Academy Award-winning actress Joan Fontaine, who found stardom playing naive wives in Alfred Hitchcock's ``Suspicion'' and ``Rebecca'' and also was featured in films by Billy Wilder, Fritz Lang and Nicholas Ray, died Sunday. She was 96.
Fontaine, the sister of fellow Oscar winner Olivia de Havilland, died in her sleep in her Carmel, California, home Sunday morning, said longtime friend Noel Beutel. Fontaine had been fading in recent days and died ``peacefully,'' Beutel said.
In her later years, Fontaine had lived quietly at her Villa Fontana estate, south of Carmel, enjoying its spectacular view of windswept Point Lobos.
Fontaine's pale, soft features and frightened stare made her ideal for melodrama and she was a major star for much of the 1940s. For Hitchcock, she was a prototype of the uneasy blondes played by Kim Novak in ``Vertigo'' and Tippi Hedren in ``The Birds'' and ``Marnie.'' The director would later say he was most impressed by Fontaine's restraint. She would credit George Cukor, who directed her in ``The Women,'' for urging her to ``think and feel and the rest will take care of itself.''
Fontaine appeared in more than 30 movies, including early roles in ``The Women'' and ``Gunga Din,'' the title part in ``Jane Eyre'' and in Max Ophuls' historical drama ``Letter from an Unknown Woman.'' She was also in films directed by Wilder (``The Emperor Waltz''), Lang (``Beyond a Reasonable Doubt'') and, wised up and dangerous, in Ray's ``Born to be Bad.'' She starred on Broadway in 1954 in ``Tea and Sympathy'' and in 1980 received an Emmy nomination for her cameo on the daytime soap ``Ryan's Hope.''
Alfred Hitchcock's ``Suspicion,'' released in 1941, and featuring Fontaine as the timid woman whose husband (Cary Grant) may or may not be a killer, brought her a best actress Oscar and dramatized one of Hollywood's legendary feuds, between Fontaine and de Havilland, a losing nominee for ``Hold Back the Dawn.''
Competition for the prize hardened feelings that had apparent roots in childhood (``Livvie'' was a bully, Joan an attention hog) and endured into old age, with Fontaine writing bitterly about her sister in the memoir ``No Bed of Roses'' and telling one reporter that she could not recall ``one act of kindness from Olivia all through my childhood.'' While they initially downplayed any problems, tension was evident in 1947 when de Havilland came offstage after winning her first Oscar, for ``To Each His Own.'' Fontaine came forward to congratulate her and was rebuffed. Explained de Havilland's publicist: ``This goes back for years and years, ever since they were children.''