Rebecca is the only Hitchcock film that won the Oscar for Best Picture. Produced by David O. Selznick (who had also won the Best Picture Oscar the previous year for Gone With the Wind), this film also won the Oscars for Best Cinematography – black and white (George Barnes) and…that’s all… Rebecca was also nominated for Best Director (Alfred Hitchcock), Best Adapted Screenplay (Robert E. Sherwood and Joan Harrison), Best Actor (Laurence Olivier), Best Actress (Joan Fontaine), Best Supporting Actress (Judith Anderson), Best Film Editing (Hal C. Kern), Best Music – Original Score (Franz Waxman), Best Production Design (Lyle R. Wheeler) and Best Visual Effects (Jack Cosgrove and Arthur Johns). Now, it’s a pity that among all those 11 nominations, Rebecca won only two of them. Even if the film won THE Oscar (Best Picture) I always felt it was snubbed on many levels. Well, it’s a known fact that Hitchcock himself was a snub one, having won a total of zero Best Director Oscar. I think this timeless film would have deserved much more, but, today, I’m going to concentrate on only one of them: Joan Fontaine’s Oscar Snub.
This text is part of the 31 Days of Oscar Blogathon, hosted by Once Upon a Screen, Outspoken and Freckled and Paula’s Cinema Club. We’re now at week 2: Oscar Snub, where all participants will explain why some film or some person should have won this or that Oscar. I’ve always dreamt of writing something about Rebecca, so this is the perfect occasion.
Rebecca was released in 1940 and, today, it’s still considered to be one of the best adaptations of a Daphné Du Maurier’s novel. The author herself was much satisfied with the final product. Rebecca tells the story of a young paid companion (Joan Fontaine) whom, during a trip to Monte Carlo with her employer Mrs. Van Hopper (Florence Bates), meets Maxim “Max” De Winter (Laurence Olivier), the famous owner of the notorious Manderley. The young lady learns that he lost his wife the previous year. After they spend some time together, the young lady falls in love with him. They get married and she becomes the new Mrs. De Winter. In Manderley, she has to face Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson), the cruel governess who adored Rebecca. She also has to fight Rebecca’s souvenirs that seems omnipresent and who doesn’t want to leave her and Maxim at peace.
That year, the other nominees for the Best Actress Oscar were Bette Davis for The Letter, Ginger Rogers for Kitty Foyle: The Natural History of a Woman, Katharine Hepburn for The Philadelphia Story and Martha Scott for Our Town. The Oscar went to Ginger Rogers. Now, I don’t say that she didn’t deserve it, especially because I haven’t seen this film, but if I had the power to give the Oscar to Joan Fontaine, that’s what I would have done. Giving the Oscar to two people isn’t something impossible. In 1969, both Katharine Hepburn and Barbra Streisand won the Award.
Happily, for Joan Fontaine’s lovers, the lovely actress finally won the award the following year for her performance in Suspicion (Alfred Hitchcock, 1941). She is the only actress/actor who ever won an Oscar for a Hitchcock film.
One of the major qualities of films produced by David O. Selznick was the actors’ choice. I never felt one of them was miscast. Can you imagine someone else than Vivien Leigh in the role of Scarlet O’Hara? Can you imagine someone else than Joan Fontaine in the role of Mrs. De Winter? The actress choice for this role was perhaps something thrilling, but the final decision couldn’t have been better.
Let’s take a look at her screen-test…
Have you ever seen someone lovelier than Joan as Mrs. De Winter? She was perfectly able to embody Mrs. De Winter’s emotion just as they were described in the novel. Joan has always been able to prove to us that she could move from one emotion to another very easily. That was primordial for Mrs. De Winter’s role as she is someone whom happiness can vanish as quickly as she appears. One of the best scenes to prove that is when she goes down the stairs dressed up as Caroline De Winter. She then has a glorious smile on her face but loses it very rapidly when she realizes Maxim doesn’t like the idea at all. In the same line, a moment that has always captivated me in the film is when she asks Mrs. Danvers to get rid of Rebecca’s furniture. The governess tells her “But these are Mrs. De Winter’s things”, to what she answers “I am Mrs. De Winter Now”. Coming from her, this is an unexpected reaction. The voice she uses has lost its innocence, is much more serious and sounds much deeper. It can make us think of the voice used by her sister, Olivia de Havilland, at the end of The Heiress when she has realized the truth about Morris (Montgomery Clift).
In order to be appreciated, a film must transmit something to the viewers. Many elements in Rebecca do that, but we have to give most credits to the actors’ performances, especially Joan’s one. Her acting is so honest, we can feel her emotions as well. Also, how can we not be fond of this adorable smile? She had to play someone shy, a little clumsy, but absolutely adorable. Joan did that perfectly and the evolution of her character through the whole film is impressive as well.
Even if Joan’s off-screen chemistry wasn’t perfect with Laurence Olivier (because this one would have preferred his wife Vivien Leigh to get the role), it’s difficult to see it on-screen. Mrs. De Winter is very much in love with Maxim and we can feel that love through Joan Fontaine’s amazing performance. Her opposition and fear of Mrs. Danvers were also perfectly done.
What I also love about Joan in this film is her voice. When we hear her narrating the film at the beginning, it’s a beautiful music to our ears. How can we forget her enchanting voice saying the famous opening line: “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”? A good actor has to know how to act with his body, his look and his voice (except for a silent film actor, that goes without saying). Thanks to her performance in Rebecca, Joan Fontaine was able to prove to us she could do all that.
Just listen to the three first minutes of this clip to see what I mean. But you can watch the entire clip if you want to! It will not only make you realize how perfect Joan’s voice was but will also make you appreciate Joan unappreciation of Mrs. Van Hopper. Some of the facial expressions she makes are unforgettable.
We, unfortunately, can’t go back and change the course of history, but I’m sure I’m not the only one who thinks Joan deserved this Oscar. She is one of my absolute favourite actresses and this is mainly due to her memorable interpretation of Mrs. De Winter. It’s this role that made her a legend of the silver screen.
One more time, many thanks to our three hostesses who organized this event. To read more “Oscar Snub” entries, I invite you to click on the following link: