Tropes of Women in Film: Joan Fontaine in Rebecca

Rebecca wasa Alfred Hitchcock’s only film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. It was his first American film, and for the role of the unnamed, terrorized narrator, he chose 21-year-old Joan Fontaine. Fontaine was the younger sister of star Olivia de Havilland, but Fontaine had not yet established her own career. Laurence Olivier was cast as Maxim de Winter, and he campaigned for his girlfriend and future wife Viviven Leigh to get Fontaine’s part. Loretta Young, Margaret Sullavan, and Anne Baxter all screen tested for the role as well. The part called for a scared, insecure little girl, who could be bullied by Mrs. Danvers and would be a sycophant to her murdering husband. Young, Sullavan, and Leigh were already stars, but known for racier roles. Vivien Leigh’s screen test is ludicris. Leigh was a fine actress, but in her screen test (in which Olivier played opposite her to give her an extra boost), she is an older, experienced woman, acting how she thinks young girls act. She is unconvincing because she is not insecure. Fontaine had been victimized all her life by her mother, her older sister, and her own mind, and during filming, Hitchcock would tell Fontaine that no one thought she was a good actress except him. She was young, inexperienced, and constantly afraid that she wasn’t good enough. She was perfect.

The unnamed narrator begins Daphne du Maurier’s novel by describing a dream in which she returns to Manderley, the mansion she lived with her husband Maxim de Winter, as the second Mrs. de Winter. She met Maxim inMonte Carlo, while working as a ladies’ companion. An orphan of a slightly lower class, she clings to Maxim from the first and the little crumbs of attention he drops her. Maxim is depressed from the death of his first wife, moody and quiet. He gruffly invites the narrator to spend time with him, barely noticing she is there. He seems to enjoy her inexperience with the world. They are married by the time they leaveMonte Carlo. Manderley is large, dark, and imposing, with a host of servants, all stiff and British. Mrs. Danvers, the housekeeper, is the most stiff. She loved the late Mrs. de Winter and resents and tortures the second Mrs. de Winter. Because of her inexperience, the narrator feels out of place in Manderley. She is unaccustomed to upper class British society and is constantly trying to please her husband with how she dresses, entertains, and comports herself. Of course, she is unsure how to and ends up acting like a puppy scared of being kicked. Eventually, the circumstances of the late Mrs. de Winter’s death come to light: she and Maxim argued over her unfaithfulness and Maxim believes he killed her, so he staged a boating accident. When the body is found and examined, Maxim is thrown into a panic. The late Mrs. de Winter’s lover campaigns against Maxim, insisting on his guilt. Maxim is exonerated at the last because the Production Code forbade a murderer protaongist. du Maurier’s original ending let Maxim off, but revealed that he was the killer. The Production Code would not let a murderer go unpunished, and the ending was changed.

At first glance, Fontaine’s character is a simpering, subservient woman gone off the deep end. She cowers, sycophantic to her husband and her torturers. Mrs. Danvers torture is psychological, making it all the worse. You can read fear and hunger in Fontaine’s large eyes, as she begs for acceptance and love. Critics have argued that this is an example of the Electra complex (the female Oedipus complex in which the daughter is in love with the father, viewing the mother as a rival), as the narrator calls Maxim her husband and father and treats him with filial deference, tortured by the mother figures of Mrs. Danvers and the late Mrs. de Winter as rivals for Maxim’s love. But, the narrator is not that simple. It is evident from Fontaine’s screen test that there were so many more layers to her portrayal. She could be accused of being one-note or of indicating, but her emotions are much more shaded than that, in the screen test alone. In one single scene, in which she admits to breaking the china cupid and pleads with Maxim to accept her as she is, she goes through a range of emotions from embarrassed child incapable of making eye contact with her stern father, to guilt, to defensive, to a kicked puppy, to a cowed wife, to a victim, to self-pity, to a nervous fluttering bird, to fear, to desperate, to faking happiness, to that fake laugh, to upbeat, to wronged wife, to manipulative, to scheming, to jealous, to the reprimanded child, in that order. Her range is unastonishing, and undearneath is this desire, this hunger to be loved as she is. Fontaine was able to inform her performance with this as no other actress was.

Joan Fontaine was born Joan de Havilland, but her mother forced her to take a stage name so as not to infringe upon her sister’s fame. She was not allowed to sign with Warner Brothers either, because it was her sister’s studio. Joan felt victimized by her mother and sister, from her early childhood. She recalls violent wrestling matches with her sister and once, how Olivia threw Joan to the ground and broke her collarbone. In adulthood, Joan became more haughty towards her sister. When turned down for the role of Melanie in Gone with the Wind, Joan said flippantly, “Why don’t you cast my sister!” and David O. Selznick did. Joan was cast in Rebecca instead, and the sisters competed for the Oscar the next year. Joan won for Suspicion, to Olivia’s fury. Joan felt she had done something wrong, in pre-empting Olivia. She was wracked with guilt, but externally showed uncaring towards Olivia. All of Joan’s characters, from the unnamed narrator to Jane Eyre to Peggy in The Women had this same, underlying puppiness. She was desperate for love and attention, and a little airheaded. Fontaine’s highly publicized rivalry with her sister and back and forth relationship with her mother informed this. It gave Fontaine’s characters, who appear as simpering idiots, another dimension. She wasn’t playacting at the scared little girl, she was a scared little girl who wanted to be an actress.

If Fontaine lacked essential confidence and thus played women who were multi-dimensional but inherently weak, were there women with inherent strength? What did strength look like on a woman?

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One thought on “Tropes of Women in Film: Joan Fontaine in Rebecca

  1. That was an amazing scene with the broken cupid and you give credit where it is due. It is a favorite movie because of her performance. Conversely, my wife can hardly watch it which is also a testament to her acting – my wants wants to scream at her “to be stronger”.

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