Born Joan de Beauvoir de Havilland on October 22, 1917, in Tokyo, Japan, in what was known as the International Settlement. Her father was a British patent attorney with a lucrative practice in Japan, but due to Joan and older sister Olivia de Havillands recurring ailments the family moved to California in the hopes of improving their health. Mrs. de Havilland and the two girls settled in Saratoga while their father went back to his practice in Japan, they divorced soon after. Mrs. de Havilland had a desire to be an actress but her dreams were curtailed when she married, but now she hoped to pass on her dream to Olivia and Joan. While Olivia pursued a stage career, Joan went back to Tokyo, where she attended the American School. In 1934 she came back to California, where her sister was already making a name for herself on the stage.
Joan also joined a theatre group in San Jose and then Los Angeles. After moving to L.A., Joan adopted the name of Joan Burfield because she didn't want to infringe upon Olivia, who was using the family surname. She tested at MGM and gained a small role in No More Ladies (1935), but she was scarcely noticed and Joan was idle for a year and a half.
During this time she roomed with Olivia, who was having much more success in films. Then, in 1937, this time calling herself Joan Fontaine, she landed a better role as Trudy Olson in You Can't Beat Love (1937) and then an uncredited part in Quality Street (1937). In 1940 she achieved her first Academy Award nomination for Rebecca (1940). Although she thought she should have won, (she lost out to Ginger Rogers in Kitty Foyle: The Natural History of a Woman (1940)), she was now an established member of the Hollywood set.
She was Oscar-nominated again for her role as in Suspicion (1941), and this time she won. Joan was made one film a year but chose her roles well. In 1942 she starred in the well-received This Above All (1942). The following year she appeared in The Constant Nymph (1943), once again she was nominated for an Oscar. In 1948, she accepted second billing to Bing Crosby in The Emperor Waltz (1948).
Absent from the big screen for a while, she took parts in television and dinner theatres. She also starred in many well-produced Broadway. Her last appearance on the big screen was The Witches (1966) and her final appearance before the cameras was Good King Wenceslas (1994) (TV).
Joan married and divorced four times, she has one daughter Deborah born in 1948 and another daughter, Martita, a Peruvian adoptee, who ran away from home.