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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.

Vivien and Alan Marshall

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 Cinema Archive

Kendra has been the weblady at since 2007. She lives in Yorkshire and is the author of Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait, and co-author of Ava Gardner: A Life in Movies (Running Press). Follow her on Twitter @kendrajbean, Instagram at @vivandlarrygram, or at her official website.

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Comments (10)

  1. “Vivien Leigh, who was born to be Rebecca…” You go, Hitch! I’ve always thought so, too (just as I always dreamed of seeing Viv playing Cathy in Huthering Heights – she wasc PERFECT for that role!). In fact, when I read Rebecca for the first time, I had not seen the movie yet. I had not seen GWTW or any Vivien film either, but I had seen GWTW movie stills. And guess how I picture Rebecca in my mind as I was reading the book…? Yeah 🙂 So Hitch and I totally agree on that. Great minds do think alike 😉

  2. yeah, I agree. I think she would have been interesting as the second Mrs. DeWinter, but gauche, dressing badly and plain are three things Vivien Leigh certainly was not. I’d have a hard time believing her. She would have been AMAZING as Cathy–or any of those gothic heroines–she certainly had the look for it!

  3. Amazing screen test. Thanks for putting it on line Kendra. Where do you find these gems? but it does show just how wrong Vivien would have been for the part of the second Mrs DeWinter. just as she was wrong for Mrs Stone. Vivien was never a downtrodden woman. She certainly would have made something of the role of Cathy in Wuthering Heights though (Merle lost me in the death scene – to much eye rolling – she was brilliant up until then of course) but alas we will never see how awesome Vivien could have been. But we did see her as Scarlett and so many other amazing roles and must be thankful for that.

  4. The thing is she didn’t want the part, she wanted to act opposite Olivier. I disagree with Hitchcock. Although her confidence and energy is similar to that of Rebecca, Vivien was very childish and congenial unlike the manipulative Rebecca who had the boldness to assert her power over her victims. I read the summary of her sequel where the backstory is that she was Maxim’s half-sister in real life and her own unhappy childhood where she was raped in Normandy shaped her into what she eventually became.
    So I think they just took it for granted that Vivien suited for the part of Rebecca. Scarlett was a different thing. Scarlett thought and acted like Vivien.
    If she really wanted the part, she would’ve gotten it. She looks quite plain in those screentests. Joan Fontaine was a classic beauty but she portrayed “I” perfectly because of her acting! Her screentest is even better! Watch it. Also Vivien did a great job playing the demure Blanche in Streetcar and she was also offered the part of Isabella Linton which suited her perfectly! She also wanted to work in Pride and Prejudice. If she can be considered for these roles, then definitely she could pull of “I” in Rebecca.
    I wish she had considered these roles. Her filmography would’ve been altogether different. Perfect list with Isabella Linton, Scarlett, Blanche and Elizabeth Bennet!

  5. Rebecca was calculative, manipulative, scheming, evil. Also, I assume many people have not read the book but Rebecca’s beauty appears to be bold and more mature unlike Vivien’s delicate feline beauty.

  6. I think Vivien also didn’t want to be stereo-cast for the rest of her acting career. You know how someone plays a role amazingly well & their studios/managers/agents are scared for them to ‘stray’ from that success. Maybe they (Hitchcock,etc) were the ones having difficulty seeing her as a weak willed Mrs.Dewinter because Scarlet was one hell of a stubborn, rigid and strong willed character and Vivien had nailed it perfectly.

  7. It wasn’t because they doubted her acting ability, it was because her personality was deemed too strong for such a weak character.

    I’ve never considered the second Mrs. de Winter as “weak”. Insecure, reserved and young perhaps; but not weak.

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