Larry, Vivien and Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca

Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine in Alfred Hitchcock's REBECCA (1940).

(This post is in conjunction with the blog Viv and Larry’s Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier Blogathon.)

Early in the summer of 1939, when principal photography on David O’Selznick’s soon-to-be masterpiece Gone with the Wind had finally finished, Vivien Leigh boarded a plane and headed to New York to be reunited with Laurence Olivier. She was spotted by gossip columnist Louella Parsons who promptly reported that Olvier had signed on to play the role of Maxim deWinter in the film adaptation of Daphne duMaurier’s novel Rebecca, and that “All of Vivien Leigh’s brave plans to return to England for a stage play will go a-glimmering,… for she is now mentioned for the role of the wife opposite her very good friend Laurence.”

Power producer David O Selznick  bought the rights to DuMaurier’s darkly romantic novel in June 1938, at a time when he was deeply entrenched with pre-production on Gone with the Wind. Alfred Hitchcock was assigned to direct in September of that year (it would be his first Hollywood production and put him on the Selznick payroll) and by May 1939 Laurence Olivier was  brought on board. But it was only after Selznick’s pleading with Ronald Colman to play the part fell through, and Hitchcock ruled out Leslie Howard (“too academic for the romantic angle”) and William Powell (his American accent was too “dangerous.”)

Yet the casting Olivier was a stroke of brilliance.

Larry as Du Maurier's tortured murderer Maxim de Winter

Larry’s well known ambivalent attitude towards Hollywood filmmaking manifested itself in Maxim’s un-apologetically obstinate nature. The casting process deeply obsessed Selznick (see Gone with the Wind) which is why the role of the nameless Mrs. de Winter had, by June of 1939, still not been cast.

If you asked Larry, however, the casting was quite obvious. Vivien Leigh, his girlfriend of two years, and the lead in Selznick’s baby Gone with the Wind, was going to play Mrs. de Winter. Larry and Vivien were still several months off from having their deeply passionate affair recognized by law (they were in divorce proceedings with their respective spouses) and the opportunity to make a film together, as they were both now working in Hollywood, carried away their romantic hearts with excitement.

The problem, of course, was that there was no way that Leigh, fresh from her role as Scarlett, would have been taken seriously as the naive, reticent,  self-conscious Mrs. deWinter. Had Vivien’s film career  developed differently, I personally feel that Leigh did possess the fragility necessary for the role– but in June 1939 the role was simply not right for her.

And Selznick told her so– as well as Larry– over two cables sent to their ocean liner while the couple vacationed.

According to Terry Coleman’s biography, Olivier, “Selznick went on for three hundred words, assuring her that the same care, patience and stubbornness about accurate casting that had put her in “the most talked–of role of all time in what everyone who has seen it agrees is the greatest picture ever made,”  made it necessary for him to tell her that she would be as wrong for the role in Rebecca as the role would be for her. Signed, “affectionately, David.”

He was more direct with Olivier:

“I know you must be disappointed, but Vivien’s anxiety to play role has in my opinion been largely if not entirely due to her desire to do a picture with you.” She hadn’t been interested until she knew he was playing Maxim and they would both be working in Hollywood. The cable was signed “Cordially, David.”

Vivien circa 1939. At the time, her heart beat only for Larry, and his only for her.

But there was something else.

David O Selznick had fallen in love with Olivia de Havilland’s little sister, Joan Fontaine.

Their relationship, according to most modern sources, is supposed to have remained to platonic, but there is no questioning Selznick’s obvious affection for the pretty blonde. Ever the perfectionist, it is to Selznick’s credit that he did not cast Fontaine straight away– he did have reservations about her ability– but finally informed her that she had been cast as Mrs. de Winter and to please report for fittings straight after the Labor Day holiday, 1939.

As history has amply recorded, Olivier was far from happy about the decision. It would be the second film in a row that he was to have a contentious relationship with his leading lady (his work with Merle Oberon in Wuthering Heights, off screen, was fraught with tearful arguments) and he made no attempt to hide his displeasure with Fontaine.

Although, as history has also recorded, perhaps it was less Larry’s moody brooding on set that set Fontaine so terribly off her guard, and more Hitchcock’s capitalizing of the ill feelings on set and manipulating her accordingly.

Fontaine later said that “[Hitchcock] was a Svengali. He controlled me totally. He took me aside and whispered, ‘Now kid, you go in there and you do this and that.’ And then he would say, “do you know what so-and-so said about you today? Do you that Olivier doesn’t want you in this role? Well never you mind  you just listen to me….He seemed to relish the cast not liking one another, actor for actor, by the end of the film.

All of this is not meant to condone Olivier’s un-sporting behavior at having lost out to working with his beloved, but it is to perhaps put it in to context. Perhaps, more than anything, it is necessary to step back and understand precisely how passionate Vivien and Larry’s relationship was at that particular point in time. Still illicit in legal terms, their love had been gestating and blossoming into an extraordinarily passionate relationship– unhealthy in some ways, very healthy and very needed in others– the fact of which is made quite evident in surviving letters and telegrams from the 1939 period.

For example, Larry penned the following letter of excruciating remorse at having missed a phone call from her not long before his being cast as Maxim de Winter:

I was too miserable even to cry. I was dying to ring up and say, O Vivling my darling forgive me, please forgive me. I’m so sorry, Mummy darling.  My throat does ache for you so my beloved darling Vivien child, Mary child, O how I reverence you, wrap you in mental cotton wool and put you on the mantelpiece and burn candles to you.

Vivien and Larry as Romeo and Juliet

This is the sort of love we’re talking about here, and in light of this it is easier to understand the stormy nature of Olivier’s behavior. Watching the film today, with Hitchcock’s meticulously calculated long shadows and startling closeups, the tremulous back story really serves it well. The unease between Maxim and Mrs. de Winter keeps the viewer on tenterhooks for nearly all of the film– it is, indeed, only in the final minutes that the cold melts from Larry’s deep, stormy eyes and we can actually feel the affection between the two.

Had Vivien been by Larry’s side, it would have taken a greater actor even than Olivier to pretend that he was, even in the smallest sense, not thoroughly enraptured with her. Because, regardless of how their relationship would end, for this period in their lives Vivien and Larry were not so much a couple as they were one.

(The pair would go on to produce Romeo and Juliet on Broadway not long after, a critical and financial failure, and then return to Hollywood to film That Hamilton Woman in 1941– a great financial success.)

VivAndLarry is a classy, sophisticated blog dedicated to the life, love and art of Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh. The Pictorial is a major fan of the blog’s truly original, unique and reverent work and we are proud to have been able to participate in their Blogathon!

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7 thoughts on “Larry, Vivien and Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca

  1. “VivAndLarry is a classy, sophisticated blog…” I am humbled! The Kitty Packard Pictorial is one of my favorite reads!! Thanks for the kind words and for participating in the blogathon!

    I’ve always found Joan Fontaine a bit annoying in this film, but I suppose she was rightfully cast. I think it would have been unbelievable, as you said, with Vivien in the role. However, Hitchcock did think Vivien would have made the perfect Rebecca. Agreed!

  2. Great post! I, too, chose to write about Rebecca … I adore it so. One quick correction: Fontaine didn’t win her Oscar for this movie–it was for her second picture with Hitchcock, Suspicion. 🙂

    1. Ahhh! You’re right, of course!! Thanks for the heads up (that’s what I get for trusting this crusty memory of mine) and YES: Rebecca is such a darkly gorgeous film. Went on holiday with a friend two years ago to Cornwall and, as we drove along the seaside, all I could think of was Maxim standing on the very same cliffs… LE SIGH.

  3. I stumbled on your blog via the Viv & Larry Blogathon links post and I’m so happy I did! I learned so much more about both actors and this film then I’d known before. 🙂 I’m off to look around the rest of your blog.

  4. VIvien would have been ludicrous in the role. — She was far too knowing and sophisticated by
    then for the part. Maxim was so cold and condescending towards his new never-named wife that
    she should have told him to take a hike early on and taken herself away from Manderley
    right after he refused to defend her against sadistic Mrs. Danvers – but then, there would have
    been no story!

  5. Yes Viviene Leigh should have played REBECCA, they could have done scenes showing her while he described the way it happened in the end, and also the way Mrs. Danvers saw her and for that matter the way everyone who spoke of her saw her. Now that would have been great!

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