The 1941 Academy Award Best Actress race was stacked with women who would become legends: Bette Davis (The Little Foxes), Greer Garson (Blossoms in the Dust), and Barbara Stanwyck (Ball of Fire).
And rounding out the top five performances of the year were sisters Oliva de Havilland (Hold Back the Dawn) and Joan Fontaine (Suspicion.)
Joan Fontaine was the least well-known of the five nominees. Notwithstanding her role in Rebecca, her career was rather lackluster at that point. De Havilland was the far bigger star, having had box office success starring in multiple adventure films with Errol Flynn and as Melanie Wilkes in the biggest movie of all time.
If there was a favorite to win, it was de Havilland or Bette Davis.
Fontaine was the darkest of horses.
In Hold Back the Dawn, de Havilland plays Emmy Brown, a pretty young American schoolteacher who takes her class on a field trip to Mexico. Her car breaks down just across the border in Tijuana and she spends the night at the Hotel Esperanza. Unbeknownst to Emmy, the hotel is a hot spot for European immigrants who are waiting out their time—often years—before they can enter the United States.
Romanian George Isovescu (Charles Boyer) sees naïve Emmy as his ticket out of purgatory. A former gigolo, he turns on the charm and she’s in love before morning. He intends to desert her as soon as they are married and he is safely across the border.
The predictable plot is nonetheless satisfying—George falls in love after marrying her, but Emmy discovers his original plot and deserts him. George illegally crosses the border—risking jail time and the visa he has worked so hard to obtain—to win Emmy back.
It’s the kind of performance and subject matter the Academy likes to reward.
And yet it was little sister Joan Fontaine who walked away with the Oscar for her performance in Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion.
Fontaine is the only actor to win an Oscar for work in a Hitchcock film. Not Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window, nor Kim Novak in Vertigo, not Cary Grant in North by Northwest nor Ingrid Bergman in Notorious. Not even Fontaine in Rebecca, a far finer performance in a far finer film.
Suspicion is not one of Hitchcock’s finest films, although under different circumstances it might have been.
The film is based on the novel Before the Fact by Francis Iles. In the novel, Lina’s pregnant, and she drinks poisoned milk that Johnny offers her, knowing that it will kill her but also prevent passing Johnny’s psychopathic genes to their unborn child. But she has written and postmarked a letter outlining his crime. After she dies, the novel ends with Johnny mailing the letter, not realizing he is ensuring his own destruction.
Now that’s a Hitchcockian twist.
Too bad it never made it into the final film.
There are conflicting reports as to why the ending was changed—that either Grant himself or his studio did not want him portrayed as a villain. Fontaine writes in her autobiography that it was early test audiences that objected to Grant as a diabolical wife murderer. Likely the production code also interfered with Hitchcock’s original vision.
Regardless as to why, the changed ending leaves Suspicion a bit of a mess. We see the story through Lina’s eyes, and Johnny’s actions become suspicious, then sinister. He gambles, he lies, he is angry when Lina’s father dies and she receives no inheritance.
She believes he is going to kill her for her life insurance. When he brings her the milk featured in the novel, she’s afraid to drink it. When he recklessly drives her to her mother’s house, she fears he’s going to push her out of the car and over a cliff. In the end, he confesses that his bizarre behavior is because he is suicidal over the fact that he has embezzled money and will go to jail if he lives.
This unsatisfying twist unintentionally leaves Lina looking foolish, out of touch, and possibly insane for believing that her husband would harm her.
Fontaine’s win shocked the audience, the public, Fontaine herself, and likely her sister, though de Havilland only spoke positively about Fontaine’s win in public. At twenty-four years old, Fontaine was the youngest actress ever to win the Oscar at that time.
Gossip columnists, lead by Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons had a field day writing about how de Havilland had been upstaged by her little sister. The public thought that the feud between the sisters began that night. Throughout their lives, neither sister ever denied there was a feud, but both downplayed the role their Oscar duel played in it.
Perhaps Joan said it best in a 1977 interview with Jeanne Wolf:
“Well, it [the feud] didn’t happen there [1941 Oscar competition]. I really think it happened when I was born.”
Over the next few weeks, we’ll explore the films of Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine, their long running feud, and how their rivalry propelled them both to greatness.
After all, where would Serena be without Venus?
Just don’t ask Olivia and Joan to play doubles.
- Amburn, Ellis. Olivia de Havilland and the Golden Age of Hollywood.
- Fontaine, Joan. No Bed of Roses.
- Spoto, Donald. Spellbound by Beauty: Alfred Hitchcock and His Leading Ladies.
- Wolf, Jeanne. 1977 interview with Joan Fontaine, found here.
Want more? Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.