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Rebecca

March 24, 2012 12:04 PM
11 Comments
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Alfred Hitchcock’s first American film was originally going to be about the sinking of the Titanic. When he arrived at the Port of New York in 1939, the producer David O. Selznick (who had signed the Englishman to a long-term contract) met him and immediately spirited Hitch off to the Brooklyn Navy Yard to see the ocean liner Selznick had bought to portray the doomed ship. Hitchcock told me that Selznick had said, “There you are, Hitch, make the most of it!” And, the director went on, he had thought to himself: “Let’s see now... ‘Make the most of it, make the most of it...’ I’ve got it! We’ll start on a close-up of a rivet, and pull back!”

However, instead of this, in 1940, he did an admirable adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s novel, Rebecca (available on DVD), which won the Academy Award for best picture—the only time a Hitchcock film won that prize, though of course it was presented to producer Selznick (who had won the previous year as well for a little something called Gone with the Wind). Rebecca also earned Hitch his first of five Oscar nominations for best director——the others were for Lifeboat (1944), Spellbound (1945), Rear Window (1954) and Psycho (1960)——but the most famous filmmaker in movie history never won a competitive award from the Academy, only a belated honorary Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award toward the end. (He came out slowly to a standing ovation and made the shortest speech in Oscar history before exiting slowly to a standing ovation: “Thank you,” he said.)

Though Rebecca has its weaker moments——Judith Anderson’s evil Mrs. Danvers is a bit much at times; Laurence Olivier could not believably smoke a cigarette; the wrap-up is a trifle too neat—-the story of a young woman in deadly competition with the deceased title character nevertheless remains very affecting.  Joan Fontaine’s notably honest, endearing performance, together with Hitchcock’s sensitive and piquant direction, holds the interest securely throughout this suspenseful love story-melodrama.

Fontaine didn’t win best actress that year, but the Academy made it up to her the following season by giving her that prize for a far less challenging role in Suspicion, yet another Hitchcock picture (co-starring Cary Grant in the first of four pictures he did with the Master of Suspense).  Olivier is at his most attractive here (when he isn’t smoking) and this is also his most movie-starish (in the good sense) appearance, probably his most appealing.  There is also excellent support from George Sanders’ charming bounder at the head of a fine British cast, plus a very funny performance by Florence Bates as a pushy American.

Seeing Hitchcock’s empathetic treatment of the lead woman in this and realizing that Psycho——in which the lead woman is killed off midway——came only 20 years later, reveals a shocking social and cinematic descent for the female:  Hitchcock’s prescient view has been mirrored in the increasingly poor roles for women over the subsequent half century.  Since the deaths of Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn, what enduring female stars have been developed besides Barbra Streisand?  In its day, Fontaine’s hugely dominant role in Rebecca was in a good ‘20s and ‘30s tradition, and hardly unusual. These days it would condescendingly be called a chick flick.

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11 Comments

  • Karen | April 1, 2012 11:44 AMReply

    Sir...You seem to have a limited vocabulary.

  • Jessica Carnes | March 27, 2012 4:40 PMReply

    I attended The University of Pittsburgh for one year. They have an outstanding collection of Hitchcock films. I skipped class to watch a "new" film. Out of all of them, to this day, Rebecca rules the playground. But the rest of his works each earned a special palace inside my movie critic's studio. Chick flick? Well after this generation give or take 25 years, women writers killed themselves violently--the descension into maddness was slow, but it arrived like the plague.

  • Blake Lucas | March 27, 2012 2:48 PMReply

    Hmm, a lot of different views already here. Peter, I am closest to what you say about it, except that you leave out (though maybe it's implied) what I feel about Selznick & Hitchcock. For me it's strictly "print the legend" as far as Selznick is concerned. He was a terrible producer (I've probably posted before here that the only movies he was involved with that I do think are great are LITTLE WOMEN and KING KONG, both 1933), not in failing to provide impressive production values and wonderful actors, but in interfering too much with directors, and that goes for great directors like Hitchcock, so that as a result all those impressive production values and wonderful actors don't matter that much in the end. Of four films in which Selznick was involved with Hitchcock, only one is great, NOTORIOUS, and it's the one on which Selznick opted out before it was made and let Hitchcock (a great producer as well as director) actually produce it. I like REBECCA well enough, even if it's not one of the great Hitchcocks, but mostly for what you said, his presentation of the heroine--Joan Fontaine is wonderful, and for me it's perhaps her second best performance; if I cared about Oscars at all (and I don't) I would say she should have won for her hands down best, LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN. I cannot agree with Lin that today's women are "more varied and interesting." Lin, I think that's just feminist myth, and to me classical cinema shows a range of women of depth, complexity, sensitivity, strength and soulfulness as well as beauty--try the movies of Ford, Walsh, Hawks, Borzage, Sternberg, Cukor just for starters. They all loved and cared about women, each in his own way, and did not stereotype them--and hey, they were all men but men who would never identify with the stunted male adolescence mainstream cinema of today.

  • Lin | April 7, 2012 6:13 PM

    Hello Blake:

    I agree that classical cinema did indeed offer up some interesting women and actresses who breathed such brilliant actory fire into them. Yes, I'm aware of theluscious handful of Rosalind Russells, Kate Hepburns, Barbara Stanwycks, and the Ida Lupinos who made brave moves for all womankind, in film. The directors and screenwriters of those projects obviously loved/respected/ honored the female mystique, and thus, imagined bigger worlds for them and choose not to assign their women to thankless portrayals of empty-headed pretty young things.

    However, I'm fairly sure I don't need to remind you that today's woman has mad clout. They hold prestige in political circles, they are doctors and lawyers, and scholars (oh my!), they run for President, they've become world leaders, they run corperations, head media empires, OWN networks, and have become gatekeepers in their own right. This what I meant by 'varied and interesting.' Indeed, none of those positions are 'myth,' 'feminist' or otherwise. These women exist. But filmdom so rarely documents any of this evolution.

    The films of the 70s, i.e. "An Unmarried Woman," and "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore," were important benchmarks, in that, a trend was beginning to reflect the modern woman in ways that Real Women didn't have to fantasize about, imagine what if, or completely suspend disbelief. They saw themselves, their issues, their taboos, and their lives flashed before them right across the movie screen. With a few exceptions ("Working Girl," "Network News," "Sophie's Choice" spring to mind) that trend towards realness and authentic female archetypes died out in the 80s. Suddenly women were demoted, reduced and diminished to being just lovely arm pieces, atomically-sexy objects of desire, the equivalent of he-men and superheros, in drag... or uber bitches. And yes, while some of those personalities do exist in our society, there is a serious lack of depth, complexity and variation.

    I won't pretend to know the why of this, but it would stand to reason that either screenwriters (whether male or female) aren't penning them OR such projects aren't being greenlighted. However, that old adage still stands that 'if it ain't on the page, then it ain't on the (sound) stage.'

  • Karen | April 1, 2012 11:40 AM

    Great comments. I'll think on them........

  • Jesse L | March 25, 2012 3:22 PMReply

    My comment on this might seem trite
    but I think that with women it might
    have something to do
    with the film and its hue
    they looked better in black and in white.

    They were still young girls way back when
    playing against older men
    but the color that's done
    make today's girls seem young
    and not taken seriously then.

  • Jesse L | March 25, 2012 3:23 PM

    I meant the above comment to appear in limerick form. You may read it as such.

  • karen | March 25, 2012 8:10 AMReply

    About a week ago I read some blogger's review of the film Rebecca and he came within centimeters of naming it a chick flick. I find Rebecca a wonderful film and Ms. Fontaine is wonderful in it along with the entire cast. (Now I'm going to watch it again just to see Olivier smoke)
    Where are films headed? I think most of todays films seem to be made for 8th grade boys. I wonder if the industry can eliminate women entirely from the big screen. Probably not...they still
    need dead bodies.

  • Skippy | March 24, 2012 4:09 PMReply

    One anecdote I read about the proposed Titanic film had Hitchcock recalling that when Selznick excitedly showed him the ship, the director found himself imagining them filming it sinking, then hearing someone call out, "We didn't get the shot--can we do that again?"

    Selznick's memos are fantastic reading. He must have been a nightmare to work for, but he really believed in pulling out all the stops to make a great movie, even if it drove himself (and everyone else around him) crazy.

  • Lin | March 24, 2012 3:41 PMReply

    I always thought that this would have been a plum role for the supremely gifted Ingrid Bergman. One would imagine that together she and Olivier would've provided the perfect swoon factor, cinematically. However, she would later assume such roles in her career that both mirrored and outshone Miss Fountaine, most notably in Hitch's "Notorious" and her Oscar turn in "Gaslight."

    As far as women's roles, perhaps part of the problem is that back in the day (1930s-40s) women had glorious faces, wore beautiful clothes, moved as if they'd all attended charm school and were very mannered in the way they emoted. They seemed so very deliciously... ummm... *femalian.* The only time those qualities exist in today's cinema is usually during a period piece. Ironically, in real life, today's woman is far more varied and interesting. Sad that film so rarely reflects this change, nor documents this evolution.

  • johnD | March 24, 2012 12:40 PMReply

    Selznick may have been prone to the usual executive-suite idiocies, but his memos on Rebecca are fascinating -- he objected loudly to Hitchcock's love of silly, extraneous comedy, and insisted that Hitch remove these scenes (which weren't in the novel) from the script. And they were removed, no doubt for the good. Small wonder Hitch was obliged to put his walk-on closer and closer to the start of his [other] pictures, entrapped as he apparently was by his own apparently hapless sense of whimsy.

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