NYT obituary smack-down: joan fontaine v. peter o’toole edition

Olivia de Havilland & Joan Fontaine

the thing about sexism is that it’s so often subversive, so woven into the culture that you can just be all like ‘oh no, that’s not sexism, it’s just a difference in talents/skills/blahblahblah/whatev, and that’s why that person is written about that way.’ 

so one way of looking at the vast difference between the obituaries of joan fontaine and peter o’toole, both of whom died this weekend, is to say that peter o’toole’s was the more important career. which, were i more familiar with the films of either, i would try to make a convincing case for at this point, because i’d prefer not to have to confront how deeply messed up are the ways that we write about women’s lives within american culture, but alas… NAW. so let’s take a look.

so here is our man o’toole


he of maybe the best blue eyes EVAH…



he was in movies with my girl liz…

elizabeth-taylor-25where they sat in bed drinking ale or whiskey or whatever that is, and also with audrey…1966: Audrey Hepburn: How to Steal a Million, with Peter O'Toole.

neither of whom are mentioned in his obit, though katherine hepburn is. just as an fyi.

and, while we’re here, because it seems unlikely this opportunity will ever arise again… there’s this:

Screen shot 2013-12-16 at 1.22.11 PM

again, RIGHT?! can’t you see it? THE PETER O’TOOLE: I NEVER WON AN OSCAR UNTIL THEY GAVE ME ONE LIFETIME MOVIE starring chace crawford. for reals, ya’ll. dear lifetime television for women, make that dream come true.

so yeah. that’s my version of o’toole (and i know, i know, this is much like my tour of the national portrait gallery, which involves walking around and pointing out the portraits who look like contemporary celebrities… ‘and over here we have colin firth… and that woman looks just like alan cumming… and now for the dramatic finale… that dude up there who’s a dead ringer for mister big!‘ but there’s value in that, non? besides, we’ll circle back around to o’toole…) anyhoo, here’s fontaine…


at least i hope to god that’s her because half her pictures are labeled as ‘olivia’, which further enforces the fact that, though she won an oscar and was a celebrated actress in her own right, because fontaine happened to be the sister of oliva ‘melanie wilkes’ de havilland and they happened to have some epic falling out, that relationship has almost always defined how she’s spoken of. much like how lee radziwill ain’t ever gonna be mentioned without the tag line ‘sister of jackie bouvier’…

NPG x40312; Jacqueline Lee Bouvier Kennedy Onassis; Princess Lee Radziwill (nÈe Bouvier) by Cecil Beaton

lee & jackie bouvier

so yeah, other than being famous for her relatives, fontaine was famous for some other stuff. like, being in movies.

this epic movie starring a whole lot of women, about women, and called the women, for example.


i mean, can you even imagine a film with that many women being made today? they tried again and it bombed. but in the original, because david selznick there was really good at pictures about and with and by and for women, it worked. also in part because it was written by CLARE BOOTH LUCE and ANITA LOOS. which, my god, hell yes. fontaine was alongside joan crawford, rosalind russell, norma shearer, paulette goddard, my FAVORITE FAVORITE character actress marjorie main, hedda hopper, and at least ten other women i’ve never heard of. seriously. the first billed cast is ALL WOMEN. can you even?!

here is how the NYT dwells on this moment in (women’s film history &) fontaine’s career:

In 1939, she appeared in two critically acclaimed pictures. She was a minor player in “Gunga Din,” with Cary Grant and Douglas Fairbanks Jr., but made an impression in the all-female ensemble cast of “The Women.” Those roles were followed by her career-making performance in “Rebecca,” which Frank S. Nugent praised in The New York Times as the film’s “real surprise” and “greatest delight.”

ok, so that’s fine because fontaine is actually more famous for her turn in rebecca, alongside an errol flynn mustachioed sir lawrence olivier. one would assume the NYT will go on to discuss this at length, except no. the above is the only mention of rebecca.

Annex - Fontaine, Joan (Rebecca)_03

so her films are given short shrift and her oscar win for hitchcock’s suspicion is framed in terms of the feud with her sister:

Ms. Fontaine was only 24 when she took home her Oscar in 1942, the youngest best-actress winner at the time, but her victory was equally notable because her older sister, Olivia de Havilland, was also a nominee that year. The sisters were estranged for most of their adult lives, a situation Ms. Fontaine once attributed to her having married and won an Oscar before Ms. de Havilland did.


fear not! they made up, ya’ll.


and fontaine went on to star with orson welles…


in jane eyre, which was a huge freaking deal. there were also movies with burt lancaster, tyrone power, and jimmy stewart, all hugely popular actors of the time.

Screen shot 2013-12-16 at 2.02.06 PM

and yet, in the entire obituary, there are no qualitative evaluations of what joan fontaine actually did. no efforts to explain her onscreen presence. she’s cast as a ‘patrician blond actress’, who ‘struggled’, appearing in ’10 mostly forgettable pictures’ with ‘a movie career [that] had not looked promising.’ and yet she wound up having ‘a thriving movie career’. of her broadway debut, we’re told Brooks Atkinson called Ms. Fontaine’s performance ‘”forceful and thoughtful” and her New York appearance “one of the better lend-lease deals with Hollywood.”’ which doesn’t tell us too much.

and this maybe wouldn’t be so notable were it not for the NYT’s 4-page piece on peter o’toole, wherein the actor is LAVISHED with praise.


labeled ‘one of his generation’s most charismatic actors’ and ‘the next Laurence Olivier’, we’re treated to elaborate descriptions of his acting style:

Mr. O’Toole threw himself wholeheartedly into what he called “bravura acting,” courting and sometimes deserving the accusation that he became over-theatrical, mannered, even hammy. His lanky, loose-jointed build; his eyes; his long, lantern-jawed face; his oddly languorous sexual charm; and the eccentric loops and whoops of his voice tended to reinforce the impression of power and extravagance.

eight paragraphs are dedicated to description of o’toole’s childhood. fontaine’s garnered three of the longest sentences of all time: ‘Joan de Beauvoir de Havilland was born to British parents on Oct. 22, 1917, in Tokyo, where her father, Walter, a cousin of the aviation pioneer Sir Geoffrey de Havilland, was working as a patent lawyer. In 1919, her mother, the former Lillian Ruse, moved with her two daughters to Saratoga, Calif., near San Francisco… Ms. Fontaine, who also briefly used the name Joan Burfield (inspired by a Los Angeles street sign), moved back to Japan at 15 to live with her father and to attend the American School there.’

Screen shot 2013-12-16 at 2.20.39 PM

the thing is, as anyone who’s ever worked in marketing will tell you, i am not comparing apples to apples. because how is that even possible? these actors didn’t have the same careers. fontaine did ‘serious’ stuff mixed with screwball comedies and more mainstream fare, whilst o’toole was doing chekov and beckett. lawrence of arabia is hugely famous, jane eyre or rebecca maybe less so. but even that paradigm could be looked at as being a testament to the perceived values put upon ‘male’ versus ‘female’ entertainment, ‘serious’ versus penny-dreadful. so there are many points that could be made here. the one i always return to is this: we write about women’s lives differently than we write about those of men. and this can, ultimately, sometimes boil down to something so simple as numbers.

peter o’toole’s obituary was written by benedict nightingale with reporting contributed by robert berkvist and marc santora.

joan fontaine’s was written by anita gates.

mr. o’toole’s is 2,625 words long.

ms. fontaine’s obituary is 921.


8 thoughts on “NYT obituary smack-down: joan fontaine v. peter o’toole edition

  1. I’m very pleased to discover this great site. I wanted to thank you for your time for this particularly wonderful read!!
    I definitely liked every little bit of it and I have you
    saved to fav to check out new things in your website.

  2. Pingback: NYT obituary smackdown: lauren bacall vs. lorin maazel edition | finding jackie

  3. Can I simply say what a comfort to uncover someone who genuinely understands
    what they arre discussing over the internet.
    You certainly knopw how to bring a problem to light and make it important.
    More people need to read this and understand this side of the story.
    It’s surprising you aren’t more popular since you certainly possess the gift.

  4. Thanks on your marvelous posting! I really enjoyed reading it, you may be a great author.I will make certain to bookmark your blog and may come
    back at some point. I want to encourage one to continue your great posts, have a nice weekend!

  5. Pingback: the way we write obituaries is wrong and that matters | finding jackie

  6. Pingback: the NYT obituary of florence henderson, working woman | finding jackie

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.