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Judith Anderson, Rebecca
1940: lost to Jane Darwell, The Grapes of Wrath
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
For Mrs. Danvers's first appearance in Rebecca, the camera pushes in for a medium close-up, even as she strides forward with that rigid, not-quite-servile gait of hers. The dissolve that concludes this short scene lays Mrs. Danvers's left profile over a clock face. In no time flat, Rebecca frames this woman in terms of aggressive momentum, eerie stasis, and clockwork regularity. Indeed, one of Judith Anderson's signature inspirations in this iconic role is to exercise sufficient restraint that Hitchcock's wily grammar can meet her halfway, projecting contradictory implications onto her obdurate surface. Even more to Anderson's credit, though, Mrs. Danvers is never entirely opaque. Neither camping to excess nor withholding completely, she demonstrates exactly why her new mistress feels judged by this pause, that stare, this flare of nostril or raise of chin. Even so, Anderson leaves just enough room for us to wonder if Mrs. de Winter is overreacting, and respects the expressive concision of the lifelong domestic. This principle persists even in the famous sequence when Mrs. Danvers leads the quivering bride through Rebecca's boudoir. In voice and body, the devout servant becomes suggestively ecstatic without breaking character: hands clasped, neck stiff, comportment a series of perpendiculars and diagonals. While many comparable performances have opted for simplistic dichotomies of constraint and abandon, Anderson's muscles don't entirely unclench for another hour, amid the climactic euphoria of going down with the ship.
I risk cliché, though, in measuring Anderson's success as the distance between Mrs. Danvers's most astringent reserve and most emphatic releases. Within her baseline affect of imposing aloofness, Anderson achieves remarkable effects, meted out with precision. Her brow-furrowing dismay at Jack Favell's flagrant debauchery constitutes one of Rebecca's most eloquent close-ups. Later, cropped tightly at the frame's right edge, Anderson deepens and stretches her hushed voice, disclosing a crueler side of Mrs. Danvers's cunning while coaxing Mrs. de Winter toward suicide, but also plausibly ventriloquizing her mistress's roiling subconscious. Detailing a character while kaleidoscopically symbolizing suppressed, unconscious, and frighteningly liberated libidos, Anderson utilizes her intensive stage training while expertly negotiating the camera and the microphone. The script generously hands her the finale of the film, but boy is she ready to receive it.
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