Judith Anderson in Rebecca (1940) - Supporting Actress Sundays

When Nathaniel asked my input on the stock character categories of supporting actressness, it spoke to my moviegeek soul. (Some of y'all -- you know who you are -- make lists. Me? I make categories. And subcategories. And subsubcategories.) The top five subcategories of Supporting Actressness are clear enough (the helpmeets, the moms, the little miss sunshines, the mouthy dames, the pretty ones), but my most treasured favorites are in the realm of the subsub. One such subsubcategory is the "The Train Wreck," or the lady who's just falling apart before your very eyes (think Ronee Blakley or Valentina Cortese or the upcoming Peggy Lee). But perhaps my most favorite is "Pure Evil," or the woman who exists to terrorize in any number of ways the main protagonist. This category includes the classic turns of Piper Laurie, Ruth Gordon, Patty McCormack and -- the big scary grandmomma of them all -- the indelible work of...

...Judith Anderson in Rebecca (1940).
approximately 18 minutes and 19 seconds
16 scenes

roughly 14% of film's total running time

Judith Anderson plays Mrs. Danvers, the obsessively devoted housekeeper to Mrs. DeWinter, the "first" lady of Manderlay.

The main problem, though, is that the Mrs. DeWinter -- Rebecca of the film's title -- to whom Anderson's Mrs. Danvers remains so dutifully, lovingly devoted? Well, she's dead. Real dead. Bottom of the ocean dead. And now there's a new Mrs. DeWinter (Joan Fontaine in a brilliant, sturdy wisp of a performance) on the scene. Mrs. Danvers, as might be expected, does not approve.

The arrival of this 2nd Mrs. DeWinter to Manderlay puts Anderson's Mrs. Danvers on the horns of a dilemma. Whatever is Mrs. Danvers to do with this pale, pathetic replacement for the glorious Rebecca? Subsequently, Anderson's portrayal becomes a delicious portrait of malevolent mentorship, as the housekeeper experiments with different strategies to solve the problem posed by the 2nd Mrs. DeWinter.

First, Mrs. Danvers attempts to mold the 2nd Mrs. DeWinter in the fashion of Rebecca, trying training her to do things as Rebecca did.

Then, when that doesn't work, Mrs. Danvers tries to seduce the 2nd Mrs. DeWinter into sharing her delight in Rebecca's luxuriant charms by welcoming the woman into the dead woman's boudoir.

But when the 2nd Mrs. DeWinter repudiates Mrs. Danvers's devotion by ordering the removal of Rebecca's things, Anderson's Danvers resorts to sabotage, creating an evening gown situation that she knows will turn out disastrously for the new woman. Then, after the 2nd Mrs. DeWinter confronts Danvers about the cruelty of her trick, Anderson's Danvers moves in for -- literally -- the kill. In measured, powerful tones, Anderson's Danvers endeavors to eliminate the 2nd Mrs. DeWinter, methodically stripping the 2nd Mrs. DeWinter of the little self-esteem she has as Danvers nudges, pokes, and prods the woman to jump to her death.

Alas, none of Mrs. Danvers's plans work. Even worse, not only does the 2nd Mrs. DeWinter survive, but the mystery around Rebecca's death expands, thus threatening in new ways the memory of Rebecca that Mrs. Danvers has constructed and for which she lives.

In this way, the film constructs Mrs. Danvers's arc along two parts. First, it's Mrs. Danvers as malevolent mentor seeking to shape, control or destroy the "problem" of the 2nd Mrs. DeWinter. Next, Mrs. Danvers slips a little into irrelevance as the mystique around Rebecca's untimely demise transforms into an actual murder mystery, the reality of which threatens the elaborate mausoleum of memory that Danvers has erected for Rebecca.

Hitchcock and Anderson make great hay with Danvers during the character's first arc. They both have great fun with key lights, tightly focused to land upon Anderson's formidable nose and brow, allowing for much creepy eye twitches and bulges. (This trick receives brilliant comic homage in the cinematic construction of Morticia Adams by Anjelica Huston and Barry Sonnenfeld in the Addams Family movies of the early 1990s.)

But Danver's second arc makes less sense. As Danvers's fantasy of her beloved Rebecca is challenged and confused by reality, the character's descent to madness makes sense mostly for the vestigial nuttiness of the first scenes. It's unfortunate, as Mrs. Danvers is one of the most palpably creepy loonys created on film, that her character is more presence than person in the crucial later scenes.

That said, Mrs. Danvers has one of the truly gorgeous and terrifying deaths in cinema. A death that, every time, makes me giggle with delight and quaver in fear. My favorite combo, really -- and a big part why I love the "Pure Evil" Supporting Actressness so much.

For that, on this Halloween morn, I offer tribute to Judith Anderson -- among the most enduringly terrifying supporting actress nominations ever.


To Dos Day

___ Item 1: CHECK OUT...
...The Supporting Actress Stock Shortage, Nathaniel's totally nifty work up of this year's Supporting Actress category on The Film Experience. StinkyLulu was pleased to contribute to the list of categories (StinkyLulu's got at least 10 categories, but Nathaniel distilled it to the biggies). It's a great post, not to be missed!

...para Dia de los Muertos, perhaps the most poignant jubilance of the year. The Stinkys'll be placing an ofrenda for MrStinky's Brother, Carlitos, and PapaStinky here. (And check out the tres tres Hollywood Mel Blanc ofrenda noted by FagYerIt. ) Blessings para todos...

...quit your day job, hire an assistant, but do what's necessary to make room for the many upcoming blogathons, including the Bob Fosse Blogathon on November 10th and The Queer Film Blogathon on November 19th...

___ Item 4: DIDJA HEAR...
...about the new gay clone? (via Towleroad and The Stranger)

___ Item 5: HINT-HINT...
...Did you catch the clue for November's Supporting Actress Sundays? Criticlasm decoded it last week but, for those of you who missed it, we'll be transporting to 1955 starting this Sunday...

___ Item 6: SAVE THE DATE...
...for the 2nd Annual Supporting Actress Blogathon on January 6, 2008. I'll be making the formal announcement next week, but I'm working on the "Class of 2007" Poster (ala last year's) in which I feature 18 contenders for the Supporting Actress trophy. I've got eight candidates tagged, but I need ten more. That's where you come in, lovely reader. Who do you think is in this year's running? Add your favorites to the list in comments. And, in the meantime, start plotting your blogathon entry/ies today...

Have at it, lovelies...


Supporting Actress Smackdown - 1940

The Year is...

And the Smackdowners for the 13th Annual Academy Awards are...

BRAD of Criticlasm/FagYerIt
KEN of Canadian Ken
KEITH of In Which Our Hero
Birthday Boy
NICK of Nick's Pick Flicks
yours truly, STINKYLULU.

1940's Supporting Actresses are...
(Each Smackdowner's comments are arranged according to ascending levels of love. Click on the nominee's name/film to see StinkyLulu's Supporting Actress Sunday review.)

Judith Anderson in Rebecca
KEN Hitchcock did unearth Joan Fontaine’s inner star, gently luminous here. But this plush Harlequinade’s short on subtlety. Especially in Anderson’s celebrated but preposterous take on Mrs. Danvers, equal parts ice-house and madhouse from the get-go. And VERY heavy lifting. I prefer to remember her marvelous work in Laura – shrewd, sad , vivid. Art looking effortless.
KEITH She's as creepy and menacing as you'd want your horror-movie monster to be, and her utter lack of vanity is admirable, but all of her hard work can't overcome the fact that Mrs. Danvers is a cardboard cutout, a two-dimensional Evil Lesbian. Her obsession is scary, but it's never quite human.
STINKYLULU Anderson’s mannered mystery delivers piles of ominous creepiness, and her glowering intimacy remains peculiarly terrifying. But for every moment that Anderson pitches perfectly, there’s another she lobs discordantly. Ultimately, a presence more than a person.
BRAD So over the top it almost manages to topple the film. I loved it, and I think it may be the most interesting thing in the movie. I say “thing,” because she's almost beyond humanity, moving into pure urge. Not sure it's right, but it sure is fascinating.
NICK Possibly the most vivid supporting performance in any Hitchcock film, and a delicious mix of lip-smacking villainy and fascinating impenetrability. She's had countless imitators but no one has ever come close to matching her.
MATT A gothic archetype – the quintessential sinister housekeeper – brought to zombified life through piercingly effective underplaying. My favorite scene: the bedchamber sequence, in which Anderson shifts ever-so-delicately from imperiousness to intimacy, from oddness to obsession, culminating in calm dementia. Bonus points for the wart!
MATT Various production elements – lugubrious music, self-righteous dialogue – threaten to mire Darwell into sentimentality, but she deftly swerves from most of Wrath’s miasmic traps by infusing Ma Joad with lightness and charm, and handles her final speech with offhand conviction. A respectable performance.
Darwell doesn't always survive the dripping sentiment of Steinbeck's most overwrought speeches – what actress could? – but her performance is the heart of the movie. Ma Joad's boundless optimism and dignity could become wearying, as saints often do, but Darwell humanizes her with perfectly timed glimpses of the imp within.
NICK Darwell's bassett-hound face sometimes screams for easy sympathy even when her performance doesn't, but her solidity and integrity spring from much more than her face and her frame. Her best moment is the offhand way in which she tells Henry Fonda about a relative's death inside the wagon.
BRAD The way she looks at Henry Fonda when they are dancing tells you everything you need to know. She gives him the reason to return and something to leave when he does. Her best work is in all she doesn't say; it's brilliant and heartbreaking.
STINKYLULU Darwell quietly, assuredly nails everything the script asks her to do (including that awful final speech) even as she adds surprising bits and bobs (humor, detail, subtext) that deepen and complicate – but never distract from – the role. A master class of actressing at the edges.
KEN Attempting to assess this magnificent performance seems presumptuous. Like reviewing the sun or the moon. There’s extraordinary emotion in Darwell’s eyes, heartbreaking and comforting all at once. She communicates a lifetime of joys and regrets just sifting through bric-a-brac. And Darwell’s voice matches the eloquence of her face. A compassionate, elemental achievement.
STINKYLULU A glib wiseacre where a crackling firecracker might have been. Hussey’s swift, sardonic grin of a performance conceals the character a little too well. Mostly merely good, never actually great.
Seems like a little sister sent to do a big sister's job. I kept wanting Eve Arden or Rosalind Russell to stand up to the other three tigers. The role just didn't feel as perfectly pitched as the rest of the players. It could perhaps be read as vulnerability, but it felt like a lack of presence.
KEITH The sharp-tongued wisecracker can be a terrific showcase for an actress, but it's hard to stand out when everyone in the movie is a sharp-tongued wisecracker. Hussey's up against three Hollywood legends who flood the screen with charm and charisma, and she simply doesn't hold attention.
KEN Navigates smoothly through the massive movie star gargoyles parading around her (Hepburn – insolent and haughty, Grant – clipped and condescending, Stewart, accusatory and irritable); Hussey’s a beacon of likeability. The character’s all laid-back asides – Eve Arden without the exclamation marks. But real – and infinitely better company than the show-offs in the center ring.
MATT As the smart-aleck photographer with an unrequited yen for her co-worker, the likable Hussey evokes Rosalind Russell’s sang-froid and adds an unexpected dollop of melancholia, but suffers two handicaps: a dearth of adequate snappers from the meant-to-be-scintillating script, and playing opposite a squawkingly obnoxious James Stewart.
NICK The character's wisecracks are so funny and shrewd that Hussey occasionally just tosses them out instead of shaping them as fully she might. Still, her crystal-clear fusion of intelligence, humor, and warmth is preciously rare even in Hollywood classics, and her understated confession on the stairs to Cary Grant only underlines what a tight, patient grip she's got on her own feelings.
MATT As the jealous, vindictive Duchesse, O’Neil opts for eye-popping, mouth-twitching nefariousness, instead of a fully-dimensioned character study with remnants of passion and tenderness in the early scenes. Her performance, a catalogue of old-movie melodramatics, is so villainous that I’m surprised she didn’t twiddle a mustache.
STINKYLULU The Duchesse is an early cinematic iteration of the “I will not be ignored” brand of hysteric horror and O’Neil’s keening, eye-bugging performance offers a couple true hoots – but little that feels actually “true.”
BRAD Melodrama Fun with Accents. The part doesn't call for much but slight pitches in insanity, which she does well. Capable, operatic performance, but nothing that makes me empathize with her self-involved pain.
KEN The character’s basically a massive inconvenience. Selfish, needy, embarrassing – a messy puddle of who-knows-what that won’t go away. Maybe charisma would’ve been inappropriate. After all, Davis (incising each line with a filigreed cookie-cutter) can supply that. O’Neil’s overstuffed, over-ripe tomato of a performance works well enough. Can’t fault it. Can’t love it.
NICK I just love watching O'Neil swoop through this movie in her huge costumes and raven hair, giving Bette Davis not a creaky narrative foil to play against but the Maleficent-scale adversary she's always deserved. True, she hews a little too often to the same pitch and volume, but her neurosis and vituperation and even her guilt and loneliness are fascinating.
KEITH The temptation in melodrama is to be too big and broad, but O'Neil knows exactly where the boundaries are; this is a gleefully over-the-top performance, giddy in its flamboyance without ever losing touch with the emotional reality of the movie. Sharp comic timing, a magnificently expressive face, and beautiful physical choices – it's wildly entertaining.
NICK How many babies did Rambeau kiss to score two nominations for such adequate but unexceptional performances in such throwaway films? She's not nearly as forceful here as she is as a spiteful waterfront hussy in Min and Bell (before the supporting category existed), but she has the smarts to underline the warmth and good intentions of her blowzy, misguided character.
BRAD The only focused performance in this mess of a movie. She creates a woman who does what she has to, and also figures out a way to enjoy it. It's the most interesting role, and I wish there was more to it. (It'd been better if the grandmother had been shot.)
KEITH By far the most interesting performance in an otherwise forgettable movie. Rambeau's high spirits make the bleakness of the Adams home almost tolerable; she's particularly fine in the pre-date porch scene with Rogers. Her deathbed scene is a touch hammy, to be sure, but it is nevertheless quite moving.
STINKYLULU Through sheer force of willful charisma, Rambeau adeptly transcends being miscast in this obtuse script and invests the flighty and superficial role with a palpable warmth. Though she cannot redeem the film, Rambeau does provide its only emotional mooring.
MATT Rambeau conveys complex emotions, creates specific relationships with her fellow actors, and scrapes the sentimentality off the role most other actresses would’ve larded on. The result: a startlingly modern, smartly conceived performance that still feels honest, fresh, and real—even when she’s victimized by an implausible plot turn. Superb.
A warm, generous performance. Combines aging floozydom and mother-love far more subtly than, say, Stanwyck’s over-rated Stella Dallas. Rogers is top-billed but the real gold comes from the other females in her ramshackle household – Grandma Queenie Vassar (authentically hard-boiled), gifted tot Joan Carroll and – presiding benignly – Rambeau’s blowsy nurturer.
TOTAL: 20s

Oscar chose...
Jane Darwell in The Grapes of Wrath!
And, whaddayaknow, the SMACKDOWN has to agree:
So, lovely reader, what do YOU think?