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.


RBurton said...

This is a great Supporting Actress choice for Halloween. Unless you're Linda Blair or Piper Laurie in Carrie, it doesn't get much spookier.

criticlasm said...

It's hard to believe she's only on screen for 18 minutes. It really makes the film....

StinkyLulu said...

Yeah, she's basically all completely absent in the first third of the film, really central in the second, and of glancing important in the last.

'Tis what I love about Supporting Actress...

Matt said...

I'm late to the party here, but I was compelled to post my appreciation for this terrific performance. Judith Anderson's construction of Mrs. Danvers' persona is so strong that it maintains its spookiness even when George Sanders hilariously refers to her as "the missing link" and jovially calls her "Danny." I also love how she maneuvers the character so that, at one point, you think she's finally on Joan Fontaine's side when proposing an idea for the costume ball (she's almost friendly at that point), when she's really paving the way for one of the biggest "wardrobe malfunctions" in the history of movies.

For me, the real mystery of "Rebecca" is not what happened to the first Mrs. De Winter, but if the second Mrs. De Winter will be able to fit in at Manderley and make it her own. Anderson's performance makes this issue all the more compelling.

Sacha Hilton said...

Miss Danvers is THE PURE EVIL BITCH.