The Best Picture Winners: Rebecca (1940)

| October 3, 2017

Oscar’s 90th birthday is just around the corner and to celebrate, every other day from now through March 4th, I will be taking a look at each and every film selected for his top award – the good, the bad and the sometimes not-so deserving.

For the rest of my life, I will never understand the voting academy’s dismissal of Alfred Hitchcock.  He was nominated for Best Director five times and lost all five in spite of the fact that the man was the most popular movie director of his day and a legend in his own time!  His only love from the academy came in the form of a Thalberg Award in 1968 at which he gave a nose-thumbing speech that he limited to a very brief “Thank you.”

For all of his great work, only one of his films ever received a Best Picture award, a sumptuous adaptation of Daphne de Maurier’s Rebecca.  This would mark not only Hitchcock’s only recognition in the top category (he didn’t, himself, win the award for producing; that went to David O. Selznik) but also the second Oscar in a row for The Selznick Studio.

Rebecca and Gone With the Wind were not that far apart in terms of their theme: both are about the strange connective power of home and women struggling under the flaws of damaged men.  Scarlett O’Hara found herself pulled back to her ancestral plantation of Tara while Joan Fontaine’s Mrs. DeWinter finds that Manderley (the house once occupied by her new husband’s late wife) is still haunted by the presence of a woman who once occupied it.  It is occupied, not by her ghost but by the absence of a woman whose presence brought painful baggage that her death would leave behind.

What Alfred Hitchcock is able to achieve in Rebecca is mood and tone and the somber atmosphere of a house in the weeks after the funeral has ended and the mourners have gone on with their lives.  Yet the house is also affected by the Rebecca’s damaging legacy that the wake of her death has left a complex of devastation and emotional turmoil for those who loved her.

For most of the film Hitch establishes that he is the master of his canvas, making us feel the tone of the story without having to express everything in words, and in giving us a title character who seems to live and breathe and walk and talk even though no actor appears on the screen.  Rebecca is created entirely out sets and dialogue and out of the performances by Laurence Olivier and Judith Anderson and Joan Fontaine.  We feel her even though we never see her.

My problems with Rebecca come in the third act when Hitchcock allows the film to slip into copious amounts of expository dialogue after Mr. DeWinter reveals the secrets of Rebecca’s death. The events that transpire after that feel forced, as if you can see the screenwriter writing it rather than feeling the events flowing naturally out of the story.  I realize that Daphne du Maurier’s book ends in much the same way, with housekeeper Mrs Danvers going insane as Manderley burns around her, but as a movie, the ending feels forced.  It is a let-down and so is the fact that this is the only Hitchcock film to win the Oscar for Best Picture.

What would come from Hitchcock for the next two decades would be an eviable body of work that others would try and fail to capture.  The Hitchcock magic was present in other films.  Here the mystery is a little less bombastic.  His story here is more emotional soap opera than grand spectacle.  I kind of like that.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.