Article and interview originally published in 2008.
Iconic actress Joan Fontaine is aging beautifully. She has finally found her fountain of youth. This doesn’t mean her physical beauty, although she looks decades younger than 90: beaming from a barely wrinkled face, her hair a pony-tailed white halo, and her form still diminutive in blue jeans, a red sweater and petite red loafers.
“I have finally found myself,” she says. “I thought it would never happen.”
Drinking from a well of peace has replaced the pursuit of men, achievement and competition.
“I no longer want to create,” she says.
Like her heroine Greta Garbo, she exited at the top.
“I left Hollywood when my agent said, ‘I have an offer for you to play Elvis Presley’s mother.’ That’s when I packed my bag.”
These days she’d rather nurture the roses at her Carmel Highlands home. “Nature is my church,” she says.
Five SPCA dogs converge upon us as we settle into her cozy library, filled with books she and her family members have written.
She is framed by the blinding expanse of Pacific Ocean behind her and a wall of purple cineraria through the adjacent window. Tammy, a large gray dog, licks my computer keys and Fontaine gently admonishes her to simmer down.
It’s been 15 years since my last visit here and the star is as witty as ever (her I.Q. as a child was 160). But she has become more introspective more pliable.
Q: You sent me a note 15 years ago saying “no more interviews, free at last!” What inspired this and your recent interview in “Vanity Fair”?
A: I said, ‘Oh, what the hell!’ It’s a message to friends that I’m still around.
Q: What is your portal to peace?
A: To sit very quietly and meditate. The wonderful thing about aging is the emotional tugs have gone, thank God. I have a longer view, so that if somebody does something wrong, I just quietly close that door with no remarks of recrimination. The fire is gone, thank God. No turmoil.
Q: When has your beauty been a curse?
A: Women’s envy and almost hatred . . .
Q: What is your philosophy on beauty and aging?
A: Somebody once asked me if I ever had plastic surgery. I said, ‘I’d like to know what God had in mind for me.’
Q: What qualities do you share with your dogs?
A: We’re boisterous and affectionate. We’re cuddly. (Sad face) We weren’t allowed pets when I was a child . . . I’m a horse person. I like them and they like me. I remember when I’d been to a ball with Prince Aly Khan. The next day we rode bareback and I loved it. It was one of the great moments of my life. He took me to his farm where he kept his prize-winners in a glorious barn with crystal chandeliers and opera boxes . . .
Q: What have the men in your life taught you besides making two holes-in-one, piloting, riding to hounds and fishing?
A: (Laughs) Never trust a man. It’s too bad that women are taught that it’s necessary to get married and have a man for the rest of their life . . . I’ve walked out of all my (four) marriages. Enough is enough. I’ve never had alimony or a budget. I have been absolutely self-supporting.
Q: What has been your latest epiphany?
A: Allowing interviews. I’m not vain anymore with all these scars (points to forehead). I said, ‘What the hell!’ Before, it was my independence that mattered more. I didn’t want to be held to somebody else’s criteria.
Q: What are you tired of?
A: Gossip and being judged; people having an opinion about me without basis.
Q: How has ‘celebrity’ changed?
A: . . . Now, all someone does is sell a song and they have their imprints on Hollywood Boulevard. The world is all celebrities.
Q: How do you feel about your Academy Award-winning performance in “Suspicion”? Was it your best film?
A: I’m glad you asked. “Letter from an Unknown Woman” is being shown in New York in June, and that’s the best of them all . . . I never watch my films. I can’t even stand hearing my own voice on a phone tape. Actors are very self-critical – or they should be. If not, they’re just vain.
Q: Hardest thing for you to accept in your life?
A: Not having had affectionate parents. My mother (actress Lilian Ruse) was fabulous. She saw we had music, dancing and acting lessons from her. But there was never a cuddle or a compliment. We were never allowed friends at home.
Q: How have health problems shaped your life?
A: I’ve had long illnesses, such as pneumonia and pleurisy, where I was three months at a time in bed. As a child I would have pillow dreams where I’d make my own movies. It saved my sanity . . . I was supposed to star in “From here to Eternity” but I couldn’t because I was ill.
Q: A major turning point in your life?
A: Moving out from having to live with my mother and sister (Olivia de Havilland), having two directors, as it was, and being free at last. Or so I thought . . .
Q: So, your parents had a “wicked” divorce, and after your stepfather threw you through a glass window you returned to live with your father in Japan, your birthplace?
A: Temporarily, until he threw me out and I returned to California. Eventually, my mother, my sister and I rented a house together in Hollywood.
Q: Would you care to talk about your sister?
A: Olivia had been star of the house and the amahs. When I came along she wouldn’t come near the crib. I was intruding. That is the origin of the feud. All the rest is garbage. There is no rivalry. There never was.
Q: What are the keys to overcoming failure and rejection?
A: I greeted every divorce with relief. It was freedom again!Q: How are you still a child?
A: (Smiles) With my dogs, the minute I get home and everybody’s gone, it is divine with them all up on the sofa with me.
Q: Is aging gracefully an oxymoron?
A: No, I don’t think so. Aging beautifully is due to your inner well being.