Disclaimer: These essays presume you’ve seen the film in question. If you want to avoid spoilers, watch the movie first!
When I pick movies for this project, I generally pick almost at random, trying not to do movies that are too close together. But this week was a lucky coincidence as I wrote about the ill-fated end of Hitchcock & producer David O. Selznick’s collaboration two weeks ago with The Paradine Case and last week I discussed one of Hitchcock’s only other “ghost” stories: Vertigo. So this week it made sense to go back to 1940, back to Hitchcock’s first American film, his first collaboration with David O. Selznick, and his first & only Oscar win, Rebecca (1940).
That’s right, Alfred Hitchcock did win an Oscar for Best Picture. Or at least one of his movies did. In Hitchcock/Truffaut, Hitch says that he’s never won an Oscar, and gripes that David O. Selznick won as the producer. John Ford beat him as director that year for The Grapes of Wrath. Hitchcock would be nominated five times and never win, while John Ford, universally acclaimed as one of the biggest assholes in the business, would also be nominated five times and win Best Director four out of the five. It’s a feat that’s never been matched. Sometimes Hollywood isn’t fair.
But Hitchcock already knew this; he’d been working with David O. Selznick for over a year already. Hitchcock was wooed to Hollywood by the producer only to have Selznick waffle on the details of their first film. Initially Hitchcock was won over with the promise of a big-budget Titanic film, but that fell apart. And when Rebecca was finally locked in, there were fights over casting (Hitchcock favored the delightful Nova Pilbeam, star of Young and Innocent for the lead), script, and everything else. The unproven British director was going up against one of the most powerful producers in Hollywood, at a time when producers ruled the industry.
Yet Hitchcock had two things going for him with Rebecca. The first is one thing I’ve already discussed, Hitchcock’s “goddamned jigsaw puzzle” method of shooting. He didn’t do the coverage and closeups that any other director would, instead filming only the shots he needed for each scene. Not only was it how the over-prepared Hitchcock preferred to work, trimming his budget & shooting schedule by keeping the shot count low, but it also gave him complete control over how the film was put together. This drove Selznick mad and drastically limited his options (unless he wanted to insist on a costly reshoot).
Hitchcock’s advantage was the mammoth Gone With The Wind. Selznick was in the middle of reshoots when Hitchcock arrived in Los Angeles (even going so far as to ask Hitch to give him notes on one reel of the epic), and would later be overwhelmed by post-production & publicity. This left Hitchcock relatively alone during the shooting of Rebecca.
So with all of that going for him, why didn’t Hitchcock knock it out of the park? Why is Rebecca so normal? It feels more like a glossy David O. Selznick film rather than a Hitchcock classic. Remember, Hitch had already made such masterpieces as The 39 Steps, The Man Who Knew Too Much, and The Lady Vanishes. His command of suspense, light comedy, and pure filmmaking was unparalled in England. Rebecca is a very good picture, maybe even great, but it lacks humor, suspense, and almost everything we’ve come to associate as “Hitchcockian.”
Part of the problem is that Selznick was still very involved with the script, insisting that Hitch and his writers hew as close as possible to the novel, weakening the heroine in the process (we’ll come back to this). While Hitchcock was free to bring his brilliance to the filming of the story at hand, he still had to stick to every word of the script.
The second issue is more substantial. Hitchcock uprooted his family and life to move to Hollywood in 1939, leaving the industry where he was the biggest fish in the pond to come to one where he was at the very bottom. In Hitchcock/Truffaut and other interviews, Hitchcock paints himself as the brilliant iconoclast, jousting against studio heads and producers, inevitably coming out on top. And while that did happen from time to time (arguably more often in Britain), the truth is that Hitchcock understood how the Hollywood game was played. He wasn’t out to rock the boat. I can’t think of a time in his Hollywood period where Hitchcock was removed from a film or replaced (a common occurrence).
Hitchcock wanted money, power, & prestige to enable him to make the kinds of films that he wanted. The studios wanted a proven, successful director who could make entertaining films that made money at the box office. Hitchcock understood this give and take and he knew the instant he set foot in Hollywood that he’d have to prove himself.
So rather than acting the l’enfant terrible and digging in his heels at every little thing, Hitchcock took another route. For his first film, he’d work with what was given him, he’d do his best, and he’d beat them at their own game. Hitchcock would take a leading actress who’d barely acted and a script that’s remarkably clumsy, and turn into into a gorgeous British ghost story, brimming with undercurrents of forbidden sexuality and gauzy mystery. He’d make Rebecca into a film worthy of winning Best Picture.
For Hitchcock, compromise was at the heart of many of his greatest successes in Hollywood. Even during his great period of 1950s masterpieces, he still couldn’t always get the actors he wanted, was stymied by budget demands, or had to work around censorship issues. But he found a way.
I’m hitting this point hard because I have such a hard time with compromise myself. I’m not entirely sure where that comes from (believe me, my therapist and I have talked about it). As much as I want to see the world as a great, collaborative enterprise where we share ideas and have no egos, my gut instinct, especially when it comes to work, is always the same: it’s my way or the highway.
I’ve gotten much better about this with relationships; with my ex-wife I went so far the other way, acceding to her wishes or not fighting with her, that it caused a lot of problems. My default mode in relationships is always to please the other person, even at the expense of my own desires. I’ve been working on advocating for myself, and I like to think that I’m getting better at striking a balance between the two extremes.
But not for work. For work, I tend to remain stubbornly, steadfastly sure that I’m right. And while confidence can be important, this extreme sense of self is not only foolhardy, it’s ugly and selfish. Whether I think I’m smarter than everyone else, or grasp ideas better, or some other self-aggrandizing bullshit, it yields the same unpleasant result.
Ironically, when I’m working by myself, that’s when I go into tortured artist mode, questioning all of my decisions. Yet if someone else questions them, or makes the same comment that’s in my head, I’ll get defensive and harsh. I’m a lot of fun!
The worst example of this was how my job at the repertory theater, BAMcinématek in Brooklyn, fell apart. If people ask me about it now I’ll say that I left because I was tired of New York, exhausted of working at non-profits, and needed a change. All of which is basically true. The real truth is that I was fired. Or asked to leave. Or something like that. It was shitty and lousy the way it was done but I can’t deny that it was completely merited.
I started working for BAM in 1999, and in 2001 when a position opened up in the Cinématek program, I was thrilled. I lobbied hard for it, and got it on the recommendation of a Vice President who liked and saw promise in me. It was a dream job, helping to program old movies, organize Q&As and events, and be a part of something I loved. I threw myself into the job, working 50-60 hours a week. I made friends with the rest of the small Cinématek staff, and we banded together. It was us against the world. We were a small program that fly under the larger institution’s radar, so we got to do whatever we wanted.
It was an ungodly amount of work. I don’t even remember a lot of it, several years of my twenties passing by while I toiled in an office that used to be a closet, working all day then seeing movies or a performance at night. Most of my friends worked at BAM. Most of my time was spent there. It became my entire life.
But after several years a shift occurred. To this day I couldn’t tell you how. It’s a chicken/egg situation, where the upper management started to treat me poorly, and I felt disrespected and started acting like an asshole. Did I start acting like an asshole and that caused the lousy behavior from the VPs and President? Or were they dismissive of my talents and didn’t understand what I was doing? They seemed to happen at the same time. It’s amazing how, when you’re in the middle of something, you don’t see it change around you, or notice that you’re changing with it.
I became bitter. I thought everyone’s ideas were terrible, including the people I’d worked with for years. I rolled my eyes in meetings and called people stupid. And as a result, I became more isolated. People wouldn’t invite me to meetings, and I had less and less work to do. Then out of the blue one of my bosses told me I was being fired. BAM’s President, who I worked closely with for seven years, didn’t even tell me herself.
I was angry. I was relieved. I was mad about the method but knew there wasn’t anything else to do. The end.
I deserved it. I got to the point where I couldn’t work with other people. I was convinced that I was right and that no one would listen to me. Maybe I had some legitimate grievances. But that doesn’t justify me acting like an asshole to coworkers and patrons.
Now I live in fear of that happening again. Of getting so blinded with details and minutiae and my own pride that I can’t see the larger picture. It’s happened a few times in Pittsburgh on a much smaller scale and I’m not proud of it. So lately I’ve been trying to take a page from Hitchcock’s book and compromise. To work with other people, hear their ideas, take them in, and arrive at a solution. As I wrote previously in this blog, great work is rarely produced with zero limitations. It’s something I tell myself over and over. And if nothing else, it’s better for my mental health.
And speaking of compromise…
Rebecca gets off to a slow start, as Joan Fontaine is working as a paid traveling companion to a rich woman touring Monte Carlo. She meets Laurence Olivier, playing Maxim De Winter, a morose English gentleman with a dark secret: his wife drowned and he’s still carrying the torch for her. Seemingly out of irritation Olivier proposes to her (he’s literally in the bathroom when he does it) and Fontaine is whisked away to Manderly, his giant estate on the Cornwall coast. Once there, she confronts the stateliness of manor life and finds reminders of Rebecca everywhere: embroidered notebooks & napkins, staff prodding her that “the former Mrs. De Winter used to answer correspondence in the morning room,” and worst of all, the estate’s fierce head of staff Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson). Danvers slowly makes it clear that she was in love with Rebecca and does everything she can to undermine Fontaine, even suggesting that the overwhelmed new bride take her own life. Eventually the plot shifts after a boat with the drowned Rebecca is discovered, leading to a new inquest and courtroom dealings that thankfully give us lots of George Sanders as Rebecca’s sneering “cousin.” The clear implication is that Rebecca and Sanders were lovers, and that he believes himself to be the father of her unborn child. It’s unclear if they are supposed to be actually cousins, or if his use of the word “cousin,” is just their code for “secret lover.” Either way, it’s remarkably risque for 1940.
Watching Rebecca with modern eyes, what jumps out immediately is the condescending treatment of Joan Fontaine. Through the film she’s told to “eat up like a good girl,” treated like a child by every character, and although she’s our narrator and window into this story, she has almost no agency or effect on the film itself. At one point she says she’s being treated like a “prize cow” and she’s not wrong. And lest you think I’m being disingenuous by referring to only as Joan Fontaine, she literally doesn’t have a name. She’s only referred to as “Mrs. De Winter” in the latter half of the film.
Yet there is an interesting and calculated inversion here. Fontaine is constantly comparing herself to Rebecca and finding herself wanting; yet when Olivier confesses to what happens, he makes it clear that he never loved Rebecca. Her coldness and amorality repulsed him; whereas he truly loves the chaste, adoring Fontaine. Perhaps Hitchcock & Selznick’s most brilliant touch (accounts differ on who thought of it) was to never show Rebecca: we can only imagine her as the cold, brilliant, dark-haired opposite of the somewhat bland Fontaine.
What’s missing in Rebecca from later Hitchcock films is any kind of agency by the woman. Going back to my thesis that more often than not, Hitchcock heroines are smart, capable, and get things done, this is a rare exception dictated by Selznick himself. Hitchcock had attempted to build up Fontaine’s role, and make it more active. Selznick struck it down immediately: Daphne Du Maurier’s novel was sancrosanct and had to be followed. The book came out of this tradition of “women’s literature” where women are encouraged to empathize with a woman who’s being treated poorly; a Cinderella syndrome. Yet you can make the argument that Cinderella at least has some kind of action in her story. Fontaine has nothing. She does nothing. The only thing her behavior precipitates is a mad jealousy on the part of Mrs. Danvers. It’s a lousy kind of female protagonist, especially compared with the spirited heroine of Selznick’s other 1939 production, Scarlett O’Hara of Gone With the Wind.
The whole production feels much grander than it actually is. The story barely hangs together and is full of holes (who is the other female body that washes up on shore that Maxim claims is Rebecca?). Selznick produces Rebecca like its a Grand Story of Our Times, a worthy followup to Gone With the Wind, when in reality it might be better as just a stylish ghostly thriller (which Hitchcock had always wanted).
Yet there are still plenty of great moments. The character of Rebecca hangs over the entire film, in many ways a more intriguing character than Fontaine. In perhaps the film’s most brilliant moment, as Olivier narrates what happened on the night of Rebecca’s death, the camera tracks her movement across the room, creating an invisible character so potent she doesn’t even need corporality to be convincing. Equally great is a scene where the married couple try to watch their home movies of their honeymoon but get into an argument as the film unspools silently, happy faces cavorting onscreen contrasted against their sullen demeanor.
Mrs. Danvers remains one of cinema’s great female villains, a tremendous performance aided by Hitchcock’s subtle additions (the line about Rebecca’s underwear being handmade by nuns) and Judith Anderson’s tremendous Oscar-nominated role. She transcends the cliche of “evil lesbian” to become a scheming, obsessive force of nature, devoted only to preserving her memory of her beloved. She’s absolutely chilling.
It’s also a great showcase for many of Hitch’s favorite British character actors and he takes full advantage of his large budget and technical abilities to create memorable tracking shots and intricate panoramas of the ethereal Manderly manor. Ultimately it’s a shame that Hitchcock wasn’t able to inject more of his own sensibility into the film. Rebecca is a good, very good movie, but to my mind it’s not a true Hitchcock film.
Rebecca is not streaming on any services. It’s available to rent on iTunes or Amazon, or is available from your friendly local library.
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