Vivien Leigh and the Search For “Rebecca”
One of the things Vivien Leigh did after finishing filming on Gone with the Wind was test for the role of the second Mrs. DeWinter in the film version of Daphne DuMaurier’s Rebecca. The film, being directed by Alfred Hitchcock and produced by David O. Selznick, was set to star Laurence Olivier (Vivien’s then fiancee) in the lead as Maxim DeWinter. Vivien wanted the part because she’d be acting opposite Olivier, but not many people were enthusiastic about her getting it. It wasn’t because they doubted her acting ability, it was because her personality was deemed too strong for such a weak character.
Even in the book, DuMaurier’s heroine is shy, plain, meek, and “gauche,” as she describes herself. Vivien, even without make-up and silly blond wigs, is anything but gauche and plain. Her eyes have a fiery intensity in the screentests, and opposite Alan Marshall, she seems more Scarlett in a cardigan than the weakling the part called for. Her test opposite Laurence Olivier is very interesting by contrast. Vivien plays it down but puts forth obvious love and intensity for “Maxim.” When the two tests are compared, I think it is easy to tell that she and Larry were in love with each other off-camera, and this is something that Hitchcock did not want. He thought it would not be believable to audiences when everyone knew they were together in real life. Larry shared in this sentiment as well. In Charlotte Chandler’s book “It’s Only a Movie,” Larry is quoted having said:
“When they called to say someone named Joan Fontaine had been given the role opposite me, I can’t say I was thrilled. I’d certainly never heard of her. When I met her, what I noticed was how young and skinny she was. I didn’t really understand what my character, Maxim DeWinter, could see in her. As I understood Max better, I decided that she was just what he wanted–someone exactly the opposite of Rebecca. He’d had enough of Rebecca, and he was looking for docile, even wilted.
“I admit I was prejudiced from the start. I’d exerted my influence to persuade Selznick that the best possible choice for the part was Vivien. Vivien had her heart set on playing opposite me, and she loved the part, which she tested for. She was a very good actress, and it was rather mortifying for me not to have been more influential. It affected our personal lives for a while…
“I didn’t like having to plead Vivien’s case, but I couldn’t say no to her. Hitch was very decent about it. But the worst part of it was I really didn’t want to have her get the part. There was already so much strain in our personal life, our divorces, leaving a wife and a child, and a husband and child in England, the European situation, the war. It was perhaps better for us to have a little vacation from constant togetherness.
“Vivien thought I didn’t try hard enough for her with Hitchcock for the part in Rebecca. Well, I didn’t. I hadn’t felt she was right for that part, truth be told.
“Vivien was exactly the opposite of Scarlett O’Hara, who said something like, ‘I’ll worry about it tomorrow.’ She worried about everything–yesterday, today, and tomorrow. But she was so beautiful.”
Despite Vivien being thought of as totally wrong for the role of Mrs. DeWinter and was thus denied the part (which eventually went to Joan Fontaine, who happened to be blond, in true Hitchcockian form), there was a role Alfred Hitchcock, at least, thought she’d have been perfect for: the ghostly, yet ever-present Rebecca. When Hitch was interviewed by Henri Langlois, the director of the Cinematheque Francais, he spoke of the perfect Rebecca.
“But there WAS an actress to play Rebecca. A perfect Rebecca. And she even wanted to be in the film, only she wanted to play the wrong part, that of the cringing, meek girl with rounded shoulders who was totally lacking in self-confidence.
“The actress was Vivien Leigh, who was born to be Rebecca, as she was to be Scarlett O’Hara. Scarlett shared many characteristics with Rebecca. Vivien Leigh had the requisite beauty. She and Rebecca were both uniquely strong women who knew that they wanted and how to get it, if not how to enjoy it. They were not girls; they were women.
“Vivien Leigh was absolutely right to play Rebecca, but Rebecca never appears in the film, so neither does Vivien. And for people who knew about the real life affair between Olivier and Leigh, that would have intruded on any illusion.”
I have to say I agree with Hitchcock. Although it’s a shame she and Hitch never worked together, I think Vivien would have been much more believable as Rebecca than as “I” in this film. Apparently the people who design Italian movie posters thought so, too.
Watch Vivien Leigh’s screentests for Rebecca in the vivandlarry.com Cinema Archive