Why I Love Rebecca (and My Daughter Didn't)
By Anmiryam Budner, BMFI Board Member
[Please note that this contains spoilers.]
“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”
I first heard that oh-so-famous line in 1977 sitting in the Regency Theater on Broadway between 67th and 68th streets in NYC. I was fifteen years old and had already sat through Gaslight, the first film on the double feature bill. I have never been sorry that I took those four hours to sit in the dark and watch these classics about young women facing danger, physical and psychological. And, while I still love Gaslight, it is Rebecca that enveloped me then and continues to fascinate me to this day.
My boss, who had alerted me to the program, later admitted that she sent me off to the theater knowing that I would completely and utterly identify with the second Mrs. de Winter as played by Joan Fontaine. Despite a courageous start, shouting to prevent Maxim de Winter’s presumed suicide on cliffs in the south of France, she is almost immediately revealed to be young, gauche, poor, utterly insecure, and nameless. She bites her lips, bites her fingernails—rather, Joan Fontaine gamely pretends to bite them since it’s clear that her manicured movie star fingernails had not been subject to nervous gnawing until the moment called for in the script—knocks vases over and gratefully obeys when Maxim tells her to eat up her lunch. At fifteen I yearned for romantic attachment, while also craved relief from the demands of encroaching adult responsibilities. That a handsome, brooding, rich, and English older man would notice me, like me, and, in an impulsive moment, whisk me away from the cares of a subservient existence—in my case the mundane woes of making it through high school as an unattractive bookish teenager—this was a mythic tale near and dear to my heart.
|The unnamed second Mrs. de Winter looks around the deceased Rebecca's bedroom, preserved intact.|
Of course, unlike so many classic romances, marriage is not the end of Rebecca, but only the first act. The real heart of the movie only begins to unfold when the newlywed odd couple arrives back at Manderley. No mere house, but a menacing castle with a large staff, unused wings, and a routine established by the first Mrs. de Winter, the dead—but ever present—Rebecca. And, let’s not forget Mrs. Danvers, perhaps one of the most frightening figures ever seen on a movie screen. Judith Anderson’s strong, plain face with its beaky, jutting nose, framed by a wreath of black braids so tightly wound they must have hurt, and those hands, always folded, clutching each other, lest she explode… I still shudder every time she appears on screen.
I rooted for Joan Fontaine as she adapted to this overwhelming environment and winced at each of her missteps. I tensed when it appeared that Rebecca and Mrs. Danvers would destroy Maxim and his young bride. I sighed in relief when, despite the loss of Manderley, the movie ended with a promise of happiness with the unnamed second Mrs. de Winter’s emergence from the cocoon of adolescence into adult partnership and the elimination of Maxim’s guilty secret. Though, like Maxim, I mourned the loss of innocence that was necessary to their building a more adult relationship. I wasn’t ready to grow up and so I wasn’t ready for the character to do so either.
Over the decades I approached repeat viewings of Rebecca without questioning my easy adoration. In fact it held a place in my pantheon as a piece of art that allowed me to recapture the glorious loss of self that is so difficult to find in anything—books, movies, music—after childhood. I moved on through college, graduate school, career building, and parenting. Through it all, Rebecca remained visual comfort food. VHS and DVDs made it easy for me to return to Manderley again and again; to relive the sensation of being rescued, threatened, and then finding true safety. It wasn’t until I attempted to watch the film with my then-eleven-year-old daughter that I began to peel back the layers of complicated pastry that supported the strudel I was downing with relish.
I approached the moment with high expectations. We had watched a number of classic films by this point and she had also evinced a taste for romantic comedy that led me to think Rebecca would be a hit with her. Therefore, I was shocked when, fairly early in the movie, soon after the action shifted to Manderley, my daughter paused the disc and announced, “I don’t like it. She’s such a wimp. Why doesn’t she stand up for herself?”
She liked her heroines to be heroic, or at least not scared of their own shadows. The girl on the screen was lacking in everything to which she aspired: she wasn’t confident, she didn’t speak her mind. In short, she was contemptible. “Just wait,” I said. “She gets better by the end. Really, you’ll love it,” I promised. Then I begged, but she was stubborn.
I think it we ended up re-watching one of the Harry Potters. Sigh.
I was crushed that my child, my wonderful, glorious child, didn’t immediately fall under the spell of this great movie I loved so much. What had I done wrong?
Eventually I pulled back from my bitter disappointment and understood that I had done nothing wrong. In fact, her reaction was a good thing. Really, did I want my child to suffer from the same insecurities that had plagued me? Of course not. On the contrary, I was relieved to discover that she was stronger and less afraid of the world than I had been at the same age.
|The second Mrs. de Winter can only be a true partner to Maxim (Laurence Olivier) after she learns the truth about Rebecca.|
Okay, that’s good. I even admitted to myself that she had a point. You pity the second Mrs. de Winter, but you also want to smack her. Why doesn’t she insist that Maxim offer a tour of his castle or confront him about his feelings for his first wife? Wouldn’t any sane person insist on firing Mrs. Danvers after taking one look at her? Did this different way of interpreting the main character mean I couldn’t love this movie anymore?
No, I still loved it, and I was surprised to discover that in looking at it without resorting to the primal response pathways I had laid down in my youth, that other meanings coexisted with my original interpretation without negating it. For one thing, it’s a morally unsettling story. Rebecca’s death is ruled a suicide, but we know Maxim is in fact guilty of killing her and hiding her body. True, she probably intended him to kill her, but does that excuse him?
|Claustrophobic close ups intensify our discomfort at Mrs. Danver's attempts to intimidate and destroy the second Mrs. de Winter.|
Above all, I started to develop an inkling of the true genius of Hitchcock’s direction. He used all of the tools he had—editing, mise-en-scène, lighting, and music—to produce an atmosphere of menace that permeates the entire film. He heightens psychological tension through the use of close ups, nestling actors so tightly together that it makes me as a viewer feel that the vast spaces of Manderley are overwhelmed by the claustrophobia of sexual tension and jealousy that are poisoning the household. He even manages to hint that Mrs. Danver’s obsession is fueled by repressed lesbianism without, needless to say, ever stepping past the allowable conventions of the time.
Even if you’ve seen it before, go again on Tuesday, July 24. Andrew Douglas, who knows way more about this film than I do, will help you to discover something new.
Anmiryam Budner, a life-long film addict, is a BMFI Board member and Bryn Mawr resident. In addition to sitting in the dark watching movies she is also an avid reader, knitter, and aspiring writer.