Joan Fontaine received her first (out of three) Best Actress nomination for playing a naive young girl marrying a rich widower in the Best Picture-winning Rebecca, the masterpiece of the legendary Sir Alfred Hitchcock. Fontaine became a huge star with this performance and exactly a year later, she won an Oscar, which is considered to be a make-up prize for losing for Rebecca. Neverthless both the movie and Fontaine's performance became classic and if it wasn't for Ginger Rogers' huge popoularity, she probably would have won.
As I said Rebecca is simply a masterpiece. It's full of suspense, mystery and excitement, plus you can never take your eyes off the screen. Hitchcock was a film master that's for sure and he showed his talent at filmmaking with this movie too, even though it's not as amazing as Vertigo or Rear Window. The actors all give strong and memorable performances and three of them got their nominations. Laurence Olivier is a bit mannered in the beginning if I may say so, but in the end, he's simply amazing. Judith Anderson is the most loved of the public, even though I feel she's a bit over-the-top, but great anyhow.
And about Joan Fontaine's performance: all I can say is WOW! I read somewhere that although Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier are great in this movie, they are both overshadowed by the creepy Judith Anderson. I would like to rephrase that sentence: although Laurence Olivier and Judith Anderson are great in this movie, they are both overshadowed by the magnificent Joan Fontaine. And it's all so true: every movement, every action of Fontaine is pitch-perfect and her presence is simply magnetic.
The amazing and shocking thing about this performance is that it's not showy or baity at all. Actually, it's such a subtle and (I even dare to say) thin role, that it's almost a miracle that Fontaine got so much out of it. In my opinion in 90% of the cases, actresses playing naive young girls are destined to be weak and not impressive at all. It's so great that Fontaine belongs to that 10% (thank God for that). It's such a lovely contradiction that she is enourmously strong by being weak and inconfident. From a standard character she created a living, breathing woman, for whom you root and want to succeed.
At the beginning we can only see a shy young girl watching Laurence Olivier. We can immediately feel her attraction towards him and the chemistry between is remarkable and rarely seen in other movies. Two other performances came to my mind about Joan Fontaine in Rebecca: Ingrid Bergman in Gaslight (this is more obvious) and Audrey Hepburn in The Nun's Story. Although she doesn't seem to be a mix between them (Fontaine's movie was made way before those ones), the common thing among them is their huge impact with subtle, minimal acting. They all haunted me for a long time and the effect of them is almost indescribable.
And yet this is not the best thing about her performance as it is the amazingly and carefully worked out development of her character. First, she's just a shy young girl, serving a horrible, nosy woman and falling for Maxim de Winter. Then at Manderley, she's an even more inconfident living in a world that is unknown and strange to her. We see her as a scared little animal parted from its mother. She is unforgettable in the scene where she says that Mrs. de Winter is dead and she doesn't realize that the man on the phone wanted to talk to her. That small sentence was probably the highlight of her whole performance (for me at least, I suspect that I might be the only one) and it is the reason why I love the Best Actress reviews. And as we approach the ending, this girl becomes so confident, that she's not even afraid to fight Mrs. Danvers (the way she says "I'm Mrs. de Winter now" is chilling). It's also worth mentioning, that her romantic moments with Laurence Olivier never become corny or soappy, they remain credible and of course full of tension.
Joan Fontaine's acting in this movie is so progressive, in my opinion way ahead of her time. Back in the 1940s it was all about drama queens and zany comedies, but Fontaine created something new, which effected the later film acting. I just cannot imagine other actresses in this kind of roles being that good, if it wasn't for the inspiration of Fontaine. I know that this is debatable and naturally it's just my opinion.
Her huge screentime is also an important factor of her whole performance. With that much time, she had the opportunity to go this deep into her character, though I must say that towards the end it's more about Laurence Olivier. We can agree that Fontaine's performance is the main reason why this movie is so great. She holds it together with her charm, beauty and immense talent and also, I don't really think that anyone could have played this character this well with such credibility. Fontaine definitely deserves the huge amount of love she gets for this performance. Personally, I even liked her in Suspicion. But that's a different story. Viva Joan!
Comments, opinions, predictions anyone? To watch Rebecca click here.