On 'Rebecca' and 'Foreign Correspondent,' Hitchcock's 1940 double-shot at Oscar glory

Posted by · 4:38 pm · November 21st, 2012

You needn’t have been following the Oscars for long to know that — the usual inseparability of the Best Picture and Best Director awards notwithstanding — Academy voters aren’t particularly auteurist-minded.

That’s not a comment on the films and filmmakers they’ve chosen to reward over the years, though the winners list would look somewhat different if they were. Rather, it alludes simply to the practical consideration that their top prize is still awarded to a film’s producer, not the director — a tradition inherited from the days when producers often wielded more creative control in Hollywood than the helmers they hired to shepherd their projects to fruition. (Not coincidentally, the Academy was happier to split the Picture and Director awards back then.) If the Academy worked more along the lines of film festival juries, the director would claim, or at least share, credit for the year’s best film — and Alfred Hitchcock would have one competitive Oscar to his name. 

It’s telling that in the 1966 volume of interviews between Hitchcock and François Truffaut, a founding father of auteur theory if ever there was one, Truffaut is under the impression that Hitchcock won the 1940 Best Picture Oscar taken by his neo-Gothic romantic thriller “Rebecca.” Hitchcock rather tersely corrects him that the award was given to Hollywood super-producer David O. Selznick, and that he’s never won a statuette; Truffaut swiftly changes the subject.

Given how routinely Hitchcock’s name crops up on lists of artists most shabbily treated by the Academy — see Kris’ recent review of his strike rate with the voters — those less well-versed in Oscar history may be surprised to learn that the great man did, in fact, direct a Best Picture winner, and not a negligible one, either. When the Academy splits its two top awards, the losing director is usually not a name held in the very highest regard: a John Madden, say, or a Hugh Hudson. But the club also includes such notables as Ridley Scott and Francis Ford Coppola, and Hitchcock is at the top of that rewarded-and-yet-unrewarded pile.

Hitchcock almost certainly never came closer to winning Best Director than he did with “Rebecca”: for one thing, only one of his other four nominations, for “Spellbound” five years later, was attached to a Best Picture nod. But while general Oscar logic dictates that a repeat nominee gains momentum with each successive bid, this nearest of misses came not just at Hitchcock’s first nomination, but for his very first American film. Had “Rebecca” been made a further few years into his career, by which time the British director would have been less of a stranger to the Hollywood crowd, things might well have gone differently. 

As it stands, Hitchcock was the most illustrious casualty of what was surely one of the most evenly matched and tightly contested fields in Oscar history. The opposition in the 1940 Best Picture race included not just substantial works from John Ford, George Cukor, Charlie Chaplin and William Wyler, but another of Hitchcock’s own films. Yes, both his maiden US efforts — “Rebecca” and pulpy WWII potboiler “Foreign Correspondent” — made the grade, notching up 17 nominations between them, though the director himself was only cited for the former.

In a more contemporary Oscar race, directing two of the year’s top nominees would launch a filmmaker to the front of the Best Director pack — particularly if he were only nominated for one of them. Coppola reaped the benefits of double-dipping with “The Godfather Part II” and “The Conversation” in 1974; more recently, Steven Soderbergh overcame the risk of splitting his own vote when he was nominated for both “Erin Brockovich” and “Traffic,” ultimately winning for the latter.

In 1940, however, when directors moved far more quickly between projects under the studio system, that wasn’t nearly such a noteworthy achievement. Several names had already managed to steer two Best Picture nominees in a single year: most impressively, Michael Curtiz, who in 1938 even copped an extra lone-director nomination for a third film. Hitchcock wasn’t even alone in the achievement that year: John Ford (“The Grapes of Wrath,” “The Long Voyage Home”) and Sam Wood (“Kitty Foyle,” “Our Town”) also boasted a brace of 1940 Best Picture nominees. By passing over Hitchcock and handing the Best Director prize to Ford for “Wrath,” the Academy effectively split the difference between the year’s two most commendable over-achievers.  

Viewed in isolation, however, Hitchcock’s two 1940 nominees make an interesting pair: even as they contrast completely in tone, “Rebecca” and “Foreign Correspondent” both show the director assembling the stylistic building blocks of his future genre work in Hollywood, while hanging onto stray elements of his earlier British output.

“Rebecca” was the more prestigious, awards-targeted production: completed in 1939 but released in the spring of 1940, Selznick had specifically postponed it so it wouldn’t be trampled by his own blockbuster “Gone With the Wind” in the Oscar race. Laurence Olivier, then at his most movie-star handsome, was hot off his first Oscar nod for “Wuthering Heights”; 21-year-old ingenue Joan Fontaine had been cast as the film’s nameless heroine after a lengthy audition process that, according to Hitchcock, Selznick falsely extended only with the intention of generating equivalent media hype to his search for Scarlett O’Hara.

Daphne du Maurier’s National Book Award-winning source novel had been published only two years previously, to vast popular acclaim — it may have been a contemporary romantic mystery rather than a noble historical tome, but in every other respect, the film was the equivalent of what we currently term Oscar bait, with Selznick as its Weinstein-like mastermind.

So it’s all the more impressive that the moody, swoony, genuinely disconcerting film that emerges feels as authentically Hitchcockian a work as his later, less producer-steered works. By editing the film in-camera, Hitchcock cunningly curbed Selznick’s capacity for creative interference, and also worked some subtle alterations into a script that the producer had insisted remain as faithful as the Production Code would allow to du Maurier’s text. (If you’re thinking of sex, think again: the Code prohibited the criminal activity undertaken in the novel by Olivier’s Maxim de Winter character.)

Hitchcock’s most successful innovation concerned the character of housekeeper Mrs Danvers, whose interpretation by British-Australian actress Judith Anderson earned a deserved Best Supporting Actress nod: by making her younger than du Maurier’s aged harridan, and bringing sleek lesbian insinuations to her relationship with the deceased title character, Hitchcock and Anderson created one of the screen’s greatest, and eeriest, villains. 

Hitchcock himself wasn’t wildly keen on the story, which he criticized for its lack of humor. (He’d originally signed on to do Titanic-themed film with Selznick, only for the producer to switch projects.) But “Rebecca” holds up beautifully: it’s easy to see why Selznick thought this very English story would be a suitable bridging vehicle for Hitchcock’s Hollywood career, but while it shares the crisp storytelling of his British-made mysteries, it feels dreamier and more expansive, a blueprint for the obsessive serenity of form he’d later blur and perfect in “Vertigo.” Perhaps his unfamiliarity with Hollywood keyed into the protagonist’s own sense of being a stranger in her newly adopted home. Either way, it’s one of his most emotionally open films — and one of the best ever to take the Academy’s top honor.

By contrast, Hitchcock cheerfully admitted “Foreign Correspondent” was a B-picture: a fast-moving adventure centered around a naive New York crime reporter sent by his editor to Europe to report on the early rumblings of the Second World War, before becoming dangerously entangled in an international spy ring. Hitchcock intended it as a vehicle for Gary Cooper, but had to settle for the lesser star wattage of Joel McCrea. As the director told Truffaut, “In Europe, the thriller, the adventure story, is not looked down upon… in America, it’s definitely regarded as second-rate… This attitude was so commonplace when I started to work in Hollywood that I always ended up with the next best.”

With none of the lingering subtext or emotional resonance of “Rebecca,” “Foreign Correspondent” is simply a well-executed genre exercise. On his second US assignment, Hitchcock seems more casual at the controls, airily pulling off showy set pieces like the playful Dutch windmill charade and a climactic plane crash; if “Rebecca” teases us with the Hitchcock of “Vertigo” and “Marnie,” this is very much the work of the man who’d make “North by Northwest,” with McCrea an early model of the urbane but out-of-his-depth American Joe who’d later become a recurring presence in the director’s work.

Hitchcock understandably demonstrates less conviction in the story’s somewhat tacked-on US patriotism (the closing credits feature “The Star-Spangled Banner” over an image of a bald eagle) that at once dates the film and gives it its most enduring historical value. By making a strapping Yank the hero of a tale of Nazi subterfuge in London, the film stands as a defining piece of Hollywood’s early WWII propaganda: rumor has it even Joseph Goebbels was a grudging admirer. “The picture was pure fantasy,” Hitchcock admitted, “and in my fantasies, plausibility is not allowed to rear its ugly head.”    

Released in August 1940, four months after “Rebecca,” “Foreign Correspondent” was a moderate box-office success, though it didn’t quite recoup its substantial budget. So it was more likely its politics than its popularity that impressed the voters enough to net it six Oscar nominations; Hitchcock may have thought it a fantasy, but voters evidently took it rather more seriously. We still annually talk about contenders succeeding in the Oscar race by capturing the zeitgeist: this is as direct an example as you can find of that phenomenon. Together with Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator,” moreover, it also marks the starting point of the Academy’s enduring fascination with WWII stories.

Still, “Foreign Correspondent” entered the 1940 Best Picture race as an also-ran. With war grimly brewing outside the cinemas, the escapist allure of Hitchcock’s other film was strong for audiences and voters alike: adult fairy-tale that it was, “Rebecca” delivered another smash hit for Selznick, winding up as the fourth-highest grosser of 1940 (on a list unsurprisingly led by animated fantasies “Pinocchio” and “Fantasia”) and nabbing a field-leading haul of 11 nominations.

So the stage was set for Selznick’s production to sweep the Oscars again, just as “Gone With the Wind” had the year before. But whether it was down to the strength of the competition or outside-world events, voters found themselves torn between romance and reality — the latter most strongly represented by “The Grapes of Wrath.” Ford’s superb adaptation of another recent bestseller, John Steinbeck’s rich evocation of 1930s Dust Bowl desperation, had ruled with the New York Film Critics and National Board of Review — back then, believe it or not, the only Oscar precursors to speak of. (The Globes and the Guilds would only get their act together later in the decade.)

Ford was already an Academy insider — he’d won in 1935 for “The Informer” — and his film was too plainly important to let slide: the American director took his second Oscar, while Jane Darwell’s heartbreaking turn as Ma Joad bested Judith Anderson in what I hope was a close Supporting Actress race. “Rebecca,” meanwhile, took only one award — for George Barnes’s lustrous black-and-white lensing — on its way to taking Best Picture: it remains the last film to win the top honor without at least one accompanying above-the-line prize.

Joan Fontaine can be considered unlucky not to have won Best Actress; she lost out to a surge of insider support for musical star Ginger Rogers in an against-type dramatic role in “Kitty Foyle” — also the only reward for Sam Wood’s aforementioned Best Picture pair. Only a year later, the Academy evidently felt some remorse, handing Fontaine the award for less memorable work in another Hitchcock suspenser, “Suspicion.” It would be, as Kris noted yesterday, the only Oscar-winning performance Hitch ever directed.

Finally, further splintering the Best Picture race was Cukor’s “The Philadelphia Story”: still one of the tartest and most buoyant of all Hollywood romantic comedies, it frothed up the competition enough to beat both “The Grapes of Wrath” and “Rebecca” to Best Screenplay and Best Actor for James Stewart, himself being compensated for his “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” loss the previous year. (Olivier would get his due for “Hamlet” eight years later.) 1939 is generally regarded as the unimprovable gold standard for the Best Picture category, but its immediate successor doesn’t get enough credit. A group that includes “The Grapes of Wrath,” “The Philadelphia Story,” “The Great Dictator” and “The Letter” — plus one great Hitchcock film and one good one — has to count among the Academy’s finer hours.

Hitch didn’t attend attend the ceremony: it is said that he nervously stayed at home and listened to the radio broadcast, instructing his wife Alma to switch it on again and off again, until his defeat was confirmed. Exasperated, Alma allegedly cried, “For heaven’s sake, these are the people who gave an award to Luise Rainer. Twice!” Her husband wasn’t too hard done by on this first occasion, but perhaps she knew worse was to come.

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