Welcome to Screen Gems, our weekend dive into queer and queer-adjacent titles of the past that deserve a watch or a re-watch.
The Creeper: Rebecca
Leave it to Alfred Hitchcock to make a movie about newlywed bliss turned into homoerotic paranoia. And leave it to Mr. Hitchock to leave us feeling conflicted about a queer character both awesome and awful. Rebecca tells the story of Mrs. de Winter (Joan Fontaine at her best), the new bride of the dashing widower Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier). What should be a fairytale life for Mrs. de Winter turns dark when she arrives at her new home, a gothic mansion overseen by the spinsterly housekeeper Mrs. Danvers (Dame Judith Anderson, in her best screen performance). Danvers obsesses over Rebecca, Maxim’s dead wife, keeping her room like a weird museum and fawning over her every memory. Maxim also seems to obsess over the dead Rebecca, and Mrs. Danvers begins to coach Mrs. de Winter to dress and behave like the dead woman. As Maxim becomes more melancholic at the memory of his wife, Mrs. de Winter becomes more and more distraught, and Mrs. Danvers becomes more and more aggressive.
Just who is in love with who here? Audiences in 1940–the astute viewers anyway–picked up on the coding of Mrs. Danvers as a lesbian, deeply in love and obsessed with Rebecca. One key scene has her fawning over Rebecca’s underwear, talking about how she could see through it. That, folks, was very racy for the 1940s.
Rebecca is one of Hitchcock’s greatest achievements–the film won the Best Picture Oscar, while Hitchcock, Olivier, Fontaine, and Anderson all scored nominations. Viewed today, like much of Hitchock’s work, the film cuts both ways when it comes to the treatment of queer characters. On the one hand, the film presents Mrs. Danvers as a bloodthirsty obsessive. On the other hand, at a time when virtually no LGBTQ characters could appear in movies at all, Rebecca weaves around the censorship of the day to offer a coded, complex, very memorable gay character.
Is that a slight, a win, or both? Opinions on Rebecca, as with Hitchock’s other films such as Rope and Psycho will vary from viewer to viewer. That said, we do offer this observation: Alfred Hitchcock never made a film because he loved a hero. Rather, the appeal for him always lay in a story’s villain, and in relishing their nefarious plots. In other words, Mrs. Danvers is the real star of Rebecca, the character Hitchock loved the most, and his reason for making the movie in the first place. We also don’t think that came from some abiding homophobia the late Hitch harbored, either. It came from his love of all things naughty.
Viewed 80 years on, Rebecca still ranks as one of Hitchcock’s best movies, and one of the great suspense thrillers. Give it a watch, fall in love with its twisted story, and judge its treatment of its gay lead for yourself. Love it or hate it, you’ll not soon forget Mrs. Danvers.
Streams on YouTube.