What I like most about Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rebecca” (Selznick International, 1940) are the performances by the half dozen character actors in the smaller roles. Pauline Kael complained that it was one of Laurence Olivier’s rare bad performances; I think he’s actually better than he was in a lot of his other pictures (he’s best in “Henry V” and “Richard III”). He doesn’t have much to work with as Maxim de Winter, but he looks good and sounds right — he’s just not terribly interesting. Joan Fontaine plays awkwardness quite well, but she can’t resist the urge to telegraph emotions as a sort of semaphore (e.g., Quizzical Look 6(a): raise left eyebrow, cast eyes downward, count one, then cock head) — once you crack her simple code, she’s rather touching. Later on in her career, she hardened up and was no fun to watch, except as an object of ridicule: her by-the-numbers acting made the Method seem a breath of fresh air, when it came along about a decade later.
Judith Anderson’s sepulchral housekeeper, Mrs Danvers, is the character most people remember, and with good reason. I doubt Miss Anderson ever was better suited to a role, but I find that the character practically plays itself: it’s to Anderson’s credit that she stays out of the way, neither over-emphasizing Mrs Danvers’ creepiness nor commenting on her apparent lesbianism and necrophilia. She plays her as a blank, with her cards close to her chest, as it were. In those scenes where she tips her hand and we see her malevolence, her words betray her cruelty, not Anderson’s performance.
Florence Bates, in the small, but important role of Edythe Van Hopper, gives a truly great performance. The dreadful Mrs Van Hopper is a cartoon of the selfish, overfed society matron who treats her servants badly and fawns on her social betters. It takes great skill to play this sort of character. Mrs Van Hopper is hateful in every conceivable way: she’s suspicious, venomous, gluttonous, dishonest, vain, bad-tempered, and perhaps worst of all, a cracking bore. Yet her nastiness must do more than merely appall us: it must also make us laugh. She must horrify us, but we shouldn’t be anxious to be rid of her before she has served her purpose in the story’s clockwork. We must enjoy hating her. Florence Bates has no equal when it comes to this sort of battleaxe. Her trick is always to be as imaginative as possible. She’s never a generalized harridan: she’s always specific. Look at her in this scene:
It helps that the scene is so cleverly written, but a lesser actress would miss the hints of humanity in the old gorgon’s reactions to the coldness of Maxim de Winter’s replies to her maddening chatter and especially to his abrupt retreat. At the end of the scene, when she scolds Fontaine (“By the way, my dear, don’t think that I mean to be unkind, but you were just a teeny-weenie bit forward with Mr de Winter: Your effort to enter the conversation quite embarrassed me, as I’m sure it did him”), it is obvious that Mrs Van Hopper is in the process of shifting the blame from herself to her innocent, pretty, young paid companion. It’s a nasty thing to do, but Mrs Van Hopper is wretched and lonely and though she is wealthy, she knows the world has passed her by. I’m particularly taken with the way Bates phrases the line: she begins in her lower register and rattles off the first several words — the preface — as quickly as possible. Then she draws a breath, fixes Fontaine with a “sneer of cold command” and draws out “teeny-weenie” while shaking her wattles imperiously. This is no accident: Bates knows exactly what she’s doing. Those wattles remind us of the dragon’s beefiness and age, and by lingering over “teeny-weenie,” she makes her rebuke more intolerable, because it suggests that she feels she must use baby-talk vocabulary to ensure her companion will understand the criticism. Moreover, her mid-sentence change of tempo adds variety and renews our interest in what the old bitch has to say. This is the sort of attention to detail that makes Florence Bates so funny and infuriating in battleaxe roles.
Here are two other shorter examples of Florence Bates in full sail. Notice in both clips how clever she is about changing tempo and vocal register. When she goes into her head voice — like an elderly opera singer — she’s particularly peremptory and exasperating. All Bates lets you know in advance is that Edythe Van Hopper is going to be extremely unpleasant, but she keeps you guessing about how she’ll do it. You can never predict what new angle she’ll swoop in from.
Again, the writing gives her a lot to work with, but the point is she brings the good material fully to life. Also, as hateful as the old bitch is, she doesn’t know she’s hateful. It’s clear that she believes she’s a charming woman of the world: she describes the de Winters as old friends, but in the earlier clip, we know he endures the garrulous old parlor snake only to be close to her young companion — and even then, he lasts only a minute before the barrage of her loquacity drives him off. The self-delusion that runs through her performance grounds the character in reality; it doesn’t make her any less abominable, but it does arouse a little pity.
Her putting out her cigarette in the cold cream is in the book. It’s one of the few details about the novel that stayed with me. It’s wonderfully vivid. You can practically extrapolate the rest of Mrs Van Hopper’s character from that one piece of damning evidence.
Also in a small role is the legendary former beauty, Gladys Cooper, who would go on to play a succession of imperious old cats herself. In “Rebecca,” she plays the no-nonsense, but kindly sister of Maxim de Winter, Beatrice Lacy. She had nothing like the imagination and resourcefulness of Florence Bates, but she had style and authority. This was her first Hollywood picture. Miss Cooper knew when Hitchcock cast her in the part that she was no longer a young woman, but she was horrified by her appearance on film, completely unprepared for how she looked. It must be said that neither Hitch nor his director of photography, the great George Barnes, did anything to light her in a flattering way. She was, after all, in a small role and served an almost entirely expository function. Yet she does well with the little bit of humor that she is given to do. She has a nice exchange with Robert, the footman, who serves luncheon, while helping herself and never once looking in his direction.
Beatrice: How are you, Robert?
Robert: Quite well, thank you, madam.
Beatrice: Still having trouble with your teeth?
Robert: Unfortunately yes, madam.
Beatrice: You should have them out. All of them. Wretched nuisances, teeth.
Robert: Yes, madam. (She finishes helping herself and he moves off.)
Beatrice: Ooh, what a plateful.
Nigel Bruce is also along (as Cooper’s husband, Major Giles Lacy), harrumphing and doing his bumptious, befuddled country squire bit. Hitchcock allows him to be a bit broader than is really necessary or advisable, but it’s hard to dislike him. Like Cooper, he’s there mostly for purposes of exposition, which generally come in the form of his putting his foot in his mouth, usually after he has just stepped into another cow-pie. He gets the job done, though not with much wit or imagination.
And then there is the incomparable professional cad, George Sanders, who gives the most George Sandersesque performance of them all. If the word insouciant had not existed before Sanders grew to manhood, it would have to have been invented to describe his droll presence and deft handling of a witty line. His range was extremely limited; he’s ill-served in serious roles, but he plays suave bounders with as much authority and imagination as Florence Bates plays bejeweled scolds. Everything Sanders does, including the way he eats a chicken leg, is hilarious. He has one of the most mellifluous bass baritone voices in pictures. (At one point, he was invited to play the Ezio Pinza role in the National Tour of “South Pacific,” but he backed out at the last minute. What a shame. He played the romantic foil to Ethel Merman in the movie version of “Call Me Madam,” and sang beautifully. A friend asked me to describe his sound. After some thought, I answered, “Ezio Pinza without the garlic.”)
In “Rebecca,” Sanders is not only a cad, but a blackmailer as well, and he’s unbelievably funny every second he’s onscreen.