It’s a classic. But have you seen it lately, and does it hold up?
Why are we asking?
Well, for one thing, the 1940 Alfred Hitchcock Gothic romance, which won a best picture Oscar, has been remade and updated in a new Netflix version starring Armie Hammer, Lily James and Kristin Scott Thomas.
Will the updated Rebecca turn out to be just another ho-hum contemporary remake, paling in comparison with the far more potent original? The first indications don’t look good. But first, some back round on the Hitchcock original, which, as is the update, is based on the Daphne du Maurier novel.
— It was definitely not one of Hitchcock’s favorites of his films. He clashed repeatedly with producer David O. Selznick, an infamous meddler, and believed the Rebecca screenplay was unnecessarily somber and humorless.
— Interestingly, Hitchcock was not wild about Laurence Olivier in the principal role of Maxim De Winter although the great British actor is powerful onscreen as the wealthy widower madly in love with the young, vulnerable protagonist, played well by Joan Fontaine (who was nominated for a best actress Oscar for the role). Hitchcock and Olivier just didn’t get on well offscreen.
— As he told French film director Francois Truffaut, Rebecca is just not a Hitchcock picture.
Still, the original packs a punch as the increasingly assertive Fontaine pushes back against creepy housekeeper Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson), pictured left below. Kristin Thomas masters the part (below right) in the remake.
As Wall Street Journal critic Joe Morgenstern writes, And what was once, in the days of the restrictive Motion Picture Production Code, a delicately implied lesbian relationship between Rebecca and (Mrs. Danvers) is now clearly stated in the remake.
For all its glitz — the color photography, the Monte Carlo setting, the gleaming Bentley convertible replacing De Winter’s MG roadster — the Netflix remake is flawed. Says Morgenstern, it’s hard put to imagine how unlovable the Netflix version would be, and how it would handle, or, rather, mishandle the essential element of feminism that was implicit in the original.
As is beautifully caught in the original, Fontaine confronts the nattering Mrs. Danvers, who feeds Maxim’s destructive obsession with his late wife, the title character.
I’m Mrs. De Winter now!, the heroine declares.
In short, savor the original.