Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Hale and Farewell to Two of Hollywood's Best

Joan Fontaine and Peter O'Toole died this week. Each is unforgettable and each appeared in films that will never be forgotten.

I was sad to hear that two of Hollywood's best were gone this week: Joan Fontaine (age 96) and Peter O'Toole (age 81) died just a day apart. They both were born with photogenic faces and both had the talent to make that beauty memorable. Fontaine's career began to sparkle at the end of the richest years of Hollywood--the 1930s--and bloomed in the 1940s. She and her famous sister, Olivia de Havilland, became the only two siblings to each win an Oscar for Best Actress. 

O'Toole was a hard-living man of the 1960s, who made one of the best films of all time--Lawrence of Arabia--and, though he almost killed himself with alcohol, he did survive to make more films for which he will also be remembered. 

Joan Fontaine was born Joan de Havilland in Tokyo to British parents. When her parents' marriage crumbled, her mother brought sisters Olivia and Joan to Saratoga, California where Mrs. de Havilland remarried and became Mrs. Fontaine. Saratoga was a beautiful place then, filled with orchards, and late in her life, Fontaine told the San Jose newspaper that she loved the city where she was raised. She died not far from there, at her home in Carmel, California.

Olivia got started first in films, starring in eight pictures with Errol Flynn, and, memorably receiving a nomination for Best Supporting Actress in Gone With the Wind (1939). Joan followed using the Fontaine surname. She had a smallish part in Damsel in Distress (1937) with Fred Astaire. That was followed by another small role as Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.'s romantic interest in Gunga Din (1939). Then, she played the young, empty-headed beauty who takes the train for Reno (but who doesn't really want to go) with Norma Shearer and Paulette Goddard in The Women (1940).

That same year, she played the un-named heroine in Rebecca, Alfred Hitchcock's first directing job in America. If she had never done another film, that role alone would have placed her in the history books. The ghost of Rebecca should dominate the film. Lawrence Olivier, as Maxim de Winter, should have walked away with all the scenes. But, it is Joan Fontaine we remember--lost in the long, creepy halls of Manderley. It is Joan Fontaine we root for as she duels the gothic housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers. Fontaine was just 23 years old when she stole that film away from pros like Olivier, Judith Anderson, Nigel Bruce, Reginald Denny, C. Aubrey Smith, Leo G. Carroll, and George Sanders. It was a great part: she made it even better.

She won her Oscar the next year for Suspicion (1941)--typical of Hollywood, a town which often denies Oscars for an actor's best work and then hands out an award the next year for a job not nearly as well done. Don't get me wrong: she is good in Suspicion. But Suspicion doesn't compare with Rebecca.

I found Fontaine astonishing: she's as beautiful at age 40, in Until They Sail (1957) as she was in Rebecca. And just as beautiful, age 44, playing a scientist on board the submarine in the hokey spectacular, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961). How she did it, I don't know: she must have had good DNA. Her sister Olivia, won her Oscar for The Heiress (1949), also a wonderful film. And Olivia de Havilland survives--though she's the elder sister (age 97).

They say the two sister feuded. Who knows? With that much talent in two beautiful women, a little temperament is to be expected.

And then there was Peter O'Toole. If you haven't seen Lawrence of Arabia (1962), you must do that. O'Toole is handsome in the part, yes, that's true, but as was the case with the real life of T.E. Lawrence, there are no romances for him in this story. Noel Coward famously said that if O'Toole had been any better looking, they would have had to call the movie Florence of Arabia. But that's just an old actor's jealousy talking.

It is Peter O'Toole's intensity that carries the film. He was hot enough to compete with all that desert--and with Omar Sharif. Not an easy task. I think the second half of the film is much harder to watch than the first half, so if you are not a film aficionado, you can miss the second half. I'll give you a summary: things don't go well.

Yes, he was good in the usual British highfalutin parts in Becket (1964) and the Lion in Winter (1968). But I think he was pretty awful in the ghastly remake of Goodbye Mr. Chips (1969) a film so sappy I'm not really sure it should have been made the first time. Hollywood being Hollywood, O'Toole got an Academy Award nomination for Mr. Chips, one of eight nominations he received, though he did not ever win Best Actor.

I wish he had done a few more films such as How to Steal a Million (1966), in which he starred with the Givenchy-clad Audrey Hepburn. O'Toole played the Cary Grant part. It is delicious to watch them together. But alas, such roles were considered "too light" in the weird 1960s/1970s when the film business was wandering and had not yet re-found its way.

He just about drank away his talent and his life in the 70s. But then he starred in one of the sweetest films of all time, My Favorite Year (1982), in which he plays a parody of himself as Errol Flynn. He should finally have won an Oscar for this one too, but alas did not.

Joan Fontaine's life and film choices were disciplined and thoughtful, and if you haven't seen her playing bad, you should try to catch her in Born to Be Bad (1950), a strange Nicholas Ray movie (which one of his isn't?) She stars with a very odd cast that includes Robert Ryan, Zachary Scott, Joan Leslie and Mel Ferrer--and they all look rather second-tier when compared with her lithe, faux innocent and really wicked Christabel Caine. She's so good at being bad you can't help yourself. You have to root for her.

O'Toole must have had discipline some of the time, or he could not have accomplished as much as he did. I wish he could have done more, lived longer, cared more about himself to keep himself for us. But he did not. Talent and beauty are a blessing for some, a curse for others. The Irish are always complicated.

The joy for us is that the work survives. Fontaine, who lived an entire lifetime beyond her years in film, left us a wonderful body of work. O'Toole left one exceptional picture and a dozen others in which he is a pleasure to watch. That is more than most of us will leave behind. We owe them both and must wish that both may now find peace.

"The trick is not minding." Peter O'Toole as T.E. Lawrence in Lawrence of Arabia, after putting out a match with his fingers.

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