|Left to right: Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier|
Welcome to the series Nothing But the Best in which I chronicle all of the Academy Award Best Picture winners as they celebrate their anniversaries. Instead of going in chronological order, this series will be presented on each film's anniversary and will feature personal opinions as well as facts regarding its legacy and behind the scenes information. The goal is to create an in depth essay for each film while looking not only how the medium progressed, but how the film is integral to pop culture. In some cases, it will be easy. Others not so much. Without further ado, let's start the show.
Release Date: April 12, 1940
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Written By: Daphne Du Maurier (novel), Robert E. Sherwood & Joan Harrison (screenplay), Philip McDonald & Michael Hogan (adaptation)
Starring: Laurence Olivier, Joan Fontaine, George Sanders
Genre: Mystery, Thriller
Running Time: 130 minutes
Oscar Nominations: 9
- Best Actor (Laurence Olivier)
- Best Actress (Joan Fontaine)
- Best Director (Alfred Hitchcock)
- Best Screenplay
- Best Art Direction (Black-and-White)
- Best Film Editing
- Best Special Effects
- Best Original Score (Franz Waxman)
Oscar Wins: 2
- Best Picture
- Best Cinematography
Other Best Picture Nominees
- All This, and Heaven Too
- Foreign Correspondent
- The Grapes of Wrath
- The Great Dictator
- Kitty Foyle
- The Letter
- The Long Voyage Home
- Our Town
- The Philadelphia Story
And the winner is...
If you have found your way to this website, you are likely to know who Alfred Hitchcock is. He is the iconic director who helped to popularize suspense and mystery as popular entertainment. He was so famous that even his silhouette became a trademark. So, for a man of his stature and influence that spanned from 1925-1976, how does the Academy recognize his highly influential body of work? For starters, despite directing a Best Picture winner, he has only won an honorary Irving G. Thalberg Oscar despite five Best Director nominations. So what film, from his massive catalog won? Is it North By Northwest? Vertigo? Psycho? Rope? Rear Window? Strangers on a Train? Notorious? The Birds? If you said yes to any of these you weren't only off, but you were way off by a considerable amount of time. He won for a lesser known, but just as enjoyable, film that dates back all the way to 1940. It is the film that earned David O. Selznick his back-to-back Best Picture win as producer (an honor that only he holds) after 1939's Gone with the Wind.
It is of course Rebecca. What makes the win sort of humorous is that while still a very good film, it is one of the few great Hitchcock films not to be over-saturated in pop culture. Where even those who have never seen North By Northwest can recall the cornfield scene, it would take loyal fans to remember anything similarly shocking or memorable in Rebecca. In fact, by comparison to his later work when he had mastered the suspense film approach, Rebecca doesn't even feel like a Hitchcock film. It is too nuanced and slow while lacking the Bernard Herrmann score that would immediately tune us into Vertigo decades later. It has more of a traditional Hollywood feel despite being one of the first Best Picture winners to be predicated on a twist that is itself shocking and adds impact to the film.
Much like later Hitchcock, the film is adapted from a novel, or as the credits state a "celebrated novel" by Daphne Du Maurier in which we follow the story of the second Mrs. de Winter, played by Joan Fontaine, who is married to Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier), owner of the Manderley house where the mystery unfolds. The first wife is the late Rebecca, who is dead from the beginning and is never seen on screen. Mrs. de Winter's becomes paranoid and tries to solve the mystery, if just for her safety. Is Maxim a psychopath? These are all perfectly constructed archetypes along with housekeeper Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson), who helps her along the way. The film is peculiar because it has a gothic appeal that ties it more into the Universal Horror mold of directors like James Whale and Tod Browning, whose stage designs were just as unnerving as the performances.
For the sake of experience, I will let the remaining events play out to the reader through the film. In typical Hitchcock fashion, it is the final half that really solidifies why this film is at all noteworthy. While there were context clues all along as to Rebecca's actions, the moment comes through in a startling moment that caused numerous complaints between Hitchcock and Selznick. While the director was known to take some liberties regarding the fates of various characters, the producer was wanting a less subtle ending that involved damaged scenery forming into the shape of an 'R' for Rebecca. Thankfully, Hitchcock went subtler and with Selznick off on Gone with the Wind, there was very little interference. However, that 'R' moment lead Hitchcock to rely more on practical effects and shoot whatever he wanted to see within the camera.
It is bizarre to note that Hitchcock never won a Best Director statue and his only other Best Picture nominee was Spellbound five years later. For a man that has become so influential in pop culture, it doesn't make sense why he was overlooked. While some could argue that the films worked because of the scripts, there was also a reliance on direction. Sure, Hitchcock wasn't as stylish as John Ford (who won Best Director that year for The Grapes of Wrath), but the director's job is to navigate the viewer and show only what is necessary. Ford may have been able to create something more beautiful, but Rebecca in anyone else's hands would likely be a little too eager to exploit details. Rebecca may be slow, but it earns its moments because of the direction. Same could be said for his other films which likely got flack for being more stylized. Still, if Steven Spielberg can win Best Director twice despite being a blockbuster giant, then why can't the proclaimed master of suspense? At least he holds a record for shortest acceptance speech for his honorary award.
In an exceptional twist, Rebecca ended up with 11 Academy Award nominations. At its time, it was the second highest count for any nominee behind the previous year's Gone with the Wind at 13. Unfortunately, the film didn't do so well with its awards and eventually only won two, with the other being for the beautiful cinematography. Of course, in a year with such an impressive collection as The Grapes of Wrath, The Great Dictator and The Philadelphia Story, it makes sense why the wealth was spread around. However, it seems especially odd to see how the Academy treated Hitchcock after this. They didn't outright dismiss him, but nothing that he had done since the 40's got into the Best Picture race, and those are arguably considered his masterpieces. Even the fact that the film was the first since 1936's induction of the supporting actor categories to not have a win for acting, directing or writing has a little sting to them.
It is hard to fully appreciate Rebecca from a time period because we know what became of Hitchcock. We know how he shaped popular culture. However, Rebecca was only 15 years into an impressive career and didn't have any of the preconceptions already lathered onto him. Rebecca feels like Jaws. It feels like that experience of discovering Steven Spielberg and being amazed yet unaware of the impressive work he would be doing for decades to come. True, many hold Jaws to higher reverence, but Rebecca was no slouch with even the most successful producer of the time releasing his work. It is hard to appreciate the work because thankfully he has only continued to outdo himself. If only the Academy was aware enough to have recognized this during the time.