Interestingly, this is the second Oscar winner in a row that’s (a) an adaptation of a novel, and (b) produced by David O. Selznick. (For those keeping track of such things, this is the eighth adaptation out of 13 Oscar-winning films. That means Hollywood is cranking out a movie based on a novel, play, or short story 62% of the time.)
Rebecca is the story of a young, emotionally vulnerable personal assistant (Joan Fontaine, 1917-) who meets and falls in love with a dashing well-to-do man (Laurence Olivier, 1907-1989) with his own emotional issues to grapple with. The man, Maxim de Winter, recently lost his wife in a mysterious boating accident. The mousy young woman – who doesn’t have a first name in the movie (the movie’s title refers to the late Mrs. de Winter’s name) – marries Maxim, moves to his palatial estate (“Manderlay”) and meets the late Mrs. de Winter’s creepy, controlling housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson, 1897-1992). The second Mrs. de Winter tries hard to please everyone, but winds up being clumsy and even more unsure of herself. To make her lot in life worse, she’s perpetually surrounded by people who tell her what to do and treat her as if she’s not a person at all, just an object to be molded. (Which is, of course, the reason why she’s never given a first name in the movie.)
Alfred Hitchcock directed this movie, his first American film. Like many Hitchcock movies, Rebecca is awash in shadows, mist, atmosphere, and suspense. Questions arise: How did the first Mrs. de Winter die? Was Max involved? Why is Mrs. Danvers so gosh-darn creepy? Does she want to do harm to the second Mrs. de Winter? Did she have something to do with the death of the first Mrs. de Winter? Who is the creepy old gent who appears to live in the beach house?
The movie is based on the novel Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (1907-1989). According to her entry on Wiki, “the novel, which has been adapted for stage and screen on several occasions, is generally regarded as her masterpiece…One of her strongest influences here was Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë.”
Daphne du Maurier was a bit of a strange duck, herself. A novelist and playwright, the genre in which she wrote is often referred to as “Gothic.” According to its entry on Wiki:
Gothic fiction (sometimes referred to as Gothic horror) is a genre of literature that combines elements of both horror and romance. As a genre, it is generally believed to have been invented by the English author Horace Walpole, with his 1764 novel The Castle of Otranto. The effect of Gothic fiction depends on a pleasing sort of terror, an extension of Romantic literacy pleasures that were relatively new at the time of Walpole’s novel. Melodrama and parody (including self-parody) were other long-standing features of the Gothic initiated by Walpole.
Rebecca, the movie, is a fascinating tale. But it’s somewhat hard to watch. I never liked mousy people. And Joan Fontaine’s rendition of “the second Mrs. de Winter” is mousy personified. She stutters, recoils, shrinks, and grimaces at every slight done to her. She always appears on the edge of throwing herself off a cliff (which would please Mrs. Danvers no end).
By the way, in case you didn’t know, Joan Fontaine is the sister of Olivia de Havilland. Joan’s real name is Joan de Beauvoir de Havilland. So, although I find Joan as attractive as her sister (or nearly so), I’m not captivated by her as I am Olivia. Joan is very good in this film, as in all of her roles (including Suspicion with Cary Grant, her next movie after Rebecca). Yet, she’s not distinctive enough for to be one of my favorite atresses.
Laurence Olivier is a legendary actor, although I haven’t yet discovered why. His British accent is delightful. But he hasn’t impressed me much. At least, not in this role. In this, he’s too tortured, melodramatic, and insensitive. In real life, he was the husband of Vivien Leigh. But that doesn’t impress me much, either.
Rebecca offers a few clever twists and turns, loads of murky atmosphere, memorable performances, and unforgettable characters. Mrs. Danvers, alone, is enough to give one nightmares. Then there’s George Sanders (1906-1972) who turns in a wonderful performance as Jack Favell, a man who admits he was Rebecca’s lover.
Overall, though, I’m not sure why Rebecca won the Academy Award. It’s a good movie, but it only tickles the edges of being a great one. Frankly, it doesn’t seem much different from any other noir film from the 1930s and 1940s. For example, I enjoyed Maltese Falcon, Key Largo and To Have And Have Not equally as much, perhaps even more so. Bogie has more personality than Olivier. And Bacall is far more alluring than Fontaine. Even Mary Astor (in Falcon) beats Fontaine. I realize they are vastly different movies. But I judge my movies based on how much they engage me, not by how many awards they win.
Speaking of which, Rebecca was nominated for 11 Academy Awards. But it only won two: Best Picture and Best Cinematography, Black and White. I find it hard to believe that Alfred Hitchcock didn’t win for Best Director (John Ford won for The Grapes of Wrath) because the movie really is quite good.
But it’s no Maltese Falcon (1941), which may be in my Top Five list of movies. Maltese Falcon I can watch repeatedly, enjoying it more each time. Rebecca I can watch once or twice. But very little more than that.
So, take that David O. Selznick.
Actually, I don’t think DOS would have minded my assessment of his movie. According to the book Hitchcock & Selznick: The Rich and Strange Collaboration of Alfred Hitchcock and David O. Selznick in Hollywood, by Leonard J. Leff:
Hitchcock provided both gestures and expression for [Joan] Fontaine; as script supervisor Lydia Schiller observed. “She was practically a puppet.” Yet early on, an impatient [Laurence] Olivier told Hitchcock, “This girl’s terrible, old man, she’ll have to be changed.” (p. 63)
Olivier hardly worried Hitchcock. Fontaine did. Unlike Archie Mayo, a director known for his long psychological discussions with actors, Hitchcock rarely chatted about motivation. (When actors asked about motivation, Hitchcock responded, “Your salary.”) The English director offered physical rather than intellectual stimuli to his performers. His unorthodox methods could challenge the most adept actors…on another occasion, the director resorted to violence.
During the fifth take of a tearful scene from Rebecca [Hitchcock later recalled], Joan Fontaine told me she couldn’t cry any more, that she was out of tears. I asked what it would take to make her rsume crying. She said, “Well, maybe if you slapped me.” I did, and she instantly started bawling.
“She was not a good enough actress to play in Rebecca,” Marcella Rawbin believed, “she really was not.” Many of her follow performers agreed. Shunned by the English community on the set, Fontaine felt isolated. (p. 74)
So, there you have it. Rebecca was born out of a great deal of turmoil, conflicting personalities, and – by all accounts – lack of acting talent on the part of its principle lead actress.
Give me Bogart and Bacall any day.