On a Backyard Fence and Michael Nazarewycz at ScribeHard On Film for hosting this terrifically clever blogathon, focusing on one star per day via the TCM Summer Under the Stars lineup. Since many readers of this site know of my love for Joan Fontaine, I felt that instead of writing a movie review for this blogathon I would contribute something more personal, a small examination of the relationship between Joan Fontaine and her mother, who played secondary roles in several Fontaine films such as The Bigamist and Ivy.

The Lilian Fontaine Garden Theatre as it stands today.

Even today, while Joan lives a quiet life in Carmel at the age of 95, her mother is not far from her mind. Three years ago the Lilian Fontaine Garden Theatre in Saratoga, named for Lilian’s contributions to local theatre, was undergoing renovations. To everyone’s surprise, a huge 5-figure donation came through that would cover all the necessary refurbishments. It was from Joan. She declined to be interviewed, saying that this gift is for her mother, whose ashes are scattered there and who once said about the garden “”If you ever wonder about me, come to this garden, and I’ll be here… somewhere around.”

A graduate of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and also a trained singer, Lilian was a native of Reading–a large English city in the Berkshires. As an adult she ventured to Japan to try her luck in a performance career and ended up staying, marrying a handsome gentleman named Walter de Havilland. Their first daughter, Olivia Mary, was born in Tokyo on July 1, 1916, and Joan came along 15 months later on October 22, 1917. The de Havilland marriage was rocky, and the girls prone to illness, so on the advice of the doctor Lilian soon moved to Saratoga, California with the two girls in tow, in search of a more hospitable climate for their many ailments. Walter stayed behind.

Olivia thrived in California, but Joan remained very frail. As a young child her shyness and frequent illnesses precluded her from making school friends, and her sky-high IQ rendered it difficult for her to relate to her peers. Relations with her sister Olivia were never sunny, so having a friend at home was not an option. Isolated and often bedridden for months at a time, her mother was her sole companion and best friend.

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Joan (child in black coat on the right), Lilian (in the black hat, holding Joan’s arm) and Olivia (far left) with family friends in Saratoga.

Lilian’s mothering skills were very much of her time and upbringing. She was determined that her daughters would grow up to be proper English ladies, and strict lessons in diction, manners, and even walking were commonplace in the house. When she remarried, to accountant and archdisciplinarian George Milan Fontaine, the lessons continued under his tutelage. Everything was expected to be “just so,” and if it wasn’t, extreme punishment could be expected. There was little affection in the house. As a teenager, Joan was severely scolded for holding hands with a boy during a concert, and her mother’s harsh words scarred her for life.

Yet through all of this, Joan retained a deep, unconditional love for her mother. When she began to earn money in movies, she sent monthly checks to her mother, supporting her completely of her own will. She offered Lilian, who had never really made it as an actress, roles in her films.

Skip to 5:45 in this clip from Ivy. Lilian is seated directly to the right of Joan, in the dark dress and hat.

When Lilian fell ill with cancer, Joan took over her care. Though Lilian was not always able to show it, Joan finally heard those words of love she so craved from her mother during their very last phone conversation. Right before they hung up, Lilian said to her tenderly “Remember how much I loved you.”

I like to think that this gave them a sense of resolution to a somewhat complex relationship, and that Joan could cope with the loss of her mother with the assurance that she reciprocated her love. It is a graceful end to a life, and a sweet goodbye from mother to daughter.

Lilian with Joan (on the floor) and Olivia (seated) shortly after their arrival to the United States.

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Last family portrait, 1975.

Thanks again to Jill and Michael!