Years ago my grandmother asked me if I had ever read Daphne du Maurier‘s Rebecca. She looked truly stunned when I told her I had not read it. She then told me that she tried to read the book every year. A few weeks later, I received an envelope from my grandmother with a copy of the book. Thus began for me a love affair with the book, and subsequently, the movie.
Like so many readers before me, Daphne du Maurier captivated me with the first eight words: “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again…” The room around me faded away as I continued to read: “I came upon it suddenly; the approach masked by the unnatural growth of a vast shrub that spread in all directions… There was Manderley, our Manderley, secretive and silent as it had always been, the gray stone shining in the moonlight of my dream, the mullioned windows reflecting the green lawns and terrace. Time could not wreck the perfect symmetry of those walls, nor the site itself, a jewel in the hollow of a hand.” But, the narrator goes on to explain, she can never go back to Manderley again.
Published in 1938, Rebecca has never gone out of print. Its opening lines cast it into the pantheon of Gothic novels. Not surprisingly, Rebecca also captured the imagination of Alfred Hitchcock. His 1940 adaptation of du Maurier’s classic marked his Hollywood debut and launched Joan Fontaine into stardom (and perpetual rivalry with her sister, Olivia de Havilland). While the subject of film adaptation of classic/beloved/popular novels can start passionate debates, Hitchcock did du Maurier proud with his haunting rendition of her words, in many cases using her novel verbatim.
When I heard of Ms. Fontaine’s death this morning, I couldn’t help but think of her gorgeous performance in Rebecca. Restrained but passionate emotions simmer just below the surface as she first suffers her gauche employer, Mrs. Van Hopper, and then imagines that she cannot compete with Rebecca, her husband’s first wife. Insecure and inexperienced, the second Mrs. de Winter–whose own name is never uttered–is impressionable. Rebecca’s devoted servant, Mrs. Danvers, becomes her nemesis, egging her on in her descent into despair. Mrs. de Winter grows to believe that Max de Winter can never love her as he loved Rebecca, and that she is but a poor substitute for the lost love of his life.
Judith Anderson’s Mrs. Danvers comes to life for me in the movie in a way that even eludes du Maurier. She moves so silently so that she suddenly appears in a room like a stealthy cat. (Rumor has it that Hitchcock actually had her on a board atop wheels so that she glided into rooms.) The chemistry between Fontaine and Anderson is truly terrifying.
Like my grandmother, I return to the novel Rebecca fairly regularly. I also return to the film. It surprises my students because it isn’t what they expect of Hitchcock, but it is PURE Hitchcock, unmistakable and unforgettable. The novel bears rereading because it is so elegantly hewn. The film bears repeated viewings because Fontaine’s performance is so nuanced, Anderson’s is so psychotic, and Hitchcock beguiles. (Yes, Laurence Olivier is good, too.But, that’s beside the point.)
Fontaine was nominated for an Academy Award for her indelible performance of the most famous unnamed character in American cinema. Her second collaboration with Hitchcock–paired with Cary Grant in Suspicion–garnered her the Award in 1941. In that film she plays another impressionable young bride, this time one who believes her husband is trying to kill her. Her fear is palpable and, at times, bone-chilling.
I don’t know what it was about Ms. Fontaine–she wasn’t the prettiest actress of the 1940s, and she wasn’t even the most prolific. But her performances, withstand the ravages of time. Mrs. de Winter cannot go back to Manderley, but thankfully I can go back again and again and remember an actress who took a character with no name and made her legendary.
Thank you, Joan Fontaine. And thank you, Mimi, for the introduction. Rest in Peace.