A look at the life of Joan Fontaine, one of Britain's best-loved actresses, using rarely seen archive footage of her BBC appearances to tell the story of her Oscar-winning career.
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One of cinema's biggest female stars
of the 1940s,
was an actress whose
on-screen image differed greatly
from the reality of her life.
Directors sought her out for her ability to convey restraint
and vulnerability. But away from the camera, she was no pushover.
She fought for, and won, some of the period's most coveted roles
and engaged in one of Hollywood's most notorious feuds with
her elder sister and fellow actress,
Olivia de Havilland.
And it was Fontaine,
not James Stewart, Grace Kelly, or Cary Grant,
who gave the only Oscar-winning performance in a Hitchcock film.
She spoke about all these things with the interviewer Derek Hart,
on the programme Talking Film.
-Miss Fontaine, you were born de Havilland.
In Tokyo, of British...
Worse than that, de Beauvoir de Havilland, while you're at it.
De Beauvoir de Havilland, you were born in Tokyo of British parents.
Did you feel at an early age that you were going to be an actress?
Was this a certain plan for you?
Well, that's rather interesting.
My mother had been with the Royal Academy
and I suppose we can call it a disappointed actress.
In her words, her family wouldn't let her go on stage
because it wasn't done.
This was the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.
Yes, and music too. She did the whole lot.
So, erm, she HATED our attempts
to be as American as the locals
and so she sat us down and made us do Shakespeare and everything else
at very tender ages
and we kind of took to it.
I went round reciting poetry.
It must have been ghastly at nine and ten.
And then Olivia and I did little Shakespearian skits,
Portia and Nerissa, all those things for the ladies' clubs and whatnot.
So, then I went back to school in Japan and I found a diary,
and I think especially if you're an actress,
it's a very ridiculous thing to keep a diary.
Probably very dangerous, but I had kept one for a brief moment,
in which I had speculated about my future as to what I was going to be.
And it was a toss-up between
a librarian, a house painter and an actress,
so I'm rather glad I chose this one.
When you decided to become an actress in San Francisco,
did you then immediately move to Los Angeles to Hollywood?
Actually, that was in Japan, when I went back to school.
By the time I returned to California, I found my sister -
though she'd won a scholarship and she was an extraordinary student
to a very fine college in California -
had been selected to understudy
in Max Reinhardt's Midsummer Night's Dream, which she did.
And, like those extraordinary fables that nobody believes,
but are usually filmed, at the opening night, the leading lady
became ill and Olivia had the part, stole the reviews.
The great cliche occasion of all time.
So, by that time, I had got myself engaged to be married -
one of my many times I've done that.
I'm still prone to that sort of thing. Nasty habit, can't break it.
So, I went to see my mother and sister,
who were in Hollywood, to say goodbye,
and an agent saw me at a party
and said, "Wouldn't you like to be an actress?"
Well, it seems so simple and so easy,
I mean, I did it. I said, "Certainly."
Well, having said I would, then how do you become one?
And having decided to be one, you can't let go.
The first movie that you made was which?
It was one with Joan Crawford,
and not under any name I can even remember now.
Called No More Ladies, I believe.
And I was 18, maybe. Maybe not that.
And I was supposed to play a sophisticated rival of about 40,
but that's Hollywood. I must have been hideous in it.
How many movies did you make before you starred in Rebecca?
Well, I was what we call the Queen of the B's.
After B movies.
We made B movies, and I'm glad. That is the best technique, really.
The study of what you're doing,
where you're going, where your marks are, get all that over with,
and I played all the leads and that couldn't have been better.
I must've made about five a year or so.
How did you then make the leap into Rebecca?
I'd actually almost given up films,
the whole idea of it, and was going to be married.
And I was sitting next to David Selznick at a party and mentioned
I'd read the book
and he said he'd bought it that day and would I care to test?
I tested along with everybody else you can ever imagine
and I was on my honeymoon. Of course, had I not married,
this would not have happened.
Let this be a lesson to you, not about marriage, but to everybody.
Go far away and what you want will happen. Stay there and it won't.
This was a movie with Laurence Olivier, wasn't it?
Right, yes, and George Sanders.
And Alfred Hitchcock directed.
What a slap in the eye
I must've been to them then.
I suppose that's why you married me.
Cos you knew I was dull
and gauche and inexperienced
and there could never be any gossip about me.
Gossip? What do you mean?
I...I don't know, I just said it for something to say!
Don't look at me like that. Maxim, what's the matter? What have I said?
-It wasn't a very attractive thing to say, was it?
It was rude and hateful.
I wonder if I did a very selfish thing in marrying you.
How do you mean?
I'm not much of a companion to you, am I?
You don't get much fun, do you?
You ought to have married a boy, someone of your own age.
Maxim, why do you say this? Of course we're companions!
I don't know.
I'm very difficult to live with.
No, you're not difficult, you're easy. Very easy.
Our marriage is a success, isn't it? A great success?
We're happy, aren't we? Terribly happy.
If you don't think we are happy,
it would be much better if you didn't pretend.
Can you say what it was like to work with Hitchcock for the first time?
He was darling, a bit formidable,
enormously bawdy sense of humour
and he had a habit -
whether it was conscious or not, I don't know -
but of rather keeping all his actors at loggerheads,
so HE would be the one in the middle, rather puckish.
Good for me, because it made me suffer quite a lot
and feel quite miserable all the time
and it probably came out on the screen that way.
This scene from Rebecca
is with Judith Anderson.
..live in her house, walk in her steps,
take the things that were hers,
but she's too strong for you.
You can't fight her! No-one ever got the better of her, never, never!
She was beaten in the end, but it wasn't a man. It wasn't a woman.
It was the sea.
Oh, stop it, stop it, oh, stop it!
You're overwrought, madam. I've opened a window for you.
A little air will do you good. SHE SOBS
Why don't you go?
Why don't you leave Manderley?
He doesn't need you.
He's got his memories.
He doesn't love you, he wants to be alone again, with her.
You've nothing to stay for.
You've nothing to live for, really, have you?
Look down there. It's easy, isn't it?
Why don't you? Why don't you?
Don't be afraid.
He had absolutely no nonsense about mood or meaning or any of that.
He was telling a story,
expected you to tell it with him in absolutely common terms.
No theories like the Actor's Studio or any of that. Made it terribly clear.
And I remember finally I had to cry one day, quite a lot,
and I said, "Hitch, I just can't cry any more."
He said, "Well, kid, what are we going to do?" I said, "Slap me in the face."
He said, "Fine."
Off he went, slapped me in the face
and went back and the tears came down.
Partly pain, but a great deal of gratitude for his understanding.
It was wonderful of him!
You said he made you suffer a lot during the making of that thing
and that it was probably good for you. In what way do you mean?
Oh, well, I think that if you are playing an insignificant little girl
that has a terrible inferiority complex,
that it's better not to praise her too much and tell her
she's marvellous or you'll undo what you want.
He was a little difficult.
I remember Larry Olivier telling a rather off-colour joke,
as a matter of fact, the first time I'd ever heard a certain
four-letter word ever spoken, and he'd said, "Oh, I wouldn't speak like
"that in front of Joan. After all, she is a bride."
And Larry said, "Oh, who did you marry?"
And I shyly said, "Well, Brian Aherne." And he said, "Oh,
"couldn't you have done better than that?"
So, I think that's part of the treatment I was getting.
It certainly helped the acting.
It helped the acting to the extent that you were nominated for an
-And lost it.
And the picture won it. Hitchcock I don't think got it.
I may be wrong, but I don't think he got it for that.
Then, of course, I did Suspicion, did get it for that.
Also directed by Hitch and I don't think the picture got it,
but there you are, that happens.
Have you ever been kissed in a car before?
1941, Suspicion, with Cary Grant.
..joke with me.
I'm no good at joking,
I don't know how to flirt.
I'm not joking, I'm serious!
-Have you ever been kissed in a car?
-Would you like to be?
Well, well, you're the first woman I've ever met
who said yes when she meant yes.
What do the others say?
-Heck if I know. Anything but yes.
-But they kiss you.
Have there what?
Have there been many?
I'm afraid so, quite a few.
One night when I couldn't fall asleep, I started to count them.
You know, the way you count sheep jumping over a fence?
I think I passed out on number 73.
Are you always frank with them like this?
No, no. Not particularly.
Why are you frank with me? Because I'm different?
No, no, it isn't that.
I'm honest because with you, I think it's the best way to get results.
I hope I'm not saying the wrong thing,
but I love you.
Well, get undressed, old girl, what are you waiting for?
Johnnie, I'm in a state tonight, I don't know why. I'd like to be alone.
Would you mind sleeping in your dressing room?
Of course I'd mind.
Please, Johnnie. I haven't been sleeping very well lately.
I understand. You used to sleep badly when I wasn't here,
and now you... All right, if that's the way you feel about it.
You won an Academy Award as the best actress of the year
for your part in Suspicion.
Can you describe what the whole of the ballyhoo
of the Academy Awards was like?
Well, this was frightening to me, because Olivia was up for it also.
-And I never expected to get it, had I not got it for Rebecca,
I thought, it's silly to think of it for Suspicion,
because they weren't comparable to me.
And I was making a picture called The Constant Nymph.
Olivia called me that day, as did the head of the Screen Actors Guild,
Jean Hersholt, and she said, "You are coming out." "No, I can't.
"I've got to get up at five in the morning. I'm going to be on the set
"until six-thirty tonight.
"I couldn't begin, I have no clothes to wear or anything."
So, Olivia - and we were supposed to be enemies at this time,
which is so ridiculous - brought a seamstress over
and several lovely gowns that she had purchased for me.
Tried them on on the set, and did all that.
It was so sweet and wonderful of her.
But the legend of you and your sister constantly feuding has...
-Isn't it fun?
-..has no foundation.
Oh, it has lots of foundation, but no fact. How's that? Do you like that?
Olivia and I were brought up very, very strictly by our mother
and we were all living in Hollywood together.
I was, at that time, having to ask if I could go out in the evening,
having to report in. Olivia the same, and we never had time.
We were all working. We didn't have time
to go to nightclubs or have beaux, really.
And if they did, they had to come to call and have tea with Mother
and all that sort of thing. So, there was no scandal. Nothing!
As a matter of fact, I skipped a whole youth
that never happened to me at all.
Going out to dine, being gay, all that sort of thing.
We didn't do that. So, there was nothing they could write about.
Olivia was under contract to Warner Brothers, I to RKO,
and I would simply imagine that the heads of the publicity department
kind of got together and said,
"What are we going to do about these spinster ladies?" And this evolved.
At least it was a feud which got the names of the pictures in
and the studios and all that.
How much of the great Hollywood spectacular days did you catch?
I was very fortunate, because by the time I was there,
Mary Pickford had retired in splendour to Pickfair,
which was the example of gracious living, shall we say.
So everybody wanted to live more or less like that.
Then with the war coming, nobody could travel.
And it's a terrible thing to say,
but there was nothing to spend one's money on.
Really nothing at all!
So everybody got bigger and better houses
and more and more silver pheasants running down the dining room tables,
that kind of thing, and entertaining.
Everybody had to outdo the others.
Naturally, everybody had their swimming pool
and that was usually covered with a dance floor.
Huge tent erected, living trees of lilacs and roses brought in,
paving the way from the house to the tent.
And several orchestras, perhaps.
And, naturally, champagne and everything.
But this was almost a nightly occurrence.
It was really finally rather boring.
You know, "Ho-hum, here we are at another one.
"Well, there's not as many roses tonight."
And one party, which wasn't too long ago, that Jack Benny gave,
and I hadn't been to Hollywood for a long time,
so I was asked to that. It was about five years ago.
It was for, I believe, Heifetz or somebody like that.
And Mary had got glorious peonies, I don't know what,
from San Francisco down, the usual tent and everything.
And I was thunderstruck.
Here were all the men in one end of the room talking about business.
All the most beautiful women in the world, beautifully gowned,
talking about their children or their servant problems.
We went into this lavish place to dine. Nobody danced.
And everybody had to leave, of course, by 11 o'clock,
because they were all working the next morning.
And I had forgotten that this was the way one lived.
Very disappointing for the hostess.
Terribly nice of her to go to so much trouble,
but rather extraordinary to see.
And I shall never forget, as I got in the car,
Gary Cooper came down the...
..brick path from the house, knocked on the window and said,
"Have fun, kids."
And I didn't know it, but he was dying of cancer
and he died within three months.
And that one thing makes him stand out more than anything else he ever
did in his life, because I think he wished that maybe
he could be rushing off and doing something else too.
Did you ever feel that you were the victim of the Hollywood
In the beginning, it was frightful, and I think it is
frightful for anybody to have their marriage constantly attacked.
I remember one woman saying in the press
that Brian and I were divorcing,
and I called her, which I shouldn't have done, I learnt about it then.
And she said, "Well, we haven't seen you around lately."
I said, "Well, of course not! I'm working!
"I'm home at seven every night, up at five and so is he."
And she said, "Well, if you're still together
"in six months, I'll retract it."
But that leaves it...
It's multiplied. Your friends ring you or write to you
or say, "Isn't it dreadful?"
Before you know it, you ARE divorced and it's a terrible thing,
and I think just the negative thought, it plants the seed
and your friends seem to get used to it. When you're not.
And it's a horrid thing, horrid.
Did that kind of thing happen a lot in Hollywood?
Yeah, I think it happens all the time.
So this meant that really any Hollywood marriage had to
fight like hell to survive?
With your own family, your own friends, with your own studio, yes.
Without any grounds, perhaps. At all.
And then if you did go home before your husband did, at a party
because you had to get up early,
"What husband was left in the lurch by his movie star wife?"
would be in the press the next day. So you don't really stand a chance.
Fontaine was very familiar with the dark side of Hollywood
and so the topic came up again in a programme called
Hollywood Greats with Barry Norman in 1979.
As far as the stars were concerned,
the real bosses were the Mayers, the Jack Warners,
the Sam Goldwyns, and the Combs,
and these people ran their studios like medieval baronies or like
dictatorships, though not always benevolent.
These were the men that the stars had to placate
and whose rules they had to follow if they wished to thrive.
The fact that the moguls were in turn subject to the whims
and the dictates of the New York office
and the stockholders didn't matter.
In Hollywood itself, the moguls were the law.
On one occasion, for example,
Miss Fontaine was persuaded to go on a trip with other starlets to
have some publicity pictures taken, or so they were led to believe.
Rather amusing story, I think,
because I was told we had to go out to Arrowhead Springs, where
there's a big hotel, and there was going to be a distributers' meeting.
And a distributers' meeting really is an excuse for everybody to come
to Hollywood and leave their wives at home. It looks like business.
So, I went with my mother and they all were horrified.
And they said, "Get rid of the old lady."
And my mother, of course, overheard this
and she said, "Joan is coming to bed when I am
"and that will be all." And I went with my mother
and the next morning, Mother got on the phone - she was not
a Hollywood mother, a theatrical mother at all, she didn't push us -
but she said, "My daughter's up here to take pictures.
"Where's the cameraman?"
And nobody appeared, they were all hung-over, of course.
Mother kept on the phone persistently, and finally, some...
..bemused cameraman came up and with a jaundiced eye,
looked through the camera, took some photographs of me,
and they sent me packing home.
I was called into the publicity office the next day
and was accused of being high-hat and snobbish and all this
sort of thing because I hadn't been one of the gang, and I was fired.
The only trouble with Hollywood is you know you're running out of it.
You're going right straight through it and out the other end.
It's not a cul-de-sac, because they don't want you that long anyway.
Eventually, Fontaine would pour all
her experiences into a tell-all autobiography.
She called it No Bed Of Roses.
One of her ex-husbands would call it No Shred Of Truth.
Its publication in 1978 led to this appearance on the Tonight programme
with the interviewer Valerie Singleton.
Joan Fontaine, you're a successful Hollywood movie star,
you've had success, glamour, parties, travel,
an exciting life, and yet you've called your book No Bed Of Roses.
I think in No Bed Of Roses it explains a childhood
which was no more severe than some childhoods
but where there were no relatives except a mother,
where my mother was, in a sense, deserted by my father
and we ran away from home, my sister and I. She really ran away
and I was away, so I just stayed away.
And then four marriages, that's not easy.
And the ups and downs of career.
That's not easy. And, um...
-Not as glamorous as it appears, to people?
-It certainly isn't.
However, I'm out the other side of it, I'm a very happy woman.
I feel very fortunate, I've accomplished a lot,
I've done it all by myself and I'm rather proud of that
and I'm proud of being an author.
You... I have to raise this, and I'm sure it's been raised many times,
but you have this feud with your sister, Olivia de Havilland.
Did this come about because you were rivals, she was a year older
than you, and her success came more quickly than yours did?
-Did you find being...?
-I try to explain in the book
that it really happened, I think,
at my birth, because my mother said that Olivia, since we were born in
Tokyo, there were a lot of servants and all that sort of thing,
and she was rather the cock of the walk, and then the little intruder comes in.
As an intruder, I was a very sickly baby.
I had eczema all over my body for two years and I was in cotton wool.
So, I must have got a great deal of attention
and she must've been told, don't disturb the sleeping child, or
you can't go and see her, because she's sleeping, whatever it is.
And that... So, I was not a little doll to play with.
I was somebody who was upsetting her realm, as it were. And...
-People usually grow out of that when they grow older.
-Yes, they do.
-And she has not been able to.
-She? Not you? Or both of you?
I'm proud of an older sister. I have no resentment of any kind.
You, actually, funnily enough, won an Oscar before she did, for your performance in Suspicion.
Was that a bone of contention as well or not?
No, she wouldn't raise that.
I mean, it's a fair fight, if it is a fight at all.
I feel a little guilty about it, but I feel a little guilty that
Brian Aherne, to whom I was married, had never even been nominated.
He was there, so that was rather awkward, only within me,
but they, I hope, were happy for me.
Was it a role you were proud of?
Do you think it was one of your better roles?
Oh, yes. There's no doubt.
I was directed by Hitchcock, and how lucky can one be?
But not one performance has really given you complete satisfaction.
There must be one or two, surely, that have given you some.
I don't think any artist, be it an opera singer, pianist,
a writer, anybody, is completely satisfied with their performance.
-And they shouldn't be, either.
-Which is one of your favourites?
Oh, I have so many. I was lucky to have the classics, really.
In order, Rebecca, Suspicion, Constant Nymph, Jane Eyre,
This Above All, Letter From An Unknown Woman, Ivanhoe.
I mean, I've been very lucky and I've had marvellous leading men.
You said just now you've been married four times
and, again, coming out of your book,
you seem very much to need the sort of permanence
and security in a marriage that you seemed not to get in your childhood.
And yet four marriages.
-Do you think Hollywood's to blame for the whirlwind, kind of superficial...
I think being the child of divorced parents makes one have
a different attitude about marriage.
I had never any real intention of it being for ever and ever
and ever and ever.
Because, as I write in No Bed Of Roses,
the night before my first marriage, there was a telephone call
at midnight saying, "Please may I get out of this marriage?"
And that's not a very good start.
Each of your marriages seems to have something that goes
wrong near the beginning of it that almost casts doubt.
I think that marriage should be terribly truthful
and nobody should go into marriage with any secrets of any kind.
And there were secrets in all my marriages that I discovered about
my husband shortly after marriage, which was a terrible blow.
-And I don't think quite fair.
-What are you doing now?
You're not in Hollywood any more, are you?
Oh, I've lived in New York for years.
I have a rather lovely apartment, all kinds of friends,
which one does in a large city.
In Hollywood, you had only friends that were in motion pictures, really.
But to have the UN, and many other things, is very exciting.
I find this time in my life, this age that I'm at, is a marvellous age.
Most women are terrified about getting older. Ah! It is lovely.
Especially if you have your own financial independence,
that's very important. And I do.
And I rely pretty much on myself for everything
and it's lovely to be able to choose the kind of life that I want to live
and then go ahead and live it.
So briefly, despite being called No Bed Of Roses,
there aren't too many regrets?
There are no regrets, because that's living.
I can't regret having lived and learned.
For Joan, living and learning never meant just acting.
Outside of Hollywood, she was a licensed pilot,
flew in an international balloon race, trained as
a Cordon Bleu cook and was a shrewd player of the stock market.
When she died, in 2013 aged 96, at home in California,
many referred to a quote that captured both her
love of performance and the most famous of her relationships.
She'd been asked how she'd like to die.
And she'd answered, "Aged 108,
"flying around the stage in Peter Pan
"as a result of my sister cutting the wires."
A look at the life of Joan Fontaine, one of Britain's best-loved actresses, using rarely seen archive footage of her appearances on the BBC to tell the story of her Oscar-winning career.