One of the major theater actresses of her time, Judith Anderson felt constrained when acting before a camera. “In the theater, I’m free,” she told an interviewer late in life. “With movies, I can only move within a certain radius.” Yet that physical limitation is what makes her most noted film performance, the malevolent housekeeper Mrs. Danvers in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940), so deeply unsettling. Mrs. Danvers is still broodingly in love with her dead mistress, the much-talked-about Rebecca, and this undying love has made her mentally unhinged. She doesn’t walk so much as float around Manderley, the enormous estate owned by her employer Maxim de Winter (Laurence Oliver). She is garbed all in black, in a dress with many buttons up the front, and her hands are always folded at her stomach. Her face is stark and impassive most of the time until something sets her off about Rebecca, and then her hooded eyes widen with madwoman pre-occupation.
In the film’s most notorious scene, Mrs. Danvers takes the second Mrs. de Winter (Joan Fontaine) on a tour of Rebecca’s room, which she has lovingly preserved. Mrs. Danvers seems genuinely bewildered sometimes by the nerves and clumsiness of Fontaine’s interloper, and she can be hostile with her new mistress in her veiled, forbidding, insinuating way. But when she takes her on the tour of Rebecca’s room and shows off drawers filled with sexy see-through underwear, Mrs. Danvers seems to be shyly trying to share her fetishist delight with the second Mrs. de Winter, especially when she strokes a mink coat and flirtatiously runs the fur over Fontaine’s face. She makes the girl sit down where her beloved mistress used to sit and dreamily talks about brushing Rebecca’s hair for “twenty minutes at a time.” Perhaps Mrs. Danvers could bring herself to orgasm during those twenty minutes of brushing Rebecca’s hair…
Hitchcock showed Anderson exactly how he wanted her to play this scene, becoming Mrs. Danvers for her (Anderson reported that Hitch’s nickname for her on the set was “Cocks”!) No part of the film interested him more than this exposure of Rebecca’s underwear, and he lets Anderson suggest all kinds of things about Mrs. Danvers’s servile, adoring relationship with her mistress. Their dominant/submissive bond was probably never consummated with sex, however much Rebecca might have led her on. Mrs. Danvers’s all-encompassing erotic obsession with Rebecca suggests that she was denied that ultimate reward from her ultimate love object.
Firmly rebuffed after the underwear scene, Mrs. Danvers finds a new substitute for sex: maliciously attempting to destroy the second Mrs. de Winter emotionally and maneuvering her to an open window to urge suicide. “Why don’t you?” Mrs. Danvers asks, in a creepily soothing, lingering voice. “Why don’t you?” Queried about the lesbian subtext of her performance in the 1980s, Anderson offered, “I wasn’t aware of it then, but I certainly am now. Of course, I knew very little about lesbianism, and still don’t.” Speaking about “awareness” of lesbianism for a late-in-life interview could be a tricky thing for an actress of her time and place.
Anderson was born in Australia in 1897, and she had some rough years before she made her reputation in the theater. She played Lavinia in the original production of Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra. She was Gertrude to John Gielgud’s Hamlet. She played Lady Macbeth with Laurence Oliver. She was the vengeful Delia in Edith Wharton’s The Old Maid. She played Olga in a starry production of Chekhov’s Three Sisters with Katharine Cornell and Ruth Gordon. Yet before Rebecca, the only film Anderson had made was Rowland Brown’s Blood Money (1933), a measured little crime drama to which she brought an offbeat sexuality that was overshadowed by Frances Dee’s bold performance as a sexual masochist.
With her small eyes, long, bumpy nose, and prominent mole just below her tiny mouth, Anderson might have initially felt limited by her unusual looks, but she built herself up into a commanding presence on stage and on screen both physically and especially vocally. Her resonant stage-trained voice is a constant source of delight in all of her films, charging even the smallest and most insignificant roles with a large amount of grandeur and meaning.
Anderson’s presence in a film often signified transgression, perversion, incest, and unexpected violence; she brought the intensity of classical Greek drama to everything she did, from programmers like Lady Scarface (1943) to literary adaptations like Kings Row (1942). As Ann Treadwell in Laura (1944), Anderson is dressed in self-consciously feminine garb, but she is as masculine in that film as Clifton Webb and Vincent Price are traditionally feminine, or effeminate. “I’m not a nice person,” Ann says coolly, and Anderson more than suggests Ann’s not-niceness but also her genuine need for companionship with Price’s Southern gigolo.
She was an incestuous mother in Jean Renoir’s superb The Diary of a Chambermaid (1946) and a loathsome guardian and cat-abuser killed off early in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946). But her best part on screen, after Mrs. Danvers, was surely Flo Burnett, the self-described adventuress disfigured with a pair of scissors by Barbara Stanwyck in Anthony Mann’s Freudian western The Furies (1950). In Flo’s final scene, where she keeps holding a handkerchief over the ruined half of her face, Anderson is allowed to be gallant, human and very touching. But even when her roles restricted her to domineering villainy, Anderson always presents a full person on screen, one with a past and a present dominated by many private thoughts. Whenever she appears in a film, no matter what the material, you know that Anderson will offer you a full meal of a characterization, with many behavioral courses and wines (though no dessert).
Anderson enlivened 1950s Biblical dramas like Salome (1953) and The Ten Commandments (1956), and survived being strangely cast as Big Mama in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958). But her signal achievement of this time was her playing of Euripides’ Medea, in a translation by her friend Robinson Jeffers. Anderson did the part on Broadway in 1947, and she toured with it and filmed it for television. It became her signature role, and the TV recording of it reveals one of the major performances of the twentieth century. Anderson’s Medea prowls around the stage like a dangerous animal on a short leash. Unconstrained here by the limits of the camera, Anderson acts with her entire body, twisting and turning it into writhingly rebellious and then beaten shapes as Medea sets herself on the ultimate revenge against her disloyal husband Jason: the murder of their two young sons. Her eyebrows painted upward and her face framed by curls, Anderson makes a devastating, and devastated, picture of haughty madness, like a profile on a coin that keeps collapsing into a vortex of rage, disgust and need for reparation. Anderson’s vocal technique is peerless here, running the full gamut from amazing basso growls of anger to high and plangent calls for justice.
“I have not myself a very serene temperament,” Anderson once said, and she often gave her fellow actors a hard time. “Her standards for behavior in and out of the theater were high and she tended to distrust the members of the company,” said Marian Seldes, who played one of her ladies in waiting in Medea. Florence Reed, who played the Nurse, called Anderson’s constant mistrustfulness “an illness of the mind.” During the many years she played in Medea, Anderson was hyper-conscious of anyone moving on her lines or taking a tone from a line that had just been said, and the cast came to dread her extensive notes after a performance. But of course it’s not likely that an actress giving the performance of her life as Medea would be at all easy to deal with off the stage.
Anderson’s personal life was marked by two brief marriages: “Neither experience was a jolly holiday,” she said (of course it could not have been a jolly holiday for Mrs. Danvers with whomever Mr. Danvers might have been). She lived a long time, fulfilling a dream of playing Hamlet at the age of 73 and then settling happily in Santa Barbara, California, from whence she emerged to play a Vulcan priestess in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984) and the fabulously named Minx Lockridge on the daytime soap opera Santa Barbara.
Her striking, baleful face seemed to contain a detailed record of every unpleasant interaction with people that she had ever experienced, and she used her own mistrustfulness of others to create a body of work that gets to the root of the darker emotions: fear, anger, outrage, betrayal, and an unstoppable urge for revenge, which was activated most impressively when Mrs. Danvers sets fire to Manderley. As Hitchcock shoots her face through the flames, Anderson exhibits the same wondering expression that passes across her Medea’s face after she slaughters her two sons.
Anderson was an actress who dared great things, an actress who enacted the greatest struggles and meted out the greatest punishments. She shot for the top of her profession, and she reached it, at some personal cost. Mrs. Danvers is mad, but her position in life has made her so. Anderson makes us intimately understand that dilemma before she reaches, as only she can, for purging action and catharsis.
by Dan Callahan