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Wednesday, May 8, 2013

A Life In Full Bloom: Joan Fontaine's Graceful Second Act

A few months ago Carmel Magazine's Rebecca L. Knight interviewed Joan at her house in Carmel for a short feature.

In it Joan talks of her love for her dogs, her roses, and Cary Grant!

The interview can be found here, pages 82 through 85, or you can read it in full below.

Special thanks to tumblr user theotherdehavillandgirl for finding the interview!


 Five dogs come bounding to the front door of Villa Fontana. They are whirling dervishes, mixed breeds of different sizes, and Joan Fontaine, with her petite frame, is almost lost among them as she cheerfully flings open the door with a “Hello, welcome, welcome! Grab a sun hat if you wish and come outside,” and then adds with brio, “The roses are waiting!” A collection of straw hats lies on a table underneath a gilded antique mirror. Some are chic and others are more utilitarian looking. Fontaine is the consummate hostess, and if you are going to accept her offer of a hat to gaze upon her rose garden, she wants you to have one you’ll like wearing.

On her spacious terrace that overlooks the Pacific, a plate of smoked salmon tea sandwiches are arranged next to a split of champagne inside a silver ice bucket. A minute later the cork is popped and Fontaine is proposing a toast in her soft voice that is a blend of worldly richness and ingénue-like charm. “Cheers to the day, to this glorious view, and to my beloved dogs.”

Born of British parents in Tokyo, she and her older sister, the actress Olivia de Havilland, were brought to America by their mother to Saratoga, California, when they were young girls. A hint of an upper class British accent is still evident as Fontaine speaks. She is talking about maintaining five dogs from the local S.P.C.A. “These are my dear, dear babies,” she says with pride. So serious is her commitment to taking care of dogs who may otherwise be headed for euthanasia, she takes a moment to explain that recently a senior dog in her care died of old age. “We did not allow ourselves more than a day to mourn. Instead I called the S.P.C.A., and got another dog right away. We did not let ourselves cry on and on about his death. Life goes on.”

The conversation runs the gamut; from politics—Fontaine is a life-long Democrat—to her love of things that have nothing to do with Hollywood. Through the years, she has pursued, and in some cases mastered, her other interests. She is a licensed pilot, an accomplished equestrienne, a licensed interior designer, fisherwoman, Cordon Bleu chef, and a hole-in-one golfer. And then there are her roses.

More than 160 rose bushes flourish in an amphitheater shaped garden that occupies a portion of the twoplus acres she owns in the Carmel Highlands. Ascending tiers of Floribunda, Hybrid Tea, Damask, Grandiflora, and English roses command her attention now, and she generously offers that a bouquet be taken home. As if on cue, a gardener begins cutting as impossible choices are made. (Later that afternoon, the bouquet of roses will reappear, arranged in a vase, and placed inside a box with a cut out for transporting flowers by car. Again, the consummate hostess.)

Asked how she found this ocean-bluff property, Fontaine explains, “The husband of a newlywed couple was killed in a car accident shortly after their marriage. The bride never took possession of the house and it was put up for sale. It was overlooked by many prospective buyers because they felt their view of the ocean was obstructed by the large Cypress trees.” She gestures with a wide sweep of her arm towards the Pacific, saying, “I realized the trees could be trimmed back without losing any of their beauty and voila! View of ocean!” Straw hats notwithstanding, the heat of a noonday sun prompts her to offer a tour of her home.

The downstairs reveals a chic recreation of the tony Manhattan apartment she had before coming to Carmel. A tall corner shelf holds an assortment of curios with the small trophy she won for that hole-in-one sitting on a shelf above the Academy Award she won for best actress in Alfred Hitchcock’s, “Suspicion!” She pauses to pick up the small golf trophy while waving off the golden statuette that sits on a shelf below, saying, “Oh yes, well there’s that.” One gets the sense that Fontaine has cordoned off the movie business into a place within her life where it is kept behind a virtual velvet rope of her own design. She pauses and says earnestly, “I have no interest in Hollywood and I don’t miss it at all.” Still, she cannot escape the fact that she is a movie icon from the Golden Age.

Fontaine made 47 films between 1935 and 1967 and she was the only actress to win an Academy Award in a film directed by Alfred Hitchcock. She also received Best Actress Academy Award nominations for “Rebecca” and “The Constant Nymph.” She worked with Hollywood royalty and the list is staggering; Director George Cukor, producer David O. Selznick, and leading men including Charles Boyer, Laurence Olivier, Fred Astaire, Tyrone Power, Jimmy Stewart and Orson Wells. Cary Grant wooed her in “Suspicion!” She talks at length and with genuine affection about Grant. “He was the best leading man I ever worked with,” and she allows the conversation to wind its way back to the proverbial Hollywood “lot,” as she begins to reminisce.

Fontaine starred opposite Olivier in “Rebecca” in 1940 and received an Academy Award nomination for what is considered her breakout performance. She played a shy, innocent young woman who marries a wealthy widower. He brought her to live at Manderley, the estate where he and his first wife lived, and where his housekeeper maintained a destructive devotion to the first wife. The film, of which some outdoor scenes were shot along the craggy Big Sur coastline, won Fontaine found on-screen success with Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rebecca,” co-starring Laurence Olivier (right). She was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress, although she did not win for that film. Her home is decorated sumptuously, but it is as refined and as understated as its owner. Best Picture that year. Vivien Leigh, Katherine Hepburn, and Loretta Young were some of the leading women who tested for producer Selznick for the role of the second Mrs. De Winter, but he went with Fontaine and he brought Hitchcock in to direct. “Hitch and I got along quite well. He was what they call an ‘actor’s director,’” Fontaine begins. “At the time, Olivier was engaged to Vivien Leigh and he wanted her to play my role. Hitch came to me the first week of shooting and told me that Olivier said that I was awful and that Vivien was the only one that should play opposite him. To be so young and to be handed that kind of information! I kept my head down and did my work and although I couldn’t stand Larry for saying that, I don’t think it ever showed.”

Walking by one of the dining chairs, she pauses to pick up a small needlepoint pillow and giving it a slight fluff, she comments, “A gift from Salvador Dali. He made it for me.” Returning to the subject, Fontaine explains, “The cast were all British and a cliquey bunch. They didn’t include me in anything. No chats off set, mind you.” Her tone is matter-of-fact and there is no trace of bitterness or even a hint of an old grievance. “It made me so nervous that it affected the way I approached the role I played. I was on edge all the time during the filming because I could feel their dislike towards me. It was positively palpable. Hitch never interceded on my behalf. But genius that he was, he allowed it to continue and because of that I stayed in this very tense state while filming and that is just what the role called for.”

Going upstairs, Fontaine moves from room to room as she comments on the décor and answers questions about the provenance of particular pieces of furniture and fine art. Her home is decorated sumptuously, but it is as refined and as understated as its owner.

She moves into her library and stretches out on a sofa. Her ever-present dogs come and go and each one receives a pet and loving words from her. In the waning hours of the daylight, the conversation has turned away from Hollywood and onto the stage. Fontaine admits she was happiest doing live theater and she feels the best work of her career was on the boards. She conquered Broadway in “Forty Carats,” Noel Coward’s “Private Lives,” “Cactus Flower,” and “The Lion in Winter,” where she played her favorite role of her career, Eleanor of Aquitaine. On playing that role in Vienna, she quips, “Best reviews of my life for that one.”

Remembering a thread of conversation earlier about her passion for opera, she suddenly hops up with the grace of a dancer and moves across the room to the stereo. Putting on an aria by Puccini, the music of “Un bel di,” (one fine day) from “Madame Butterfly” begins to soar and Joan Fontaine breaks into her signature smile. It is a beguiling combination of wistful elusiveness. She gives a slight wink. It has been one fine day at Villa Fontana.


Patti said...

What an awesome article! Gosh, wouldn't it have been fun to have been the one to visit her home and interview her?!

Thanks for sharing.

Unknown said...

That's what I was thinking! I'd probably end up stealing her Oscar or something though.

Not a problem, glad you enjoyed it

Anonymous said...

I think the writer did take liberties, as Joan always states Boyer as her favorite leading man, not Grant.

Anonymous said...

Mrs de Winter interviewed by Rebecca? How interesting!

Thank you very much for posting the entire article.

It would be fantastic if she also took some photos of Villa Fontana though.

Anonymous said...

I loved that story on Joan Fontaine. I read somewhere that the writer was the last person to interview her and that Fontaine had never allowed anyone to interview her at her home in Carmel so that's pretty cool.

Tom said...

Thank you for the comments, everyone.

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