Monday, December 16, 2013

Joan Fontaine: Tough And Temperamental

I had three tries at interviewing Joan Fontaine the lovely Oscar winner who died Sunday aged 96.
Told in advance never to mention  the name "Olivia de Havilland" her older (by one year) sister, I  nevertheless got a lot out of the lady who won her Oscar for 1941's Suspicion and was still acting on TV until 1997 when she voluntarily retired.
Here are a few highlights from our conversations:
BAWDEN: "You once danced with Fred Astaire?"
FONTAINE: "Not really, I walked along and he danced around me. The movie was A Damsel In Distress (1937) and his dance partner was supposed to be Jessie Matthjews but she couldn't get over from England in time."
BAWDEN: "Another early credit is Gunga Din (1939)."
FONTAINE: "Mine was a tiny part. But one night as I was leaving RKO I spied Doug Fairbanks Jr. coming out in his tux with Marlene Dietrich on his arm all bejeweled and thought them the most romantic couple. I don't think Doug gave me much thought in our kissing scenes though. He had Marlene on the brain!"
BAWDEN: "You've said your part in The Women (1939) made you."
FONTAINE: I was coached by Norma Shearer, the empress of MGM. My part was tiny but I had one key tlephone scene where my husband pleads with me to leave Reno and come back. And our director George Cukor spent hours on it with many takes until I hit just the right note. David Selznick saw it and asked me for a test."
BAWDEN: "The test was for....?"
FONTAINE: "Gone with The Wind but I didn't want to play Melanie and told him my sister Olivia de Havilland would better and she was! But he then asked me to test for the second wife in Rebecca and I got that instead."
BAWDEN: "It was a huge success."
FONTAINE: "I felt on set nobody wanted me. Alfred Hitchcock had favored Maggie Sullavan but David thought her too American. Laurence Olivier wanted his wife Vivien Leigh who did test but David said she was still playing Scarlett. I got it on the rebound and Larry was very nasty to me and so was Judith Anderson but she was always nasty to everybody. I think only the dog liked me, really."
BAWDEN: "Was Hitch a help to you?"
FONTAINE: "Not really. He was feuding with David. One scene Hitch had Larry and I doing a love scene in the tight hotel elevator. David said to redo it in the breakfast restaurant because he'd spent a fortune on the set. Hitch did it mumbling all the way."
BAWDEN: "How did you get Suspicion (1941)?"
FONTAINE: After Rebecca Selznick owned my contract for seven years. Never used me again but hired me out and collected a fortune. He became a glorified  manager of talent and most of us including Joe Cotten, Greg Peck, Ingrid Bergman, we made him rich while we mostly worked for others. He sold me and Hitch as a package deal to RKO for Suspicion."
BAWDEN: "Do you consider it an inferior film to Rebecca?"
FONTAINE: No, superior. Cary Grant was expertly cast as the lady killer but right at the last minute the RKO head said 'Cary must not kill her at the end'. So we shot a new ending that makes no sense. Up to that point is is psychologically sound."
BAWDEN: "I notice you were not at the AFI salute to Orson Welles.
FONTAINE: "David sold me. the script of Jane Eyre and director  Bob Stevenson to Fox as another package. Orson was cast as Rochester and was already believing his publicity. Tried to take over. Lots of tussling with Bob. The film was a huge hit with wartime audiences, I liked doing it but I wish Orson had stuck to acting. But he couldn't you see, he had to play at being a genius"
.BAWDEN: "Why did you make The Constant Nymph (1943) at Warners?"
FONTAINE: "Well, I should not have have. It was at Olivia's home studio. She had tested for 12-year old Tessa but director Teddy Goulding said she was too womanly, too many curves. I did the test, got it and Olivia cut me off for years. I'd won the Oscar before her. I'd taken this role from her at her home studio. The movie is wonderful but can't be seen these days. Turner gave me a screening and I watched myself at 27 playing a 16-year old and I stumbled into the daylight and demanded a drink. I thought it was very wonderful."
NOTE: The film has since been screened on TCM.
BAWDEN: "What do you think of Letter From An Unknown Woman (1948)?"
FONTAINE: It's so wonderfully perverse. It plays with the audience's expectations. The ending is tragic, the woman is tragic.  Our director Max Ophuls thought it would make him in Hollywood. Instead he was quickly back in Europe because it really flopped."
BAWDEN: "Without Selznick you had problems."
FONTAINE: "We all did. It was that monster child, television. Oh, I thought Ivy (1947) where I poisoned the men in my life was well made but obviously popular.  Born To Be Bad (1950) was just OK.  Ivanhoe (1952) was a huge hit. On Island In The Sun (1957) Harry Belafonte and I were lovers and the censors freaked when we held hands. But no kissing was permitted."
BAWDEN: "You did tons of TV."
FONTAINE: "They give one a tiny trailer and a few sandwiches and lukewarm coffee for lunch. You rehearse and try for a first take and it's all shot at 10 pages a day. The lighting is atrocious. But there are no great producers anymore. I may have fought with selznick but he always spent the money and it showed on the screen. Not today.".
BAWDEN: "Your last big film was Tender Is The Night (1961)."
FONTAINE: I was trying to dial out one day and on a crossed wire overheard Jennifer Jones in the next dressing room talking to Selznick who had sold the property to Fox. He was giving her precise instructions how to do the next scene and when we assembled that's exactly how she played it. Henry King was an old pro who told us 'I'll be d-d if any of my principals will be seen pawing each other in bed.' But that was exactly what the story needed and we deservedly flopped."
BAWDEN: "Future goals?"
FONTAINE: To dance on Broadway with Tommy Tune. Recently I opened my nightclub act at The Plaza and I was really good. I could have been singing and dancing all these years instead of mooning after Olivier and Boyer. I know I would have been much happier.

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