Sunday, June 7, 2015

1941: Joan Fontaine for Suspicion

In this Hitchcock thriller, Joan Fontaine plays a high society lady who falls in love with and marries a man without knowing very much about him. The more she learns about him, the more sketchy he seems, and eventually she fears that he's trying to kill her for insurance money.

Apparently, the Academy only liked Hitchcock and Fontaine when they worked together. The previous year, she starred in Rebecca, his only Best Picture Winner, and he directed her only Best Actress winning performance. In fact, this is the only time an actress or actor won an Oscar for a Hitchcock film. I'm not really sure why, since I've seen all of Hitchcock's American films, and several of his British ones, and this is one of my least favorites.

Part of the problem is the ending. If you don't want to have it spoiled, or if you only want to see what I have to say about Joan Fontaine's performance itself, skip this paragraph. But basically, they set it up so it really looks like her husband is trying to kill her, and then at the very end it goes, "Psych! He's actually not," and it's super cheesy and awkward and then ends really abruptly. This is probably because, as legend has it, Hitchcock actually wanted the husband to be trying to kill the wife, but he was played by Cary Grant, and the producers didn't think anyone would want to see the popular, handsome hero play a villain. While I absolutely love Cary Grant, I really, really wish they would have let him be the bad guy, just this once. He actually does a very good job of playing a despicable character, so that in the end it's like, really? He's not evil? I don't buy it.

Okay, sorry for the tangent, but I needed to rant about that. Now on to Joan Fontaine. I honestly don't know how I feel about Joan Fontaine. I mean, on the one hand, she's a legend, and I respect that, but on the other hand I've never seen a performance of hers that truly impressed me. She has a variety of facial expressions that all end up looking like different versions of worry and confusion. Admittedly, this makes her perfect for Hitchcock films, since his typical female victim character spends most of the film feeling worried and confused. But honestly, I thought she was way better in Rebecca than in this. At least in that movie, I feel sorry for her character, whereas in this movie I just want to yell at her for marrying a guy whom she doesn't know and who never treats her very well. It would be one thing if I just didn't like her character, but I think she plays her really weirdly: as if she knows exactly what she wants but is still confused about herself and life in general. I would rather have seen her either over-confident and wrong in her choice of husband or totally naive, but trying to be a combination of both just did not work at all. She does the naive thing really well in Rebecca, so I think she should have won for that rather than Suspicion. If anyone should have won an Oscar for this movie it's Cary Grant for playing against type (until the end at least), but the Academy very unfairly refused to recognize him until his 1970 Honorary Oscar, so that didn't happen.

I'm not saying Fontaine's performance is terrible; it's just not that good. There are moments that work well, especially when it makes sense for her to be confused or worried. But most of the time I'm wondering what she's doing, why she's making that face, why she said her line the way she said it, and that's a frustrating position to be in as an audience member. So again, not the worst performance so far, but definitely in the bottom half.

Joan Fontaine was nominated for a total of three Oscars: first Rebecca in the previous year, then Suspicion, and then two years later for The Consant Nymph. She continued to act in films and TV for several decades (her last imdb credit is from 1994), and passed away at the age of 96 in 2013. Her older sister, Olivia de Havilland, won two Best Actress Oscars and is still alive, but Joan won first, and she beat Olivia this year. Also they were in back to back Best Picture Winners, since Olivia was in Gone with the Wind and Joan was in Rebecca. Apparently they had major sibling rivalry issues, but I haven't seen any of Olivia de Havilland's Best Actress winning performances yet, so I can't pick the better winner, though I will say I liked her performance in Gone with the Wind much better than Joan's performance in Suspicion. But I'll have to see what I think of her other performances.

In the meantime, the next winner is Greer Garson, in the fourth Best Picture Winner to feature a Best Actress winning performance, and the last one until 1975.

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