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Eighty years ago, on March 21, 1940, Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca first premiered, introducing one of the big screen's greatest and gayest villains, Mrs. Danvers, to the cinematic canon. Played by Judith Anderson, who was nominated for an Oscar for her marvelous turn, she would go on to exemplify the representation of queer characters in film for decades to follow.
But first, a little background. Despite the fact that he directed some of the best films, well, ever, Rebecca was the only Hitchcock movie to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards. This was also the British director's first Hollywood production, and his legendary perfectionism led to many clashes with producer David O. Selznick. But neither could argue with the results—Rebecca scored 11 Oscar nominations and was the top grossing film of 1940.
Based off the 1938 novel of the same name by noted bisexual Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca tells the story of a meek young woman who marries an aristocratic widower, Maxim de Winter, but is haunted by the memory of his first wife, the titular Rebecca. The new bride is further terrorized by the woman who served as Rebecca's devoted housekeeper and confidant: Mrs. Danvers.
The film starred Laurence Olivier as Maxim de Winter, Joan Fontaine as the second Mrs. de Winter—who remains otherwise nameless in the book and the film—and Anderson as Mrs. Danvers. As soon as Mrs. de Winter slouches in, wet from the rain and looking generally like a hot mess, Mrs. Danvers pummels her with an unending barrage of side-eyes and withering glances.
She's so coolly detached and unflappable that her mere presence unsettles Mrs. de Winter. So you know, Danvers is serving major goals.
In the book, Danvers is older and maternal, having raised Rebecca from youth, but Hitchcock made her younger and more mysterious, all but eradicating whatever backstory de Maurier gave her. Mrs. Danvers lurks about the castle, seeming to glide in and out unexpectedly—an effect Hitchocock wanted in order to portray the character through the eyes of the always anxious second Mrs. de Winter.
Danvers' queerness is made more and more explicit as the film goes on. In one famous scene, Danvers fondles Rebecca's nightgown, demonstrating how sheer it is—she's basically making love to Rebecca's ghost while the second Mrs. de Winter watches in abject horror.
It's great. (Scroll to the 2:00 mark.)
Mrs. Danvers clearly doesn't want the second Mrs. de Winter around and makes it her business to get rid of her, lest she sully Rebecca's wig-snatching legacy. So she sabotages the unsuspecting bride in the gayest way possible—with a dress. She convinces Mrs. de Winter to wear a gown that is an almost exact replica of one of Rebecca's old numbers, which infuriates her husband. A distraught Mrs. de Winter is now at Mrs. Danvers' mercy.
Seductively, she whispers in her ear, inciting Mrs. de Winter to kill herself.
Danvers' plan is foiled by a convenient alarm that alerts everyone to a sunken boat that has washed ashore carrying Rebecca's corpse. Turns out, Rebecca was actually the worst. Maxim thought he had accidentally killed her, but she was really dying of cancer and tried to frame him for her death. It's a lot, but in the end—as with all films during Hollywood's golden era—the villain must die.
In the book, Mrs. Danvers simply disappears, but Hollywood's strict moral production code couldn't abide an evil lesbian living past the end credits. In a scene similar to The Bride of Frankenstein—another gay allegory—Mrs. Danvers, the monster, is last seen succumbing to the flames of a castle burning around her.
To the predatory Sebastian Venable in Suddenly, Last Summer, who also dies a Frankensteinian death, after being chased by pitchfork-wielding villagers.
Meanwhile, it would take years for Hollywood to get over its queer representation problem—something that should happen… at any moment.
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