Oct 31, 2014

Joan Fontaine, Rebecca


Inside Oscar points out that Joan Fontaine was selected for the plum role of the second Mrs. de Winter because of her "vulnerability", and quotes a columnist as saying that if Fontaine "did not have an inferiority complex she would not be starring in Rebecca". Look up Fontaine's name and you'll find a ton of hoopla over her legendary feud with sister Olivia de Havilland--you'll read about how de Havilland allegedly bullied Fontaine when they were little (example: throwing her down and fracturing her collarbone), how Joan got Olivia's hand-me-downs, how their mother favored Olivia, how Joan wasn't allowed to use the family name for her movie career because her sister had already claimed it--and it's one of those situations where it's vividly clear that an actor's prior real-life experiences had direct influence on their work. Never before have I seen an inferiority complex used as such an asset.

There's not an ounce of Fontaine that rang untrue to me in this film. She so totally and utterly embodies this demure and sweet girl, and every line she speaks is entirely in line with this portrayal--soft, submissive, as if at any moment she could fall apart into a million pieces. There is a natural gentleness to Fontaine here, and it resonates so strongly that I, like Maxim, was completely intrigued by her. Her shy lack of self-confidence is, in a way, what makes Fontaine so radiant in this film--there are moments, like in the car with Max when she cracks a smile, where she positively glows, and the viewer can't help but be pulled in by her innocent energy. She makes you want to take her under your wing and whisk her away to a castle and just take care of her, and I think that that's evidence of Fontaine's total control and understanding of this role. Because the second Mrs. de Winter really has it rough. Just about every single character in Rebecca verbally or mentally abuses her at some point, and to watch Fontaine in the first hour and a half is like watching an exercise in testing a person's emotional limits. She is, for lack of a better word, vulnerable, in every glance, in every line delivery, in every stride. You feel for her every time someone is terrible to her, and you feel for her because she can convey such a profound sense of woundedness to complement her delicateness. Alfred Hitchcock allegedly told Joan "that none of her co-stars wanted her to play the part or liked her very much" and that in turn makes the performance, in all its terrified and pained glory, all the more real. You would suppose that one could only take so much of a shy woman shocked and welling up with tears, that it could become one-note after awhile, but I found myself captivated by Fontaine's fragility. To make a silly comparison, I like to think that Fontaine in this film is like a bruised peach--sweet, damaged, and somehow still intact. It's a committed performance, one that clearly benefits from Fontaine's own past struggles, and a completely ravishing one at that.


  1. The second Mrs. De Winter is a great character and Fontaine is the right actress for the right role, but she was able to elevate even more the material, making it a very beautiful poetic performance, probably better than the film itself.

  2. From what I can remember, she's much better than in Suspicion, but 5 seems just a bit too generous. :)

  3. Flawless performance. So hard to believe she didn't win for this.