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Fontaine of Youth
by Asa Butcher
2007-10-22 10:21:49
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Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Selznick International Pictures, 1940

Following the recent passing of Deborah Kerr at 86 recently, it is warming to be reminded that there are still a few of the great leading ladies of the 1930s and 1940s remaining. Strangely, two of these surviving leading ladies are actually sisters, Olivia de Havilland, aged 91, and her younger sister Joan Fontaine, who turns 90 today.

In honour of Joan Fontaine's 90th birthday I wanted to review Alfred Hitchcock's Suspicion for which she won her only Academy Award, but I only have it on VHS and currently have no VCR. Instead, I have chosen Rebecca, which was Hitchcock's American debut and the film that launched Fontaine into Hollywood's upper stratosphere with her first Best Actress nomination.

Winner of the 1940 Best Picture award, Rebecca was based upon Daphne Du Maurier's 1938 novel of the same name. The plotline remained faithful upon its transference to the screen by Robert E. Sherwood and Joan Harrison, with one minor change to keep the Hollywood Censors happy – it would spoil the plot if I revealed just what was altered. This was Hitchcock's second film based on a Du Maurier novel, the first being 1939's Jamaica Inn, and in 1963 her work was once again used by Hitchcock for The Birds.

A youthful Joan Fontaine plays an unnamed ladies' companion, who is staying in Monte Carlo where she meets Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier), a wealthy widower. They quickly fall in love and return to his Cornish country estate named Manderlay. The Second Mrs. de Winter soon realises that the ghost of Maxim's late wife, who died one year earlier in a boating accident, is still troubling him, plus the housekeeper Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson) inflicts her own psychological warfare.

Even though the review was inspired by Fontaine's birthday and Sir Laurence Olivier's performance demands attention, I must begin with the aforementioned Mrs. Danvers played by Judith Anderson. The American Film Institute voted Mrs Danvers in at #31 on their top 50 Movie Villains list – she was sandwiched between Taxi Driver's Travis Bickle and Bonnie & Clydes' Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker. The scene in which she encourages Mrs. de Winter to commit suicide is one of the most harrowing of the 1940s and her obsession with the late Mrs. de Winter sends shivers down your spine.

It is due in part to Judith Anderson that Fontaine also gets many of the best scenes, since they often appear together. It took the relatively unknown Fontaine six-months of gruelling film tests, along with hundreds of other actresses, before she finally won the highly-sought part. According to trivia, co-star Olivier actually wanted his then-girlfriend Vivien Leigh to play the lead role, so he treated Fontaine atrociously. What makes this even worse was that Hitchcock capitalised upon this by telling her everyone on the set hated her, thereby making her shy and uneasy on the set - just what he wanted from her performance.

Hitchcock's dubious methods certainly brought out a superb performance from Fontaine and she certainly deserved her nomination, as did Olivier. Rebecca was made eight years before his directorial and acting masterpiece Hamlet, and you cannot fail to be impressed by his emotional range even outside of Shakespeare's prose. His explosions of anger, his quiet solitude and occasional humour in Rebecca are moments of art and it is strange to know that he only received $50,000 for his performance.

As I have said before, it is sad to think that the players of 1940's and soon 1950's Hollywood are passing away leaving behind their cinematic legacies, but there are still some connections remaining, such as the birthday girl Joan Fontaine. She may have turned 90 today, but last night, as I pressed play on the DVD, she was once again a fresh-faced 23-year-old with her whole life ahead of her – that is the beauty of cinema with its ability to capture an individual's youth… a bit like Dorian Gray's painting.

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