Oscar And Academy Award-Winning Actress Joan Fontaine Dead At 96

Film star Joan Fontaine died Sunday at age 96. She was best known for her roles in films directed by Alfred Hitchcock, including Suspicion, which earned her an Academy Award in 1941.

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One of the few remaining stars from the Golden Age of film is gone. Joan Fontaine was 96 when she died yesterday in her home. She won an Academy Award in 1941 for Hitchcock's movie "Suspicion." Her sister, Olivia de Havilland, was nominated for the same award that very year for "Hold Back the Dawn."

Here's NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin.

SELENA SIMMONS-DUFFIN, BYLINE: It was a dramatic Academy Awards night. The two nominated sisters sat together.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOW, "14TH ACADEMY AWARDS")

GINGER ROGERS: Again, I have the pleasure of telling a secret. Miss Joan Fontaine.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Ginger Rogers presented the award to Joan Fontaine.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOW, "14TH ACADEMY AWARDS")

JOAN FONTAINE: I don't believe it. I want to thank the ladies and gentlemen that voted me this award.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: She was the first and only actor to win for a performance in a Hitchcock film.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOW, "14TH ACADEMY AWARDS")

FONTAINE: And if Alfred Hitchcock were here tonight, I'd like to say to him, thank you, Hitch, with all my heart.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Hitch had taken it upon himself to take the young, green actress on and make a great actor out of her. She had done a few films throughout the 1930s, but had failed to impress. As she tells it, her luck changed at a party.

FONTAINE: It was a very fortunate night for me when I went to dinner at Charlie Chaplin's house.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Fontaine told the BBC circa 1978 that she was seated next to a bespectacled man.

FONTAINE: And we were talking about various books and I mentioned that I had read Daphne du Maurier's last one "Rebecca," and I thought it would make a good movie, and he laughed and he said, my name is David O. Selznick and how would you like to test for it?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: She beat out many bigger-named actresses because Hitchcock believed he could coach her through it.

FONTAINE: He had a tremendous kind of paternal interest in me. He began, I think, to feel that he was a star maker.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: In "Rebecca," Fontaine plays a meek unnamed woman, newly married to a man who's haunted by the death of his first wife, Rebecca.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "REBECCA")

FONTAINE: (as Mrs. de Winter) All the time, whenever I meet anyone, Maxim's sister or even the servants, I know they're all thinking the same thing. They're all comparing me with her, with Rebecca.

REGINALD DENNY: (as Frank Crawley) Oh, you mustn't think that.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: By the end, the clumsy bride grows into her own.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "REBECCA")

FONTAINE: (as Mrs. de Winter) I want you to get rid of all these things.

JUDITH ANDERSON: (as Mrs. Danvers) These are Mrs. de Winter's things.

FONTAINE: (as Mrs. de Winter) I am Mrs. de Winter now.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Fontaine got an Oscar nomination - but not a win - for that film. Instead she won for a fairly similar role in "Suspicion," also under Hitchcock's direction. Which brings us back to that moment when Fontaine beat her sister for the Oscar. Patricia White of Swarthmore College says de Havilland was the bigger star, already known for "Gone With the Wind."

PATRICIA WHITE: So, for Joan Fontaine to win the Oscar first, mind you Olivia surpassed her both in nominations and wins over the course of their rivalrous, joint careers, was a big deal. And Joan, I think, felt a victory, but I think she also felt that it would guarantee that she and her sister never reconciled.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Their relationship was rocky from the time they were children, born in Tokyo to British parents. Growing up with their mother in California, they both took to the stage young. De Havilland was always first, always with greater success. And while de Havilland left acting in the 1950s for Paris, Fontaine kept working into her later years, mostly on soap operas and TV movies.

Joan Fontaine is survived by her older sister, who's now 97. These many years after her days of Hollywood fame, it's Fontaine's role in "Rebecca" that lives on. A performance perfectly frozen in those war years, a sweet, pretty everywoman who finds something steely within her and triumphs after all. Selena Simmons-Duffin, NPR News.

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