RIP Joan Fontaine

Joan Fontaine sadly passed away earlier this week but it wasn’t just the death of Peter O’Toole overshadowing her.

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By Callum Hughes

On the 6th August 1962 the New York Daily Mirror, which seems to boast more than a passing resemblance to the similarly titled British paper, had what would become an iconic and infamous headline on its front cover; ‘Marilyn Monroe Kills Self’ it exclaimed, revealing to the public that morning the tragic death of one of the greatest film stars in history. Yet her career was far from the focus of this attention grabbing headline, instead what lay just below were the words ‘found nude in bed’, preceding even the fact that pills were believed to be responsible. Apparently the fact that Marilyn was naked was the single most important aspect of her death. It was a tragically ironic way for her death to be reported, since it was this misogyny that had hounded Monroe throughout her career and had at least partially lead to the depression from which she never recovered.

Of course it’s unlikely any paper would get away with that now, although it’s hard not to wonder how similar tabloids would react should such an iconic, sexualised star die tomorrow. Celebrities are of course still hugely objectified in modern media; the reaction to the leaked pictures of Scarlett Johansson and the holiday pictures of Kate Middleton have proved that. Yet there’s a sense, I like to think, that Marilyn would have been more recognised for her talent and what she achieved rather than the focus being squarely on her lack of clothes.

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I noticed something though yesterday which while a million miles from the New York Daily Mirror’s horrific front page seemed a rather sad reminder of how far we still have to go.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock you probably heard the sad news of the death of Peter O’Toole at the weekend; an actor from the same generation as Marilyn Monroe and nearly as iconic for his role in Lawrence of Arabia. Only a day later it was announced that Joan Fontaine, who gave an astonishing performance as the lead in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca had died. Saddened by the news of both deaths I read the obituaries of both in the Guardian and was rather disappointed to see the different perspectives of the two iconic figures. “Actor who shot to fame in David Lean’s 1962 masterpiece and received eight Oscar nominations has died in hospital in London” was how O’Toole’s began, compare that with Fontaine’s introduction; “Fontaine, who died aged 96 only hours after Peter O’Toole, was the prototype ‘Hitchcock blonde’ – attractive, malleable, neurotic”.

The focus for O’Toole was clearly on his achievements in the acting world, impressive as they were, with his most important and iconic performance singled out. Yet we introduced to Fontaine, firstly as someone who died only a day after O’Toole, then as a prototype for a male image of the ‘Hitchcock blonde’, only just preceding the fact that she was attractive. I would never perceive myself as a Fontaine expert but I can’t help feeling the artist who gave us that performance in Rebecca and the Oscar winning performance in 1941’s Suspicion deserves something more.

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In fact of the nine paragraphs in Andrew Pulver’s article only two mention her career; one to tell us about Rebecca, the other to tell us that her career floundered afterwards. Much of the rest of the article discusses her feud with her sister and even goes as far as quoting a tabloid from the era telling us that the two didn’t get on. I imagine this wasn’t how Fontaine, her friends or her family wanted her to be remembered.

No, Fontaine wasn’t as well known as O’Toole, her career didn’t last as long but at least part of that must be down to the lack of roles for older women. Yes, there are interesting aspects to her feud with her sister, in fact I’d happily read more about it but what these obituaries show is that the personal life of women in the spotlight is still seen to be as important if not more so than their achievements in their medium of choice. Inevitably we have interests in what the rich and famous do with their fame and fortune but the best of these are famous for a reason, and it’s a reason that should be appreciated; they’re artists.

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So here’s my own mini obituary of Joan Fontaine; an artist and performer who gave some extraordinary performances and helped create some of the most iconic films and roles of the 40s. Maybe in the next few days you’d like to do what I’ll be doing, watching Rebecca and mourning the death of Joan Fontaine as one the great stars of the golden age of Hollywood because of what she achieved, not because of what or who she was.

Callum is a screenwriter and essayist who studied film at the University of East Anglia. He is the editor of the Feminist Film Blog

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