It seems almost implausible to imagine, but 1940 was the year American audiences discovered and were introduced to the talent of the now legendary Alfred Hitchcock. Rebecca was Hitchcock’s first American movie, adapted from Daphne du Maurier’s classic novel of the same name. The film is a haunting tale of secrecy and deceit involving a newlywed couple. The nameless female, who is only known as Mrs. DeWinter (Joan Fontaine), marries a wealthy socialite, Maxim DeWinter (Lawrence Olivier), who seemingly has a mysterious background. All Mrs. DeWinter is aware of is Maxim’s former wife, whom he was supposedly madly in love with, died in a drowning one year prior. Upon arriving at his estate, Mandereley, Mrs. DeWinter finds herself wrestling with the memory of Rebecca, paranoid she will not live up to the image his former wife had for Maxim. Furthermore, the estate’s head maid, Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson) begins to mentally torture Mrs. DeWinter, fueling her insecurities by insinuating repeatedly that she will never be as beloved as Rebecca once was.
It can be argued Judith Anderson was the first to introduce the sociopath villain into cinema with her turn as Mrs. Danvers. She is profoundly unique in her performance in that her face and demeanor remain composed, yet her posture and facial expression are that of someone who utterly detests the film’s heroine. Yet Anderson conveys Mrs. Danvers’ words carefully and constructs them in a manner that suggests the character truly believes what she is doing is the correct path. Her advice, her motivations stem from, what she believes to be, good intentions. However, Anderson does allow for the character to shift her demeanor to a psychopathic attitude by the film’s climax, which threatens the lives of the characters.
Anderson’s loss could be chalked down to steeper competition or the Academy Awards not wanting to give an Oscar for a villainous performance in the first years the supporting acting categories were introduced to the Oscars. Regardless of why she lost, Anderson’s performance is one of the most iconic throughout the films Hitchcock made in his career. Anderson set the standard for how a villain ought to be represented without it being obvious and maniacal. Furthermore, Anderson’s acting in this movie continues to be used as a foundation for acting and the demeanor she established for Mrs. Danvers is still an inspiration to actors to this day (i.e. Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men).
Lost to: Jane Darwell for The Grapes of Wrath (1940)