In beginning this review, I had to double-check the date. Rebecca was seriously released in 1940? Weird. It feels later than that, like maybe 1950, give or take a couple years. The product of another ten years of the development of film as a storytelling medium, in other words. That may have been what tipped it over to victory; it’s not just emotionally compelling and visually gorgeous, it has a level of nuance and emotion in the structure of every shot and scene that one just doesn’t see in other films from that year.
What’s interesting about this movie is that it’s pretty much 100% about sex. That is, about sex in the most repressed, convention-bound, weird-ass way imaginable. Volumes have been written about the lesbian subtext between Mrs. Danvers and Rebecca, though considering our heroine starts off the movie as a “paid companion” for an older lady, that may be looking in the wrong direction.
It’s hard to read the heroine as lesbian, though, when she has instant chemistry with Max De Winter. Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier are terrific in these early scenes; as much as he’s supposed to be playing the all-England Emotional Repression champion (a competitive title, that), he has an intense energy that reads as very erotic, and Fontaine beautifully expresses how that makes her excited and nervous at once. It’s a great manifestation of a classic fantasy: the powerful, dominant older man who whisks the innocent girl off to his world of wealth and privilege. It’s not everyone’s kink, but if it’s yours, this is as good an example as you’ll find.
The main way the movie’s about sex, though, is via its eponymous villain. Rebecca De Winter is painted as a twisted emotional sadist who couldn’t even commit suicide without trying to get someone hanged in the process. She is also, in a way that’s inextricable from her portrayal as evil, painted as a huuuuge slut. The first Mrs. De Winter got around more than the crosstown bus. Her panties were easier to get into than community college. If Dick Wolf cast Dick Van Dyke as Dick Cheney in Dick: The Story Of A Dick, it would look like her day planner. She fucked around a lot, is what I’m saying. And it’s downright creepy how much the film takes for granted that that is self-evidently evil.
It’s weird to see it now, as a longtime slut myself and supporter of other sluts, that deep identification of promiscuity with evil. It’s almost a shame, as the portrait of Rebecca as a psychopath would still be fascinating if she weren’t also promiscuous, and certainly it would be possible to paint her as sleeping around but not evil. But at that time, it was absolutely taken as read. Indeed, in the original novel (this was softened slightly for the movie) Rebecca is murdered by her husband when she tells him that she’s going to have another man’s child and he’ll have to raise it as his own. This is explicitly portrayed as a form of justifiable homicide that the law would not respect; that was so obvious it didn’t even need to be explained.
The latter point is curiously resonant now, as the right-wing subculture currently imagining itself to be in the ascendancy has fetishized that emotional state to a high degree. In the current slang of the morally indefensible, Max De Winter had been made into a cucked beta provider, but rather than accept cuck status he simply murdered the woman in question, which is perfectly okay. It’s odd that the part of the film that seems the most embarrassingly outdated is the part that many Americans today find most relatable.
All of which is not to say that it isn’t a fun, compelling movie, of course. Certainly a huge improvement on Gone With The Wind. Just that one aspect of it has not only not aged well, time has rendered it nearly incomprehensible, except to certain sad subreddits.
What did this beat?
The Philadelphia Story, All This, and Heaven Too, Foreign Correspondent, The Grapes of Wrath, The Great Dictator, Kitty Foyle, The Letter, The Long Voyage Home, and Our Town.
I haven’t personally seen most of the nominees, but it’s interesting to see Chaplin’s The Great Dictator on there. I can’t help but wonder how many Academy members were reluctant to vote for it because prior to December 7, 1941, opposing Adolf Hitler was “too political”.