Every time I see Max Ophuls’ Letter from an Unknown Woman, a pristine piece of storytelling clockwork, I’m reminded of the greatness of Joan Fontaine’s central performance. It’s perfectly balanced, incredibly detailed and heartbreaking in its uncompromising depiction of a woman who devotes her life to a true love who barely registers her existence over all the years that have passed since their paths first crossed. Wrapped up in immaculate design and gleaming cinematography is a tale of aching, ultimately defeated love, a tragedy of disconnect between a woman’s conception of her encounter with a charming concert pianist, and his inability to tell her apart from the roster of other random women he has seduced and discarded. This film is so painful I can hardly bear to look it in the eye again. And it’s all because Joan Fontaine achieved the near-impossible task of playing a character who makes a series of spectacularly poor judgment calls and still remains sympathetic (although a number of my undergraduates annually pin her down with the label “stalker”). I could make similarly glowing comments about her performances in Rebecca, Suspicion and Jane Eyre, in all of which her characters struggle to find their individuality in the shadows of controlling men (even as Suspicion (no spoilers) makes play with exactly this archetypal partnership).
The other thing I’m reminded of is the fact the Joan Fontaine is still with us, one of the few remaining stars who give us a direct link to Hollywood’s golden age. Today is her 93rd birthday, and even though she has chosen to live privately, away from the arc lights of publicity (go elsewhere if you’re looking for gossip on her alleged feud with sister Olivia de Havilland, who is also still going strong), Spectacular Attractions is honoured to salute her once again and wishes her the very best of health.