The Oscar Project 1940: Rebecca

As The Oscar Project emerges from the 30s we step into the 40s and the world of Alfred Hitchock with the psychological thriller Rebecca.

1940 - Rebecca - posterThe first act of Rebecca is a tightly directed, well-acted yet light and breezy romance. A naïve young woman (Joan Fontaine) working as a paid companion to a woman vacationing in Monte Carlo meets a wealthy widower, Maximilian “Maxim” de Winter (Laurence Olivier). They fall in love. He marries her and sweeps her away to his palatial home “Manderlay” back in England.

Isn’t that sweet? Kinda Pretty Woman-esque (without all the prostitution).

Then things begin to turn. Once the happy couple arrives home the new bride finds herself in an imposing estate. “The 2nd Mrs. de Winter” (Hitchcock never reveals her first name) finds herself under the long shadow of the memory of the 1st Mrs. de Winter, Rebecca. Rebecca’s tragic demise looms large over the entire household.

Rebecca is a story in the true gothic tradition and as such feature some familiar character archetypes.

  • The mysterious first wife
  • The brooding lover
  • The inquisitive young heroine in over her head

And the most iconic of them all…

  • The creepy housekeeper

In this case the creepy housekeeper in question is Mrs. Danvers played perfectly by Judith Anderson. I can imagine Mrs. Danvers was at least in part the inspiration for Frau Blücher* in Young Frankenstein. She would be nominated for supporting actress but lose to Jane Darwell for her marvelous work as Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath.

Hitchcock layers the psychological intrigue with precision, earning his nickname, “The Master of Suspense.” It’s a slow burn that doesn’t rely on misdirection. Instead he holds back just enough information to keep you on edge and reel you in deeper.

His direction and cinematography is fantastic. There’s one sequence that I can’t believe hasn’t been duplicated a thousand times since and another involving some pyrotechnics that looks pretty modern to me.

The third act has great twists. Much of the credit for that goes to the novel but the way Hitchcock handles it is outstanding. As the story unfolds it defies expectations and anticipations even 78 years later.

Hitchcock had been making movies for years at this point but Rebecca was his first American-made film. His excellent work would earn him his first of five best director nominations. His other film that year, Foreign Correspondence would also be nominated for best picture. This would be the closest Hitchcock would ever get to winning a best director Oscar**.

He wasn’t the only director with multiple films up for best picture that year. Amazingly there were a total of three directors with multiple best picture nods. Sam Wood (Our Town and Kitty Foyle) and John Ford (The Long Voyage Home and The Grapes of Wrath) also doubled up. Ford would take home best director for Grapes, his second win in five years.

For about 15 years Laurence Olivier had been killing it on the London stage doing dozens and dozens of plays to critical acclaim. He was the original prototype British Shakespearean actor. There’s a reason the most prestigious award for the London theater today is “The Laurence Olivier Award.”

He’d done a few forgotten films until 1939 when he starred in Wuthering Heights for which he received his first best actor nomination. He would be up for best actor 8 more times and once for supporting over the next 40 years.

Olivier would lose out to Jimmy Stewart for The Philadelphia Story which is an unbelievably great film and would have been a great pick for best picture as well. This would be the only Oscar of Stewart’s career*** although he would total five best actor nominations in 20 years.

Joan Fontaine was nominated for best actress, losing to Ginger Rogers (Kitty Foyle). Yes, that Ginger Rogers. But Fontaine would team up with Hitchcock again the following year in Suspicion for which she would take home the Oscar.

Oh, and one more thing…

The year before there was a bit of an issue with the Oscar winners being leaked before the awards so in 1940 two new Oscar traditions were instituted as a result:

ENVELOPES: This was the first year that sealed envelopes were used for the awards presentation. This spawned the phrase, “the envelope please”.

PRICE WATERHOUSE: The accounting firm of Price Waterhouse was hired to count the ballots.

…and they’ve both worked perfectly ever since.

Warren and Faye

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**In 1968 Alfred Hitchcock received the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award. Here is a transcript of his entire acceptance speech. “Thank you… very much indeed.”
***Jimmy Stewart would receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Academy in 1985 at the age of 76.
Rebeccas is streaming on YouTube

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