The Joan Fontaine Centenary Blogathon: Born to Be Bad

This post is part of the Joan Fontaine Centenary Blogathon, hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood and The Wonderful World of Cinema. Read the rest of the posts in this event HERE!

Back in the early 1980s, I worked as a cashier at a movie theater on New York City’s Upper West Side. It showed mainly foreign and independent films, and sometimes reissues of older films. It was very common for famous people to come to the theater to watch films.

I will never forget the day Joan Fontaine came to the theater.

She came very early for the film she wanted to see, my boss informed me, because she wanted to be seated first and not cause a commotion when she entered the theater.

The theater was not officially opened yet, so she waited by the ticket booth while my boss and the ushers rushed around to open everything early to accommodate her.

Being a New Yorker, I usually pretended not to recognize famous people because that was considered totally uncool and Un-New Yorker-like.

I couldn’t help it. While trying to act totally nonchalant, I kept sneaking what I hoped were discreet looks at her.

She had to be in her 60s at this point, but I had never seen a more beautiful, elegant woman. She was coiffed and dressed like many wealthy women who lived on Upper East Side—hair styled in a sleek bun, wearing a lovely fur (this was before real furs were a no-no). Her skin was smooth and clear. She looked much younger than her age. She smiled patiently as if it was no big deal a famous star was being left to cool her heels outside a theater.

I had seen many famous people, as I said, but never anyone who screamed “STAR” the way she did.

When choosing which film to write about for this blogathon, I immediately alighted on Born to Be Bad, because it is so atypical of most of her roles.

Based on a book called All Kneeling by Anne Parrish, the film was directed by Nicholas Ray. It is also an atypical film for Nicholas Ray, and for that reason it is often erroneously categorized as a film noir. It is in no way a film noir. It fits much more in the melodrama category.

Fontaine portrays Cristabel, an ambitious and scheming young woman who steals her cousin’s (Joan Leslie) wealthy fiancée (Zachary Scott) even though she is having a passionate affair with a rugged author (Robert Ryan).

Cristabel is an interesting villain because her scheming is of the passive-aggressive variety. Like a spider sitting on someone’s shoulder, she gently poisons everyone without most realizing what she’s doing. Here is where Fontaine’s particular kind of beauty enhances the role: she looks so darn INNOCENT. Yet she is a huge ball of malevolence.

Her cousin Donna works as Cristabel’s uncle’s assistant and agrees to let Cristabel live with her while she goes to business school. (Which, in my opinion, is one hell of an imposition on an employee.) Donna has an eclectic circle of friends, including her very wealthy fiancée Curtis, her artist friend Gobby (Mel Ferrer), and her author friend Nick, who she is helping to get published.

The only one who sees through Cristabel right away is Gobby, who paints her portrait though her boyfriend objects he makes her look like Lucrezia Borgia. (Gobby is clearly coded as gay–he convinces husbands he’s “harmless”–and gets some of the best lines in the movie.) The other men, even Cristabel’s uncle, are her pawns who believe everything she says.

When Cristabel manipulates Curtis into asking Donna to renounce any right to his fortune, Donna finally gets what’s going on and breaks off with Curtis. Cristabel and Curtis marry soon after, causing Nick to run away to India (but not before giving her the “you’ll never get me out of your blood” speech).

Though Curtis is besotted with Cristabel, it’s obvious right away that she can’t stand him. She uses lots of excuses to be out of his company. When Nick returns, she tries to resume their relationship without promising to leave Curtis.

Her schemes finally catch up with her. While claiming she doesn’t want anything from Curtis, she takes a huge armful of furs when she leaves him.

This film is delightful to watch just because Fontaine is playing something so out of her wheelhouse. The cast is very strong, and the film has the added benefit of Ray’s stylized direction.

Unfortunately, the film was made during Howard Hughes tenure at RKO. As he often did, he insisted on rewrites and reshoots. Ray was incensed when he took away his right to the final cut.

Even so, over time the reputation of Born to Be Bad has improved, when it was dismissed as a soapy women’s picture during its initial release. I know I enjoy it immensely every time I watch it, especially when I contrast the deliciously villainous Cristabel with the elegant woman waiting to get into a movie theater all those years ago.


8 thoughts on “The Joan Fontaine Centenary Blogathon: Born to Be Bad

  1. What a story Debbie! I work in a movie theatre and sometimes I see local celebrities (I live in Montreal so no one really well-known internationaly), but no one like Joan Fontaine! I bet she was very elegant. I’m happy you chose Born to Be Bad as I watched this film very recently and it was a great surprise to me. Your review was excellent and we understand perfectly your admiration for this film. I particularly agree when you say “Cristabel is an interesting villain because her scheming is of the passive-aggressive variety.” Totally.
    Thanks so much for this brilliant participation to our blogathon!

  2. I am unable to watch Born to Be Bad without thinking about the Carol Burnett spoof with Carol as Cristabel and Richard Crenna as Nick. They had a lot of fun with the character’s name. Nonetheless, I do appreciate the work of the actors in this highly entertaining melodrama.

    1. The Carol Burnett spoof is BRILLIANT. There’s a line in Born to Be Bad where Zachary Scott asks Joan Leslie, “Am I boring you?” In the spoof, Ruth Buzzi answers, “A little.” I crack up every time.

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