My current Top 5

My current Top 5


Best Actress 1940: Joan Fontaine in "Rebecca"

Before 1940, Joan Fontaine was mostly known as the younger sister of Olivia de Havilland but she was able to outdo a lot of well-known actresses – including her older sister – for the part of the shy, young and inexperienced bride of Maxim de Winter, the owner of a wonderful country house called Manderlay in Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece Rebecca.

Joan Fontaine’s character is not Maxim’s first wife, but his second. The first Mrs. de Winter is never shown – she drowned in the sea after her boat overturned. But her presence is everywhere. Even after her death, she is still felt at every moment in every room of the house. Her things are still used, her name ‘Rebecca’ is mentioned constantly. Everyone describes her as a woman of tremendous beauty, style, wit, grace and charm. She was worshipped by everyone who knew her and it seems sure that Maxim de Winter will never be able to get over her death.

Joan Fontaine as the second Mrs. de Winter pales in comparison – she is shy, unsure of everything and completely lost in her new life as the landlady of Manderly. She doesn’t possess any of the qualities of Rebecca – beauty, style, grace, a talent for socializing and all the other things that made her so unforgettable. As Mrs. Denvers, her devoted housekeeper says: “She knew everyone that mattered. Everyone loved her.” Most of all, this young bride is too desperate to be accepted by everyone. Especially her husband. Like everyone else, she, too, believes that he will never get over Rebecca’s death. Her self-esteem is much too low to think of herself as a loveable and charming woman.

Joan Fontaine’s character is always in Rebecca’s shadow. It goes so far that the character doesn’t even has a name – she is only known as “The second Mrs. de Winter”. Nothing more.

This character is not easy to play. She begins as a young girl, insecure of herself and too shy. When she meets Maxim de Winter, she immediately falls in love with him – he is strong, he is secure, he can give her the lead she needs in life. But she not only gets a husband – she gets a new life, too. She was only a companion (that is to say, a better servant) for a rich woman and now she is thrown into a new world – the world of Manderly. For a shy girl like herself, nothing worse could have happened. She is not able to handle such a big estate, she can’t communicate with rich and confident people who expect her to be one of her own and who can’t hide their disappointment when they see this mousy little girl. She knows that she is watched and judged and always compared to Rebecca. She finally tells her husband: “What a slap in the eye I must have been to them then. I suppose that's why you married me, cause you knew I was dull and gauche and inexperienced.”

The second Mrs. de Winter is even afraid of the servants who judge her just as everybody else. She always knows that she doesn’t really belong here, she is always asking herself if Maxim really loves her or if he is just trying to forget Rebecca.


More than anything, Joan Fontaine’s character is afraid of her memory. That overwhelming memory that is everywhere in the house. So strong is it that Joan Fontaine’s character even fears to lose her own husband to that memory.

During these parts of the movie, Joan Fontaine does masterful work. She is the viewer’s guide through the movie. Everything is seen through her eyes, everything is experienced with her. Her shy behavior, her fear, her loneliness – Joan Fontaine does everything in the most natural way without ever losing the audience’s sympathy. How easy would it have been to overplay the annoying aspects of the character but Joan Fontaine avoids all that and makes her a real, honest and, most important, understandable heroine who is caught in a strange world. Her performance adds a lot to the tension of the movie and helps to create the always felt suspension.

But the character is not static. She is an ever growing person. She learns, she tries to fit in. But it’s the famous scene in the cottage on the shore that shows how fully Joan Fontaine understands her character. When she learns the truth about Max and Rebecca, not only the whole direction of the movie changes – also the second Mrs. de Winter does. When Max tells her that he never loved Rebecca, Joan Fontaine reacts with a combination of shock and relief. Suddenly, her biggest fear is gone – Max really loves her and he never loved Rebecca. Now, that she is finally sure of that love, she is not willing to let the past haunt her anymore and destroy her happiness. Now, she is willing to fight. Suddenly, Max becomes the weak person and his new wife has to take the lead. As he tells her: “It's gone forever, that funny young, lost look I loved won't ever come back. I killed that when I told you about Rebecca. It's gone. In a few hours, you've grown so much older.“ Joan is wonderfully able to show that shift in character without making it seem too sudden or unbelievable – she is always in full control of her scenes without appearing calculating or over-rehearsed.

Joan Fontaine creates a truly fascinating character, always tense, always insecure. A flawless performance that carries one of the greatest movies of all time and for this, she gets

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