Sunday, April 11, 2010
Rebecca: One From the Master
Inarguably, Alfred Hitchcock is one of the greatest directors that ever lived. I’d have him on a shortlist with about three or four others—for arguments’ sake, lets lump him along with Stanley Kubrick, Akira Kurosawa, Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg—to round out a top five. Like Kurosawa and Kubrick (and both Scorsese and Spielberg were given their Oscars long after they had done most of their best work), Hitchcock was never awarded Best Director, despite helming such classics as Psycho, Vertigo, Rear Window, North by Northwest, Notorious (the one with Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman—not the recent biopic about the Notorious B.I.G.) and The Birds. Rebecca, though an excellent picture, is probably firmly in the middle when it comes to Hitchcock’s filmography, but the film had the advantage of being a David O. Selznick production. By the time the Academy Awards ceremony honoring the best films of 1940 rolled around, Selznick used his considerable clout to secure the Best Picture Oscar for Rebecca.
Now, I haven’t seen every picture that was up for Best Picture the year Rebecca won. I do know though that it was up against some more traditional Oscar fare. The Philadelphia Story—with Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant and Best Actor Oscar winner James Stewart (whose Oscar was almost certainly a make-up award for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington)—was a nominee. The Great Dictator—Charlie Chaplin’s satirization of Adolf Hitler—was also nominated. John Ford—the most honored director by the Academy with four Best Director Oscars—had two films in the running, The Long Way Home and The Grapes of Wrath (for which Ford took home his second Oscar). The Grapes of Wrath—with its John Steinbeck source material, iconic performance from Henry Fonda, and timely subject matter (America, after all was coming out of the Great Depression)—would seem like the most likely winner. Selznick proved to be a master campaigner, as Rebecca was completed and ready for release in 1939, but he did not want Hitchcock’s film to compete against Gone With the Wind. He cannily realized he had two prestige pictures on his hands, and delayed Rebecca’s release to become the first producer to win Best Picture two years in a row (and he certainly wouldn’t be the last to use this trick to garner Academy attention).
The power Selznick accrued after his massive victory with Gone With the Wind was formidable enough to secure the Oscar for Rebecca, which was a film unlike any of the dozen Best Picture winners before it. About the only thing Rebecca had in common with the previous winners was that it was adapted from a famous novel. Rebecca was the first film to be helmed by a British director to win Best Picture, and it certainly has a tone more typical of British productions than American ones. The film is undeniably dark, and it has Gothic sensibilities Tim Burton would envy. Hitchcock filled the film with all sorts of subtext about female identity and gender roles—themes he would return to again and again in his films—and the dialogue is laced with sarcasm and black humor. Nearly every film that won the Best Picture Oscar before upheld noble virtues, honesty and individualism (and even the most daring of the previous winners—All Quiet on the Western Front—doesn’t have a trace of irony and sarcasm). Most of the nominees following Rebecca would do the same for decades. Hitchcock’s picture is an Oscar anomaly, as it swims in malfeasance, lies and a lack of identity.
The story—adapted from Daphne du Marnier’s novel of the same name—centers on a nameless female protagonist (Joan Fontaine) and the widower she marries, Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier). (* Forgive me for launching into an entertaining digression here on Joan Fontaine—she is the younger sister of actress Olivia de Havilland, and they had a lifelong feud. At age nine, de Havilland made-up a will that said “I hereby bequeath all my beauty to my younger sister Joan, since she has none.” When both sisters were up for the Oscar for Best Actress in 1941, Hitchcock directed Fontaine to an Oscar win in Suspicion. As Fontaine went to collect her Oscar, she brushed right by the extended hand of de Havilland. On the sisters, Hitchcock once mused that he’d love to see the sisters in a film together, if only for the entertainment value provided by their feud. But back to Rebecca…) Maxim lives in a grand old mansion—Manderley (another Selznick picture, another named house)—and he soon expects the new Mrs. de Winter to fill the role held by the late Mrs. de Winter, Rebecca. The head housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson), adored Rebecca to the point of obsession, and isn’t about to cede control of Manderley over to the new wife smoothly. Mrs. Danvers also kept many secrets for her former mistress, such as an affair with her “cousin” Jack (George Sanders, in an acidic role that is a prototype of the reptilian character he would perfect—and win a Supporting Actor Oscar for—in All About Eve as Addison de Witt a decade later), which precipitated the decline of the relationship between Maxim and Rebecca. Ultimately, Rebecca’s presence consumes the new Mrs. de Witt, and the young bride uncovers the many secrets hidden within Manderley’s walls.
Lack (and fear of) female identity is the central theme of the film. Though it isn’t incorrect to assume the lack of an identity for the Fontaine character (whose proper name is never revealed in the film, she is referred to as Mrs. de Winter or in the screenplay as simply “I”) is a device in which to have the viewer, in essence, assume the role, her subjugation is more reflective of Hitchcock’s attitudes toward women. Hitchcock is famous for creating memorable roles for actresses, yet those characters are often soulless, mistreated or a canvas on which men paint their obsessions. Joan Fontaine’s role—though perfectly acted—manages to be all three at once.
Maxim is clearly obsessed with her beauty. His reasons for marrying her involve admiration for her outside appearance. It quickly becomes clear that Maxim has little to no interest in actually knowing his new bride. Mrs. de Winter is mistreated by nearly everyone in the film—from the aristocratic widow who hires her as a travelling companion early in the film, to the staff at Manderley, and Maxim himself who lies about his true nature when Mrs. de Winter confronts him. Finally, is there anything more soulless than being a character without a name? I completely see the value in having the audience assume Mrs. de Winter’s role in the film—it’s quite suspenseful to be in the dark along with a protagonist, thus making us even more desperate to uncover the mysteries of the story—but the character is ultimately treated as if she were formless putty. She can assume no shape of her own; outside hands—usually a man’s—must create one for her. Mrs. de Winter is merely a prop for Hitchcock to toy with.
Many of Hitchcock’s women have makeovers within the film, and the makeover scene is most telling of the director’s attitude toward Mrs. de Winter. She manages to stage a costume ball at Manderley, and in an effort to please Maxim, Mrs. de Winter wears the dress of Caroline de Winter—an ancestor Rebecca previously dressed up as. Hitchcock implies that the only way Mrs. de Winter can have any sort of life is by imitating a ghost. When Maxim sees her, he is rejected—he knows that his new bride is no substitute for the old one. A ghost (two, if you really look at it) has more power and personality than a live person. At this point in the film, Mrs. de Winter is contemplating suicide (and basically encouraged to do so by Mrs. Danvers), but a twist in the plot keeps the story moving forward. The poor girl can’t even end her life on her own terms—she only exists to be manipulated by the story and the director who unfolds it.
Mrs. Danvers herself has her identity subjugated. Throughout the film, it is implied she is a lesbian (you can thank the Hays Code for not allowing any sort of mention of homosexuality to be overtly mentioned into films). In Rebecca’s most fantastically creepy scene, Mrs. Danvers gives Mrs. de Winter a tour of Manderley. The housekeeper has kept her mistresses bedroom completely intact as if it were a holy shrine. Mrs. Danvers especially fawns over Rebecca’s old undergarments and negligees, at one point holding them to her cheek. It is revealed that Rebecca even called Mrs. Danvers by a pet name, “Danny” (and I think it is also notable that Mrs. Danvers’ first name also remains unuttered), which is about as subtle as a piano being dropped from a skyscraper in implying a Sapphic relationship between the two women. Mrs. Danvers’ relationship with Rebecca is portrayed as an obsession and predatory in nature. Hitchcock shows the character not an iota of sympathy. Mrs. Danvers is the clear villain of the film, and her lesbianism (yeah, I’ll push Mrs. Danvers right on out of the closet) is made the source of her madness.
In Rebecca, women are feared. In many ways, the strongest female character in the film doesn’t occupy a single frame. Rebecca haunts the whole film (from the first line “Last night, I dreamt of Manderley…”) to the moment when her fate is revealed (I don’t mean to spoil it for you, but Rebecca dies under malicious circumstances at the hands of a man). The more we learn about Rebecca, the more we learn that she had a mind and a personality of her own—and one that frequently clashed with Maxim’s ideal—and feel free to substitute Hitchcock himself here—of what a wife is expected to be like. Is it any surprise that she is dead?
Fear of women by suppressing their identity shows up time and again in Hitchcock’s work—from the neglected girlfriend Grace Kelly plays in Rear Window, the tormented and objectified Kim Novak in Vertigo and the misguided independent Janet Leigh played in Psycho, who represents the point at which female heroines were given no guarantees to even make it to the ending of a movie. (Oh, and let’s not even mention the whole bevy of “mother” and gender issues raised in Psycho—that’s another blog entry for another time.) Hitchcock’s attitudes towards women undoubtedly led to a period of inspired and unparalleled creativity in filmmaking—and Rebecca is the launchpad for these obsessions—but is his attitude a healthy one?
In the end, we have the might of David O. Selznick to thank for immortalizing Rebecca with a Best Picture Oscar. Selznick provided the platform on which Hitchcock became established in Hollywood. It’s fair to say that without Rebecca, we never would have got the superlative output of films Hitchcock made in the 1950’s. And perhaps I’m being a little too harsh on the director. By all accounts he was a loving husband and father to a daughter. I do think his films offer a peek into his subconscious, and also reflect the darkness in our own.
In a decade that would be haunted by war, death and evil, the Best Picture winners of the 1940’s would each be a litmus test to the darkness man holds within. If the great theme of the 1930’s films was there’s no place like home, Rebecca suggests that home is no place one would want to be. Oscar rarely flirts so aggressively with the dark side, and while none of the films in honored in the decade would be as bleak, Rebecca is the first Best Picture winner to scrape beneath the surfaces of the simple morals of the previous decade to find only ash and decay.
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Starring: Joan Fontaine, Laurence Olivier, Judith Anderson, George Sanders (and look out for Hitchcock’s signature cameo toward the end of the film near a phone booth after Sanders makes a call)
Studio: Selznick International Pictures (distributed by United Artists)
Total Oscars: 2 (Best Picture, Best Cinematography), out of 11 nominations (Best Director—Hitchcock, Best Actor—Olivier, Best Actress—Joan Fontaine, Best Supporting Actress—Judith Anderson, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Art Direction (Black & White), Best Editing, Best Score, Best Special Effects)
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