"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."
Fontaine had minor roles in several films in the 1930s, but received little attention and was without a studio contract when she was seated next to producer David O. Selznick at a dinner party near the decade's end. She impressed him enough to be asked to audition for "Rebecca," his first movie since "Gone With the Wind" and the American directorial debut of Hitchcock.
Just as seemingly every actress had tried out for Scarlett O'Hara, hundreds applied for the lead female role in "Rebecca," based on Daphne du Maurier's gothic best-seller about haunted Maxim de Winter and the dead first wife — the title character — he obsesses over. With Laurence Olivier as Maxim, Fontaine as the unsuspecting second wife and Judith Anderson as the dastardly housekeeper Mrs. Danvers, "Rebecca" won the Academy Award for best picture and got Fontaine the first of her three Oscar nominations.
"Miss Du Maurier never really convinced me any one could behave quite as the second Mrs. de Winter behaved and still be sweet, modest, attractive and alive," The New York Times' Frank Nugent wrote upon the film's release.
"But Miss Fontaine does it not simply with her eyes, her mouth, her hands and her words, but with her spine. Possibly it's unethical to criticize performances anatomically. Still we insist Miss Fontaine has the most expressive spine — and shoulders we've bothered to notice this season."