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Best Picture: REBECCA (1940)

Week thirteen, and we’ve turned a corner into the 1940s, when Best Picture winners made a dramatic change.

Most of the previous twelve Best Picture winners to date seemed to attract the attention of Academy voters for their breadth and scope. They were grand in some way, usually featuring big casts, epic lengths of time, and sometimes even several generations. We have just come off of Gone with the Wind, for instance, one of the most enormous movies of all time in all senses of the word. Only perhaps 1937’s The Life of Émile Zola can be considered relatively intimate, and even that film bothered to encapsulate a single historical event (The Dreyfus Affair) into a larger narrative of Zola’s life.

But starting in the 1940s, Best Picture winners became suddenly more focused. More personally dramatic. More grounded in human struggle. Previous Best Picture winners – if I may make a literary allusion – tended to be Tolstoy, framing humans as single drops in the ever-flowing tide of history. In the 1940s, films took a more Dostoyevsky approach, allowing its heroes to be personal, relatable philosophical avatars.


And who better to begin this new trend than Alfred Hitchcock, often hailed as one of the best filmmakers of all time? Now truly begins Hollywood’s Golden Age, and its Best Picture winners reflect a complexity of interpersonal drama that transcended the stagey theatricality of previous years. That theatricality will occasionally resurface, but we’re about to go through a great run of human drama.

Rebecca is about many things, most obvious of which is the sinking anxiety we all feel when we realize our lovers and spouses may be constantly comparing us to their previous partners. Joan Fontaine is great as a timid soul who marries the intriguing, wealthy, yet often distant and cold Maxim DeWinter (Laurence Olivier). Mrs. DeWinter is pleased and overwhelmed by the love and money that Maxim seems to be desperately showering on her, but soon realized that the recently deceased Rebecca DeWinter – Maxim’s first wife – still hangs heavily over his distant, enormous, and somewhat sepulchral estate. Rebecca is talked about often, and has a stronger presence than any other character in the film, even though she never once appears on camera.

Mrs. DeWinter’s drama comes from trying to either outlive Rebecca’s reputation, or be overwhelmed by her ghost. Hitchcock never worked with the supernatural – he has said that the subject bores him – but Rebecca is as close as he’ll ever come to a proper ghost story. Rebecca may be dead, but she lives on in the hearts and minds of just about everyone. Most strikingly, Rebecca is beloved by the ultra-creepy, Dracula-like Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson), the estate maid, who keeps Rebecca’s things exactly as she left them. There is a wonderful scene – probably the film’s best – wherein Mrs. Danvers shows Mrs. DeWinter Rebecca’s underthings. Although the Hays Code was in place in 1940, and the word “lesbian” couldn’t be openly said on camera, it’s pretty damn clear that Mrs. Danvers – in handling all of the laciest of dainties – was deeply in lust with Rebecca. Later, Mrs. Danvers will try to talk Joan Fontaine into suicide. That’s some twisted crap, ma.


Eventually, there will be crime, scandal, and Jane Eyre-like secrets. People will have tantrums, breakdowns, and George Sanders will talk blackmail. It’s a twisted crime story of manipulation, cynicism, and Byronic ennui. In short, it’s an excellent film. Never mind that it’s not bold and huge and brash. It’s heady and dizzying. It’s great.

There are so many rich interpersonal relationships. This is not a romance or a history, but a bout of delicious Gothic psychoanalysis. In giving Rebecca the Best Picture Oscar, the world was essentially declaring “Ah yes, we have a Hitchcock now. Better recognize that films are changing.” Hitchcock, incidentally, would never win a Best Director Oscar.

For the next few years, we’ll have some excellent dramas. Next week, I’ll be talking about the film that famously beat out .

Join me next week for How Green Was My Valley

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