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Harry Belafonte co-star Joan Fontaine passes at 96

12/19/2013, 11:54 a.m.

In most of the obituaries of Joan Fontaine, the acclaimed actress who died last Sunday in Carmel, Calif., at 96, if her starring role with Harry Belafonte is mentioned at all, it will be as an afterthought. That may be perfectly all right, because the film, “Island in the Sun,” cannot rank among her best performances, particularly when compared to her Oscar-winning role in “Suspicion.”

But among African-American filmgoers—and some white ones with racist inclinations—Fontaine is remembered for co-starring as Belafonte’s lover, however unrequited their romantic overtures. The film, according to historian Donald Bogle, is marred by compromises.

“Because of its theme of miscegenation,” he writes, “‘Island in the Sun’ was controversial even during the shooting.” Bogle’s focus here is on Dorothy Dandridge, the famed Black actress who is paired with white actor John Justin. This was in 1957, only three years after Brown v. the Board of Education, and any lovemaking on the screen between mixed couples was taboo, especially for theater owners in the South.

At least Dandridge and Justin are seen holding hands and dancing, which is about as close as they get to consummating their romance; Belafonte and Fontaine, except for furtive glances, don’t even get this far, though Belafonte ingeniously finds a way to deliver a subtle kiss to his co-star.

In the evenings, after acting all day, Belafonte and Fontaine began to think of ways to subvert the film, to convey their highly restricted feelings.

“We had another romantic scene the next day,” Belafonte recalled in his memoir, “My Song,” after another frustrating day on the set. “In this one, I was to slice open a coconut with a machete and offer it to Joan so she could sample the milk inside.

“What I did the next day was hand it to her and watch, intensely as she drank,” he continued. “Then I took it back, my eyes on the place where she’d put her lips. Slowly and deliberately, I put my lips where hers had been. Then I took the sip that consummated the moment. For anyone who followed it carefully enough, the scene would have, in its own way, a passionate climax.”

Belafonte’s memoir contains more interesting comments on the film, both on and off camera, and for that, you’ll have to get his book. It might be good to know how Fontaine felt about all this because she tended to speak very openly about things, including the contentious relationship with her equally talented sister Olivia de Havilland.

If possible, get a copy of Fontaine’s autobiography, “No Bed of Roses,” too. Perhaps there she offers some further insight on her relationship with Belafonte. During an interview with People magazine in 1978, she discusses many of the men she romanced on film, as well as her four husbands. Nothing was said there about Belafonte..