The Motion Picture Production Code, also known as the Hays Code after censor/stick-in-the-mud Will Hays, regulated film content for nearly 40 years, restricting, among other things, depictions of homosexuality. Filmmakers still managed to get around the Code, but gay characters were cloaked in innuendo, leading to some necessary decoding.
This breathlessly British melodrama is best remembered today for three reasons: A. as the only Alfred Hitchcock film to win a Best Picture Academy Award; B. as Joan Fontaine’s star-making vehicle, which she drove with the top down to her own Oscar the following year in Hitchcock’s Suspicion; and C. as one of the most thinly-veiled lesbian cautionary tales of the Hays Code era of Hollywood filmmaking.
The late Joan Fontaine stars as the otherwise unnamed “The Second Mrs. de Winter,” whose unenviable task is to fill the shoes of The First Mrs. de Winter, the titular Rebecca. According to everyone who knew her, Rebecca not only walked in beauty like the night, but snatched everyone’s wigs while she was at it. She (allegedly) drowned while sailing. Hailing from a common background and seemingly always on the verge of bursting into tears, the second Mrs. de Winter pales in comparison to the first.
Providing little help but a fantastic mustache is Laurence Olivier as brooding widower Maxim de Winter. Providing no help whatsoever but owning the entire film is Judith Anderson as the haunting housekeeper Mrs. Danvers, whose devotion to Rebecca borders on the macabre. Danvers establishes herself as the one true Supreme in the house of de Winter when she greets the mousy new Missus with an imperious air usually reserved for Dame Maggie Smith or RuPaul doling out challenges to her gurls.
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Much is made about the infamous scene where Danvers gets an embarrassing case of ladywood while rifling through Rebecca’s underwear, but before we get to that, let’s just talk about Mr. de Winter for a second. He’s seemingly incapable of loving his new bride when they return to their home, the storied Manderley manor, where he only grows more distant and cold. He doesn’t even notice his wife’s attempts at a glamorous makeover, mostly because he can’t see through all the shade he’s throwing.
They must be in the library since Max is clearly in the mood to read.
As determined as a freshman drama major trying to find a boyfriend in her department’s production of Rent, the second Mrs. de Winter even offers to be Max’s companion — if he’s not in love with her. Though eventually established as an avowed heterosexual, Maxim de Winter’s initial ambivalence to his wife is open to interpretation to queer viewers. For instance, his inexplicable rage — he admits to flying off the handle for no reason at all — could be a product of his own sexual identity crisis, much like Dennis Quaid’s closeted, self-loathing boozer in Todd Haynes’s Far From Heaven.
Perhaps that’s a bit of a stretch, but Maxim does admit that he never loved Rebecca…right after admitting (spoiler!) that he “accidentally” killed her. Turns out Rebecca was kind of a trash bag and carried on affairs indiscriminately; she fell and hit her head after Max confronted/slapped her about it. He’s not gay after all, just kind of a murderer, which in 1940 is a LOT better. And he gets off scot-free. Mrs. Danvers, however, is not so lucky.
The only thing Danvers is really guilty of…is loving too much. Now let’s go back to that infamous scene, shall we? Always fond of a dramatic entrance, Mrs. Danvers catches the second Mrs. de Winter snooping around Rebecca’s room, which has remained untouched since her death.
Instead of clawing her eyes out then tossing her body into the oft-discussed sea, Danny (as Rebecca so affectionally referred to her) shows the mousy upstart what a friggin’ lady looks like. Or at least, what a friggin’ lady dresses like. Danvers dives into Rebecca’s closet and comes out of her own. The tension is palatable between the two women; she’s at once seducing the second Mrs. de Winter while mourning the first.
She fondles Rebecca’s underwear, still marveled by how beautiful and delicate they remain. Really, the only time Mrs. Danvers seems happy in the entire film is when she recalls helping Rebecca undress after she would come home late from a party.
In the film’s most sexually charged scene, Danny picks up Rebecca’s lacey negligee, and demonstrates how thin and transparent it is.
In Hitchcock’s hands, the intimation of nudity is as provocative as nudity itself, which was of course verboten under the Hays Code, as were any references to homosexuality. Mrs. Danvers is thus the big bad wolf of this story. She’s dangerous for her powers of seduction, and the power she seems to have over the second Mrs. de Winter. At first it’s jus that withering gaze and unwavering imperiousness. But once her prey tries to assert herself, Danny unhinges her jaw.
Our heroine, distraught after accidentally invoking the late Rebecca’s memory at a costume party — thanks entirely to Mrs. Danvers — is at the housekeeper’s mercy.
As she tries to incite the second Mrs. de Winter to kill herself using tactics perfected over centuries by playground bullies, Mrs. Danvers assumes the position of seductress and lover, whispering intimately into her victim’s ear. She’s a predator, as homosexuals were often depicted in film. And so she dies like the monsters of The Bride of Frankenstein— her castle falling around her— because like them, she “belongs dead.”
She pulled a Left Eye on Manderley manor because she would rather see it burned to the ground than any mousy upstart try to take the place of her beloved Rebecca.
Hitchcock reportedly played up the lesbianism of Mrs. Danvers, who was more of a maternal figure in the novel on which it was based, by noted bisexual, Daphne du Maurier. Hitch was even warned about including these subtle references to Danvers’ lesbianism, but in the end he had his way, even as producer David O. Selznick reshot and re-edited the picture after Hitchcock had finished filming. Either the Hays office didn’t mind a little hinted-at gal-on-gal action or they completely missed the same-sex subtext. It’s most likely the latter as — we’ll see — the Hays office was none too bright.