Actress Files: Joan Fontaine
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
(lost the 1943 Best Actress Oscar to Jennifer Jones for The Song of Bernadette)
Why I Waited: This title is quite a rarity, so even getting to see it feels like accomplishment enough to wait until the near-end of the project.
The Performance: A star-rating conundrum, because the performance poses strange problems, and so does my past history with Fontaine. Probably like a lot of people, my first exposure to her work arrived through her knockout turn in Rebecca, where she's romantic, and quite convincingly desperate. She only struggles, as everyone does, with the transition into the talkier second hour and, more individually, with a tendency to evoke the character's fragility by telescoping her own evident nerves. I saw her next in The Women, though I frankly don't remember her at all, and in a small part in the under-heralded Quality Street that I recall clearly and fondly. Then, the huge disappointment of Suspicion, relying on all the same tricks as her Rebecca role but diluting its strengths and intensifying all of her weaknesses: a tendency to whinge and plead rather than act, a worrisome lack of personality, long ruts of playing the scenes in the same, vague way. She seems only fitfully able to grasp the character as more than an enfeebled victim and conspicuously begs the audience to pity her, despite how much else there is to play in this script. It's called Suspicion, Joan, not Blessed Are the Meek. Spin some wheels! Think through your problems! Give us some fiber, some feistiness, some exasperation, some sense of why you stay even when everything augurs so badly. Pick up the pace! As the "Win, Lose, or Draw" contestants in When Harry Met Sally... urge, "Draw something, resembling anything!"
Suspicion so got under my skin (in a bad way) that I underestimated the toughness and spirit in Fontaine's Jane Eyre; I kind of clocked out whenever she started going Trembling Flower on me again, which is less often than I had recalled, though she does do it. But then she connects in Letter from an Unknown Woman with a precision and maturity I'd never seen before in her acting, ironically enough by playing her most yearning, self-effacing, and passionately suffering character, who ought to have been too young for her. How to explain that, and why doesn't it bring me around to feeling more confident when I approach one of her performances? Poking around the 40s, I'm impressed by some of the weight and bite she puts into early scenes in This Above All, which is eventually too treacly to be believed, and by her screwball exuberance in The Affairs of Susan, which is an unexpected and imperfect fit for this actress, but it placates me to feel that she, too, wanted a break from playing human water lilies, with knitted brows and bitten lips. She's someone I'd love to see in a strong performance one more time, to feel more able to extend the credit she deserves for her peaks. I'm thrown off, though, and a little freaked out by her apparent fetishization of weakness and mistiness, marring her best work and prompting me toward an undue focus on her limitations. For a long time the "Mama always liked Olivia best" meme from her real life didn't help, since it sounds like more whingeing. Frankly, though, as the years pass, Olivia's work has started to look a bit more smug and safe, while I notice it's Joan who seeks out the Ophülses, the Welleses, the Hitchcocks, the Lupinos, the Manns, the Langs. I'm a mess of preoccupations: I can't tell whether she's an eager student of masters or a disciple of passivity, a woman who ought to cut it out already with the schoolgirls or a vessel of unusual compassion, gravitating toward stymied women but not exclusively so, and capable of a real, moving connection with their first flushes of longing.
The Constant Nymph, for me, doesn't settle the question of how "good" an actress Fontaine finally is. I still credit an exceptional combination of ingredients for managing to extract precisely what is most special about her in Rebecca and Letter from an Unknown Woman. What The Constant Nymph does, though, is bring me palpably 'round to Fontaine's side, feeling well-disposed toward the performance even in its shakier angles and passages, and deciding once and for all that 40s cinema would lose something without her missionary work on behalf of girlish dreamers and piners. Nymph plays a bit like a rough draft for Unknown Woman. Here again, Fontaine is in pigtails, acting less than her real age while she rhapsodizes about a Francophone pianist-composer, even if Charles Boyer passes under the memorably non-Gallic name of Lewis Dodd. We first meet Fontaine's Tessa Sanger dashing all over the rural cottage where she lives with her father and sisters, astir at the news that Lewis is paying the Sangers one of his occasional visits. Upon his arrival, she beams at him with a desire that she either doesn't yet understand as romantic love or just doesn't want to recognize as such. She is, after all, a schoolgirl, so the intergenerational dynamics of The Constant Nymph can be disconcerting, well beyond seeing 26-year-old Fontaine dashing about in pigtails and braids. But at least it's energetic dashing, with some Jo March flavorthough closer, for sure, to Ryder than to Hepburn.
In truth, these scenes could be insufferable: Fontaine's every other line contains her breathlessly sighing out the name "Lewis!", often to the exclusion of any other words. She fails to convince when "singing" high soprano while Lewis works out some bars of a new, swooning symphony. From here, she runs helter-skelter out of the music room, clambering into the woods and atop a rock where Tessa likes to do her best thinking and compose exuberant iambic pentameter in tribute to sublime expiration: "I have tonight a quiet desire to die," etc. It starts to feel as though Hollywood, not just Fontaine, ought to have outgrown these templates of rustic but high-minded sentimentality. Deaths in the family loom on the horizon, as do chillier and more age-appropriate rivals for Lewis's heart, even if Tessa still doesn't think of herself as campaigning for that prize. Lewis starts to recognize his own conjugal longing for Tessa around the time he has become her legal guardian, which will feel a bit too Soon-Yi for a lot of viewers. The film detours around these and other sticky issues by opting for the simultaneously damp but airy cliché of Art über Alles, though one wishes its view of art weren't so laughably parochial. The whole script turns on Tessa's beingdespite her avowals that she hasn't any talent or vocation whatsoeverthe only soul around who possesses the aesthetic sensibility and the exquisite intuition to realize that Boyer's Lewis ought to hang up his stentorian, crash-banging modern music and write something "real," in the form of Erich Wolfgang Korngold's gushing tap of unprocessed syrup. Actually, everyone seems to agree that Lewis ought to renounce "uncomfortable dissonance" for mawkish melodiousness, but somehow Tessa gets all the credit, perhaps because she's the only one who gazes off plaintively in the distance during those furious chords, rather than looking as though she's just witnessed a murder, or at least sucked a lime.
I should mention, Tessa also experiences regular fainting spells due to the "valvular lesions" in her heart. Lewis, for this reason and for others, makes earnest appeals that she protect her heart as she moves into the world. "But my heart's a very simple heart," she gently responds. "Isn't that some protection?"
Why isn't this catastrophic, or at least irretrievably precious? Who could expect anyone, but especially Fontaine, to get away with whispering beatifically about her simple heart, sporting plaits and a retro D.W. Griffith housedress in the era of Eleanor Roosevelt, Ingrid Bergman, the WACs, and Rosie the Riveter? Part of what saves Fontaine is that she's able to play young, innocent excitability without being fussy about it and relating to the feelings more than the external surfaces. Occasionally the performance feels a little bit busy with all the impassioned racing around. But in the crucial scenes where Lewis plays his music, she captures the timid reverence of youthful awe, stripped often enough of those antic, broad gestures by which most performers attempt to play beneath their own age. She doesn't seem constitutively placid so much as rendered speechless by beauty, and there's nothing else in The Constant Nymph's script that she short-changes by emphasizing Tessa's sublime, even thoughtful immobilization in these moments. As an actor, Fontaine keeps the focus on what inspires the character to such raptures, rather than selling us too hard on the idea of the character herself being deep or exquisite. When she gets that speech on the rock about the "poetic" feelings that overtake her in her private woodland enclave, she rattles off the dialogue very quickly, as she nearly always does in the purplest passages of the script. She therefore conveys a young girl being inarticulately overrun by strong feelings, rather than paying maudlin tribute to each and everyone of them, or indulging herself with slowed-down, self-conscious displays of how uniquely introspective Tessa is (despite Lewis's regular reiterations that she is "the pick of the bunch"). She feels most of the time like a credible girl, not an angelic savant. The script seems eager to settle for the latter, so Fontaine's avoidance of that more treacly route earned my admiration.
I also loved the moments when Boyer and Fontaine got to detach from the plot and show the audience their fond comfort and ease with each other: sinking into conversational rather than dramatic rhythms, clearly improvising with physical gestures, managing to be convincingly low-key while preserving an intense, motivated focus on each other. These interludes remind me very little of typical 40s acting, although it's not the first time Edmund Goulding has led ensembles into such charming, unrushed, convincingly intimate offhandedness (see, for example, the persuasive small-town family in White Banners). For all her coltish energy as Tessa, and sometimes it is too generically expressed, Fontaine is able to relax inside the character in a fetching way, renouncing any style of acting that would redirect The Constant Nymph's empathy toward so many characters into a vehicle for her own focus-pulling pixieness. Don't you walk into a movie called The Constant Nymph expecting to be bonked over the head with gamine adorability? Fontaine's Tessa looks too caught up in everything and everyone she's reacting to to seem nearly as invested as I'd predicted in yanking the audience's heart-strings. She could certainly take the character deeper, or shed even more affectations, or steer even clearer of her standby expressions of wistfulness. But I believed that she believed in the part, and I appreciated that she wanted us to like Tessa for her thoughtfulness, her modesty in the face of beauty, and the woman she seems on the verge of becoming, not for an overly glossed-up or time-stopped portrait of the girl she already is, or because we sense danger from her heart ailments (which, by the way, she plays very well). I might re-watch the movie and wish I'd been a little tougher on her, but I've confessed my biases and how pleased I am that they didn't kick in. And in many ways, the measure of a performance like this may inhere in how well it induces the viewer's feelings of tenderness toward the character, without feeling manhandled into it. Fontaine makes clear and disciplined choices (enough of them, anyway), she demonstrates fine interactions with her director and her co-star, and she doesn't make me feel like a simp or a dupe for finding Tessa Sanger nearly as dear as she obviously does. That's good enough for me.
The Best Actress Project: 1 More Down, 11 to Go