Owen Gleiberman
December 20, 2013 AT 05:00 AM EST

She was gorgeously proper — the girl next door with patrician bones and a smile that held the sunniest trust. Yet it was the fate of this British-American beacon of slightly sad-eyed niceness to be cast, at 22, in a delicious tale of darkness: Rebecca (1940), Alfred Hitchcock’s first Hollywood film. As the wife of a brooding aristocrat (Laurence Olivier), who finds herself driven to delirium by the memories of his first wife, Fontaine became the image of love torn by doubt, neurosis, even madness. In Hitch’s Suspicion (1941), the husband (Cary Grant) has all the makings of a cold killer; Fontaine took the Oscar for her trembling-through-tears performance. Did she draw on her bitter, lifelong rivalry with her sister, Olivia de Havilland, to play these distressed good girls? After that Hitchcock double bill, her career went on (highlight: the 1948 romantic tragedy Letter From an Unknown Woman), but her mythology was complete. She was our domestic damsel in distress, capturing the heartbreak lurking beneath feminine devotion.

Fontaine died of undisclosed causes in Carmel, Calif.

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