When Alfred Hitchcock called Rebecca "a woman's picture" he was cutting it down, but in fact that's what it is--and a superb one at that. Hitchcock had a dismissive attitude toward the label, and he is seldom discussed as a woman's director in any sense of the term. But women have a love for Hitchcock that they often don't feel for other suspense directors. His movies do an uncanny job of tapping into the darkest, toughest and most common female insecurities--something that has helped keep them alive over all these years.
The films almost always show, whether front-and-center or in the background, the primal fears that woman have regarding the love of men. A man's love is always conditional in Hitchcock, never a sure thing, and more often than not it is a dreadful hard slog for a woman to get any affection from a man at all. A woman looks at a Hitchcock movie and sees the heroine confronting the same questions that may torment her. Does my sexual history make me unlovable? (Notorious, The Birds, North by Northwest). Is he just biding time with me, or will he make a commitment? (Rear Window). Is he crazy? am I crazy for loving him? (Spellbound).
And the two movies that Hitchcock made with Joan Fontaine go very deeply indeed into these questions. In Rebecca, the woman wonders, does he really long for his previous lover? (Which is the same question asked in Vertigo, to be answered in one of the darkest endings Hitchcock ever filmed.) And in Suspicion, the question becomes the worst one a lovelorn woman can ask--did he ever really care for me at all?
Rebecca was the high mark to that point in a series of roles that had Fontaine playing delicate maidens hungry for love. The first such character (and least appealing one, though Joan is believable) was Douglas Fairbanks Jr.'s fiancee in Gunga Din, she who almost spoils the fun by tying the man down. The second was the "sheep," Peggy Day, in The Women.
Here you can see Joan, under George Cukor's tutelage, beginning to absorb some real principles of acting. When she asked the director about gestures and tone of voice, he said, "Forget all that. Think and feel and the rest will take care of itself." In her memoirs Fontaine called that "the best and shortest drama lesson" she ever got. In The Women Fontaine's self-consciousness is almost gone and her concept of Peggy is whole. What she hasn't quite mastered is her interaction with the other actresses. Her playing is all outside, she doesn't take what is said to her and weave it into her subsequent lines. She is a straight woman, doing a swell job of setting up other people's jokes, but not yet able to free her reactions as well. Here is one such joke set-up, which the Siren is reasonably certain will not make it into the remake filming now. With big-eyed horror, Peggy exclaims, "He beats you. Lucy, how terrible." And Lucy, played by Marjorie Main, comes back with, "Ain't it. When you think of the lot of women on this ranch who need a beatin' more than I do." Fontaine registers this outrageous (even in 1939) remark with the same damp-eyed amazement she does most other dialogue.
The Women shows promise, but Rebecca is an astonishing leap forward. Hitchcock worked carefully with Fontaine and she says she liked him, though in retrospect she realized he was manipulating her, telling her that he was the only one who believed she could give a good performance, reinforcing her insecurity at every turn. It wasn't hard. Laurence Olivier made it clear he had wanted his wife, Vivien Leigh, in the part of "I," despite the fact that Leigh's screen test for it was terrible, drawing hoots from George Cukor when it was shown to him by producer David O. Selznick. (Olivier treated Merle Oberon the same way, and for the same reason, on the set of Wuthering Heights.) Fontaine, already nervous and well aware this was a make-or-break role, had to contend with Olivier's idea of banter--informed she had just married Brian Aherne, he sniffed, "Couldn't you do any better than that?" At other times when her costar blew takes he would let fly with words that Fontaine later primly said she had seen only on bathroom walls. Thirty or forty years later she still had little good to say about Olivier and, as this personal reminiscence shows, remembered filming as a nightmare. She said even the other British actors, save Reginald Denny, were cliquish to the point of cruelty, refusing to budge from their afternoon tea in Judith Anderson's dressing room when Hitchcock threw Fontaine an on-set birthday party. And Fontaine doesn't even mention the exterior shots that caused cast and crew to be hospitalized for poison ivy. She couldn't work for three days.
Some actors grow to hate their signature role due to its having typed them, but in Fontaine's case it's easy to see why she retained little personal affection for Rebecca. Still, she shone, and to this day she knows it (check out her answer here to the question of which film of hers is most remembered). The second Mrs. de Winter is often described as weak, docile, terrorized, an example of extreme passivity. But while that is certainly a large part of Fontaine's characterization, it is not all of it, and indeed could not be or the character would probably annoy us all to death. It's the flashes of spirit that Fontaine shows that give you a stake in her heroine.
The first moment you see her, she is stepping up to stop Maxim as he stands on the edge of a cliff and contemplates suicide. She steps back immediately, cowed and uncertain, when he turns around, but then again he is glaring at her as though he might like to throw her over. The Siren would step back too.
Later you get one of the Siren's favorite moments in the movie, when Fontaine defies the dreadful Mrs. Van Hopper (Florence Bates, sheer unbridled delight) and declares she is going to marry Maxim. The Siren loves to watch Fontaine's face in this scene, eyes widening as though she can barely believe her own daring. She's able to muster the nerve, it seems, because Maxim is there with her. Afterward, though, she is unable to stop Mrs. Van Hopper from venomously suggesting that she is a marriage of convenience for her husband and a poor substitute for Rebecca. Later scenes with George Sanders, who was at his very best playing the heel who was Rebecca's lover, have Fontaine's face registering extreme discomfort in the presence of a cad, as well as knowledge that she can't just bounce this well-bred scoundrel out on his ear, even if he did come in through the window.
Later, there is the celebrated scene where Mrs. Danvers, played to the hilt by Judith Anderson, shows the bride her predecessor's room. Danvers lingers over a transparent negligee in a manner so lewd it makes the audience blush as well as Mrs. de Winter recoil. (This, one of classic Hollywood's most overt suggestions of lesbianism, stayed in, but the du Maurier ending had to be altered.) Here, all by herself, Fontaine finally gathers up her courage and orders Mrs. Danvers to destroy Rebecca's papers and other items. "I am Mrs. de Winter now," says Fontaine. Her attire, her posture, even her tone of voice suggest a schoolgirl at last defying a harsh headmistress. It's the moment you've been waiting for--some spine!--and it also means that later in the movie, when the tables turn and Fontaine becomes the loving support for a shattered Maxim, the shift isn't so abrupt that the audience can't accept it.
David Thomson has called Rebecca "a disguised horror film," and it comes closest to that description in the movie's most famous scene, where a browbeaten and despondent Fontaine comes close to committing suicide, egged on by the diabolical Mrs. Danvers. Once seen, you remember this moment forever, but the Siren relishes this famous scene more for Judith Anderson than for Fontaine. Fontaine, mind you, plays it perfectly. The conceit is that the second Mrs. de Winter has been driven to the brink of madness. But the young woman, however easily cowed and pathetically eager to please she may be, has seemed up to this point to be eminently sane. Danvers' suicidal coaxing plays as an evil witch casting a spell, not just as a malevolent handmaiden capitalizing on Fontaine's moment of madness. Fontaine's face suggests that she has been hypnotized, more than anything, and it's the sound of noises and flares from the beach that snaps her out of her unwillingly mesmerized state.
Rebecca had the same effect on Fontaine's acting, in that at last she had the impetus to start REacting; indeed, given the part she was playing, if she could not react well the whole movie tumbles around her ears. In Suspicion, her next movie with Hitchcock and the one that won her the Oscar, the task is somewhat different. She must show us everything but the title quality. That emotion she must fight at every turn, because Lina Aysgarth is desperately trying to allay her own suspicions every time her husband, Johnny, piles up another whopper. Watch Fontaine here, at the end, waiting for the entirely-too-pretty maid to exit.
Donald Spoto, in his biography of Hitchcock, says that contrary to popular belief and the director's own later myth-making, the director had always conceived Suspicion as a "film about a woman's fantasy life" and didn't intend to follow the novel, in which Joan Fontaine's character intentionally drinks the glass of milk her murderous husband has poisoned. Spoto says Hitchcock even told RKO executive producer Harry E. Edington that he would resolve any objections to having a romantic lead turn murderer by "making the husband's deeds the fictions in the mind of a neurotically suspicious woman."
But, the Siren insists, Lina is not all that neurotic. Molly Haskell called Fontaine's character "masochism incarnate," and she has a point in that Fontaine shows us, as clearly as the Production Code would allow, the sexual hold that Grant's Johnny has on her. But while critics usually describe Johnny's actions as mere bad gambling habits, the fact is that he's a criminal embezzler, a chronic liar, shirker and cheat, all of which are flaws that the Siren feels justify a little suspicion from a woman without her being called neurotic or masochistic.
It is the buildup of tension that creates Fontaine's mental state, not the other way around. Fontaine must suppress every question that comes to mind, at first for fear of causing strife with her husband, later because she doesn't want to seem a snob--she is upper class British, Johnny is not. In the scene above, Lina's struggle to keep from bursting out with any sort of anger or even reproach seems almost physical, as Fontaine checks herself a couple of times in mid-move toward Johnny. Finally, having choked down every legitimate question that Grant's wildly improper behavior is raising in her, Lina really does begin to succumb to neurosis, taking small actions and turning them into murderous portents.
So the "falseness" of the ending is not so much that Grant isn't a murderer after all, which was part of the design from the beginning. It's that suddenly we are supposed to look at Lina as foolish and somehow faithless, not supporting her husband the way she should have, when her husband is a pretty obvious shit, Cary Grant or no Cary Grant.
Fontaine didn't work with Hitchcock again, but her character, as a tightly repressed young gentlewoman, had been firmly fixed by her association with him. She would spend some time trying to break free of that mold, until she took the same character and altered it for all time in Letter from an Unknown Woman.