in Oscars Fortnight

Rebecca (1940)

The 13th Academy Awards (1941)
Nominations: 11
Wins: 2

Welcome to what could be the beginning of a beautiful tradition here at Mildly Pleased: two whole weeks of posts about Academy Award-nominated movies leading up to Hollywood’s biggest night, which is somehow in late April this year. The first feature I’d like to tell you about is 1940’s Rebecca, the second of producer David O. Selznick’s back-to-back Outstanding Production (Best Picture) wins. A year prior, Selznick had found enormous success with Gone with the Wind, setting the record for most Academy Award nominations (13) and wins (eight) at the time. This time, Rebecca won only one other award, Best Cinematography – Black and White, setting it’s own (still standing) record as the only film to win Best Picture while receiving no Academy Award for acting, directing or writing. Because how could we forget that Green Book won Best Original Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor along with the top prize?

Our story begins with an unnamed young woman (Joan Fontaine) on vacation in Monte Carlo as part of her job as a “companion” (think assistant) to a wealthy American(?) lady (Florence Bates). The young woman has a chance encounter with George Fortescue Maximilian “Maxim” de Winter (Laurence Olivier), a wealthy aristocrat and widower, which quickly turns into a whirlwind romance, a brief engagement, and a hasty marriage. Just a few weeks later, she has become the second Mrs. de Winter and travels with Maxim to his estate, Manderley, in southern England. The mansion is run by the cold Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson) and still littered with the personal effects of the first Mrs. de Winter, a woman called Rebecca. The endless reminders of Rebecca start to get to the new Mrs. de Winter, and so she decides to unravel the mystery of why everyone is still so obsessed with her.

Based on the 1938 novel by English author Dame Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca straddles the line between melodrama and gothic horror. If I had to make one complaint about the movie, it’s that it really shows that it’s from a more quaint (and Hays Code-influenced) time. The second Mrs. de Winter’s torment at Manderley is rough, but What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? this is not. I was much more interested with the story once the big reveal happened and the stakes of the story changed. I especially enjoyed George Sanders as Jack Favell, Rebecca’s beloved cousin and a real troublemaker (more of an Addison DeWitt than a Shere Khan though, unfortunately).

Also the movie sure makes it seem like life is easy if you’re a rich white dude! Criminal justice? What’s that when you’ve got a home that’s so fancy it just has a name instead of an address?

Not that I want to see Laurence Olivier play anything but rich and white. Maxim seems to fit in the tragic love interest with a dark secret stereotype, but gets to be more emotional and compelling once all the cards are on the table. I imagine this performance is one that benefits from a second viewing. Joan Fontaine also adds some interesting depth to the second Mrs. de Winter and her surprising willingness to embrace the darkness. And Judith Anderson definitely seems to be hinting at a sapphic desire underlying Mrs. Danvers’ devotion to Rebecca, making her more than a cruel monster. So I’m surprised that not one of them ended up winning in their acting categories, although I haven’t seen all the competition so can’t really take a firm stance.

Rebecca was both Alfred Hitchcock’s first American production and first under producer David O. Selznick, which explains how a movie shot in the late Thirties has no mention of WWII on its Wikipedia page. What it does have details about are Hitchcock’s attempts to wrestle as much control away from Selznick as he could. Allegedly, Hitch edited Rebecca in-camera to deliberately give Selznick as little footage as possible to mettle with, as well as making changes on days when Selznick wasn’t around. Not to be outdone, Selznick took over post-production, personally editing the footage and overseeing pick-ups. And you know what? Good for Selznick, he was peaking, having made A Star is Born and Gone with the Wind prior to this project.

As for ol’ Hitch, you can count him among the many Hollywood legends who the Academy nominated so many times they forgot to actually give him the award. Hitchcock’s movies account for 50 total Oscar nominations, including three other Best Picture nominations (Foreign Correspondent, Suspicion, and Spellbound) and four more Best Director nominations (Lifeboat, Spellbound, Rear Window, Psycho). Rebecca was his only Best Picture though, and that was such an oversight that in 1968 the Academy got together and honored Hitch with the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award, which he accepted with one of the shortest speeches in Oscar history: “Thank you… very much indeed.”