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Legendary Actress Joan Fontaine Dies at 96

Joan Fontaine, 24
Courtesy Everett Collection

The star of the Hitchcock classics "Suspicion" and "Rebecca" famously won an Oscar in 1942 over her bitter rival -- her older sister, Olivia de Havilland.

Joan Fontaine, the polished actress who achieved stardom in the early 1940s with memorable performances in the Alfred Hitchcock films Suspicion -- for which she earned the best actress Oscar over her bitter rival, sister Olivia de Havilland -- and Rebecca, has died. She was 96.

The Hollywood Reporter awards analyst Scott Feinberg spoke with Fontaine's assistant, Susan Pfeiffer, who confirmed the actress' death of natural causes Sunday at her home in Carmel, Calif.

Fontaine earned a third best actress Oscar nomination for her role in The Constant Nymph (1943). She also was notable as Charlotte Bronte's eponymous heroine in Jane Eyre (1944) opposite Orson Welles; in the romantic thriller September Affair (1950) with Joseph Cotten; in Ivanhoe (1952) with Robert Taylor; and in Island in the Sun (1957), where she plays a high-society woman in love with an up-and-coming politician (Harry Belafonte).

It was Hitchcock, with his penchant for "cool blondes," who brought Fontaine to the forefront when he cast her as the second Mrs. de Winter in Rebecca (1940), the director's American debut. Her performance as the new wife of Laurence Olivier in a household haunted by the death of his first wife earned her an Academy Award nomination for best actress.

A year later, Hitchcock placed her opposite Cary Grant in Suspicion, and she won the Oscar for her turn as Lina McLaidlaw Aysgarth, a shy English woman who begins to suspect her charming new husband of trying to kill her. She thus became the only actor to win an Oscar in a Hitchcock film.

Among those Fontaine beat out at the 1942 Academy Awards was her older sister, de Havilland, up for Hold Back the Dawn (1941). Biographer Charles Higham wrote that as Fontaine came forward to accept her trophy, she rejected de Havilland's attempt to congratulate her and that de Havilland was offended. (There may have been another similar incident after de Havilland won her first Oscar for To Each His Own in 1947.) The sisters, who never really got along since childhood, finally stopped speaking to each other in the mid-'70s.

De Havilland, a two-time Oscar winner, is 97 and living in Paris.

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Joan de Beauvoir de Havilland was born in Tokyo on Oct. 22, 1917, to British parents. Her father was a patent attorney who had a thriving practice in Japan. Due to the ill health of both her and Olivia, their mother, Lilian, moved them to California and pushed them into acting.

While de Havilland pursued acting, Fontaine returned to Tokyo and attended the American School. Ultimately, their parents divorced and Fontaine returned to the U.S. at age 17 to live in San Jose, Calif. As de Havilland was already having some success as an actress, Fontaine joined a local theater group and moved to L.A.

She received a screen test at MGM and was given a bit part in No More Ladies (1935), credited as Joan Burfield. After changing her last name to Fontaine (from her stepfather, George Fontaine) to avoid confusion with her sister, she signed with RKO and garnered small parts in several movies, including The Women and Gunga Din, both released in 1939.

Capitalizing on her emotional turns in Rebecca and Suspicion, Fontaine appeared in several romantic films in the '40s, including Constant Nymph (where she falls for composer Charles Boyer), Frenchman's Creek (1944), The Affairs of Susan (1945), From This Day Forward (1945) and Ivy (1947).

Fontaine moved into more mature roles in the movies and starred on Broadway opposite Anthony Perkins in Tea and Sympathy in 1954. Her last movie appearance was in The Witches (1966).

Fontaine made regular TV appearances in the late '50s and early '60s and served as a panelist on the game show To Tell the Truth from 1962-65. In 1986, she co-starred in the TV movie Dark Mansions and the miniseries Crossings. Her last credited performance came in the 1994 telefilm Good King Wenceslas.

Fontaine was nominated for an Emmy Award in 1980 for her guest-starring stint in the soap opera Ryan's Hope and served as jury president at the 1982 Berlin International Film Festival.

In 1978, she published her autobiography, No Bed of Roses, which detailed her feud with de Havilland.

Off the screen, Fontaine was a licensed pilot, an accomplished interior decorator and a Cordon Bleu-level chef who was married and divorced four times. In the '40s, she and William Dozier, the second of her four husbands, formed Rampart Productions, which oversaw her 1948 film Letter From an Unknown Woman, Billy Wilder's The Emperor Waltz (1948) starring Bing Crosby and Kiss the Blood Off My Hands (1948) with Burt Lancaster.

In 1939, Fontaine married British actor Brian Aherne, and they divorced in 1945. She was married to Batman TV show producer Dozier from 1946-51, to producer Collier Young from 1952-61 and to journalist Alfred Wright Jr. from 1964-69.

Duane Byrge contributed to this report.

Twitter: @mikebarnes4