Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Joan Fontaine & Teresa Wright – Cinema Legends – June 2015

Joan Fontaine and Teresa Wright are both actresses who made their best films in the 1940s. They both won Oscars. And, they both starred in great films directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Are they Cinema Legends, as the header of this post might suggest? Probably not to the same degree as a few of their contemporaries, but they are two of my favorites from the time period, and I wanted to share a bit about them and their films.

Joan Fontaine

Joan Fontaine and her sister Olivia de Havilland, who she was bitter rivals with throughout her life, were born in Japan, but her family moved to California when the girls were still young. Fontaine started her career in Hollywood in 1935 when she signed a contract with RKO Pictures, shortly after debuting in the West Coast stage production of Call It a Day. RKO thought of her as a rising star, but she struggled to really make an impact in the 1930s, mostly featuring in supporting roles (most notably as Peggy Day in The Women and Emmy in Gunga Din).

Everything changed for her, however, when she was seated next to producer David O. Selznick at a dinner party. O. Selznick was in the process of developing Daphne du Maurier’s novel Rebecca as Alfred Hitchcock’s American debut. They started discussing the film adaptation and O. Selznick suggested that Fontaine audition. She did, along with hundreds of other actresses. Laurence Olivier had been cast as Mr. de Winter and he hoped and lobbied for his wife Vivien Leigh to take the lead role; but, neither Hitchcock nor O. Selznick thought she was right for the part. After six months of auditioning and film tests, Fontaine finally emerged with the role. The film, a masterpiece, played to critical and commercial acclaim, winning the 1941 Best Picture Academy Award (it is the only Hitchcock film to win Best Picture). Fontaine’s performance as Mrs. de Winter was praised as well, garnering her a Best Actress nomination (though she did not win).

She would not have to wait long for another chance, however, as she next appeared opposite Cary Grant (with whom she has great chemistry) in the Hitchcock thriller Suspicion, this time winning the Best Actress Oscar (cementing her rivalry with her sister who was very jealous that Joan had won an Oscar first). Her win is also the only Oscar-winning performance in a Hitchcock film.

Fontaine excelled during the rest of the 1940s in romantic melodramas. Chief among them are The Constant Nymph, Jane Eyre, and Letter from and Unknown Woman. The Constant Nymph is Joan’s favorite among her own films and she received her third Oscar nomination for her work on the film, but for a long time it is was very hard to find a copy of it – thus, I have never seen it (although, it is now on Amazon, so I hope to remedy my having not seen it soon).

In Jane Eyre, she takes the title role opposite Orson Welles, who pretty much ran the production even though the film is directed by Robert Stevenson (who would later direct many films for Disney including Mary Poppins). The film is one of the best cinematic adaptations of the gothic novel and both Fontaine and Welles are very good. In Letter from an Unknown Woman, Fontaine plays a woman who is in love with a man who never quite realizes what he has with her, always chasing something else. It is directed by the great Max Ophuls and is considered to be among the best films ever made (number 154 on Sight & Sound’s 2012 Critics’ Top 250 Films list and number 71 on my list of the Top 100 Films of the 20th Century).

Fontaine’s career waned a bit in the 1950s, as she started to take on more television and stage roles. She continued to act until 1994.

Teresa Wright

Teresa Wright was born in Harlem, New York. She started her acting career in 1939 when she was discovered by Samuel Goldwyn on the stage in Life with Father. Goldwyn offered her a five-year contract, but she had some demands (here is an excerpt from her first Hollywood contract: “The aforementioned Teresa Wright shall not be required to pose for photographs in a bathing suit unless she is in the water. Neither may she be photographed running on the beach with her hair flying in the wind. Nor may she pose in any of the following situations: In shorts, playing with a cocker spaniel; digging in a garden; whipping up a meal; attired in firecrackers and holding skyrockets for the Fourth of July; looking insinuatingly at a turkey for Thanksgiving; wearing a bunny cap with long ears for Easter; twinkling on prop snow in a skiing outfit while a fan blows her scarf; assuming an athletic stance while pretending to hit something with a bow and arrow.”). She wanted to assert her seriousness as an actress from the jump.

In 1941, she won her first role opposite Bette Davis in the adaptation of Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes. She immediately won over critics and Hollywood, garnering a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for her work. The film was directed by William Wyler, the first of a many fruitful collaborations between the actress and director.

In 1942, she starred in two films, and received two more Academy Award nominations (I wonder if anyone else has ever received Oscar nominations for all three of their first three film appearances? Doubtful). She won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for Mrs. Miniver, a fantastic propaganda drama directed by Wyler. Her performance is touted as being a somewhat significant factor in winning over average Americans approval for entering the war in Europe to support Britain against the Nazis (which was unwelcome in the wake of the very unpopular WWI). She also received a Best Actress nomination for her role in Pride of the Yankees opposite Gary Cooper. It is a biopic of Yankee Legend Lou Gehrig. Her performance in the final scenes is heartbreaking (and a chief reason many cry at the end of the film). She also holds a special place with the New York Yankees organization, her name being remembered among the greats when she passed in 2005.

Next, in 1943, Teresa won the lead role in Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (though, initially Hitchcock wanted Joan Fontaine for the role, but her schedule was incompatible) opposite Joseph Cotten. Wright is brilliant in the film, playing an innocent young girl who becomes suspicious that her beloved uncle is a serial murderer. Shadow of a Doubt is one of Hitchcock’s best and it is considered to be his first truly American film, taking place is small town America. Hitchcock thought Wright was one of the best and most intelligent actresses her worked with, bringing many qualities to her character not often found in his heroines.

 Wright made two films about war veterans returning from WWII. The first, again with Wyler, was The Best Years of Our Lives, which one Best Picture in 1947. It is a brave, profound and important drama. The other was 1950’s The Men, directed by Fred Zinnemann and it starred Marlon Brando (in his film debut). She also starred opposite Robert Mitchum in the Raoul Walsh directed western Pursued in 1947. The film is a much darker version of the West than audiences were typically used to in the genre.

Throughout her career Wright had been widely acclaimed by film critics; however, she also felt unfairly treated by the studio system. So, in 1948, she rebelled against that system, and fell out with the man who discovered her, losing her contract with Goldwyn. Years later, Wright regretted her choice saying, “I was going to be Joan of Arc, and all I proved was that I was an actress who would work for less money.” She worked throughout the 1950s, 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s (her final appearance is in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Rainmaker), but her career never saw the same heights as it had in the 1940s. 


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