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Oscar winner Joan Fontaine dies at 96

  • This April 3, 1978 file photo shows actress Joan Fontaine at the 50th Annual Academy Awards in Los Angeles. The Oscar-winning actres has died at the age of 96. (AP Photo/File)

CARMEL — 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, Calif., 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 about 5 miles south of Carmel, enjoying its spectacular view of wind-swept 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."

"You know, I've had a helluva life," Fontaine once said. "Not just the acting part. I've flown in an international balloon race. I've piloted my own plane. I've ridden to the hounds. I've done a lot of exciting things."

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