For years, I was quite certain that when it came time to cast the role of the tortured, mysterious Maxim de Winter for the 1940 film version of Rebecca, the first—and only—name on everyone’s lips in Hollywood had to have been Laurence Olivier.
How could it NOT be? The dashing, dark, and oh-so-handsome Brit had “tormented hero” practically written on his chiseled face. Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 gothic-lite novel, on which the film was based, was wildly popular, eliciting comparisons to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and her sister Emily’s novel Wuthering Heights, and all three books featured the kind of dark, aristocratic, and beautiful protagonists that populated much of Olivier’s early film career. The actor had already played Heights’ brooding “hero” (using the term loosely), Heathcliff, to great acclaim in the 1939 film adaptation of the book. His playing Maxim was all but a foregone conclusion.
Except it wasn’t.
David O. Selznick, the producer who would go on to make life hell for director Alfred Hitchcock on the set of the film, initially wanted Ronald Colman for the part, to play opposite Carole Lombard. After Colman turned down the part, the role was up for grabs between Olivier, William Powell, and Leslie Howard. In the end, Olivier was the one who starred opposite the still-green Joan Fontaine—not owing to any perception of the actor’s superior talent, but because he was the cheapest of all three.
Well, all I can say is, thank God the man was willing to work for less. I simply cannot imagine Colman, Powell, or especially the somewhat drab Howard as this movie’s protagonist. Considering the film’s characterization of Maxim (which, per Code strictures, changed the male lead from a wife murderer to the unlucky witness to his wife’s accidental death), Olivier was the perfect choice for the part. Take, for example, the scene in which Maxim confesses the truth about Rebecca’s death to his young, naive second wife after Rebecca’s body has been discovered (you can see part of it in this clip from the film):
Here, in perhaps the most pivotal moment of the entire movie, Olivier delivers an extended monologue revealing the truth about Rebecca’s devious, cruel behavior. He explains that a mere four days after their wedding, Rebecca had taunted him with the truth about her sordid past. He tells his new wife that he had made a bargain with “the devil,” agreeing to put on the facade of a happy marriage in order to save face in society:
“I should never have accepted her dirty bargain, but I did. I was younger then and tremendously conscious of the family honor. (scoffs) Family honor. She knew that I’d sacrifice everything rather than stand up in a divorce court and give her away—admit that our marriage was a rotten fraud. You despise me, don’t you, as I despise myself. You can’t understand what my feelings were, can you?”
Olivier delivers the entire speech with an effective mixture of self-loathing and suppressed rage (directed at both himself and his nefarious ex) that is utterly thrilling to watch. He bites off the words, hurling them between his lips like poisonous barbs. His movements around the room mirror those of a caged man, demonstrating how trapped Maxim has felt by the relationship with Rebecca and its aftermath: he paces the room, eyes darting around nervously, hands moving in agitated patterns. And that last question excerpted above—a plea for understanding and compassion—is delivered with the slightest intonation of plaintive longing, revealing the insecurity and loneliness that has plagued Maxim for so many years. Is there anyone who watches this and doesn’t marvel at the sheer power of the performance? This entire confessional sequence is practically a master class in how to construct a believable character.
This is what I have long loved about Olivier. He’s not merely performing his characters. He embodies them–as if he ingests each character, breathes in every aspect of it, and builds a living embodiment of fiction that feels completely real. That he does this in so many of his roles (his take on Hamlet is, I feel, one of the most sensitive and honest portrayals of the Dane that I have ever come across) is a testament to his unparalleled skill as an actor and as a student of human nature. Olivier demonstrates an innate understanding of the way the mind works, and I have yet to see one of his films that doesn’t showcase this (okay, maybe 1981’s camp-tastic Clash of the Titans).
Because Hitchcock reportedly barred Selznick from coming onto the set of Rebecca, the notoriously nitpicky producer relied on a stream of memos to relay his displeasure with the pace of filming and other sundry issues. According to TCM, one of Selznick’s major complaints about Olivier was that the actor’s performance was marked by an overly measured delivery, complete with extended pauses, that drove Selznick up the wall. Thankfully, Hitchcock ignored Selznick’s missives to “quicken the pace.” In my estimation, Olivier’s chosen delivery, which Selznick erroneously viewed as “too slow,” is actually a brilliant insight into the deliberate, careful nature adopted by Maxim de Winter in the wake of Rebecca’s death. After having been driven by jealousy and hatred to strike the woman, and then watching her stumble and fall to her death, it stands to reason that Maxim would be unwilling to submit to the baser side of his emotions again. He becomes overly cautious, taking great pains to restrict his feelings: it explains why he spends the first half of the film acting aloof and keeping his distance from his new wife, because he never fully trusts himself (or her, for that matter). And Olivier’s method of performing further demonstrates the actor’s skill at defining and depicting the most complicated aspects of human nature on screen.
Judith Anderson’s brilliant embodiment of the Rebecca-obsessed housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, has long gathered the lion’s share of attention in any examination of this film—and deservedly so, as it is the very definition of a tour de force performance. But Olivier’s own performance, so much more vital to the success of the film, deserves much of the credit for Rebecca’s success. To put it quite simply, the movie ultimately works only because Olivier definitively nails the role of Maxim, imbibing a seemingly indifferent man with flesh, blood, and genuine heart.
This post is my contribution to the Vivien Leigh—Laurence Olivier Appreciation Blogathon, hosted by Kendra of Viv and Larry. To see the other wonderful, thought-provoking entries, check out vivandlarry.com.