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Monday
Oct152012

Oscar Horrors: Terrifying Mrs. Danvers

Oscar Horrors, a daily series for October, looks at Oscar nominated contributions to the horror genre. Here's Jose to talk about one of the best villains of all time.

HERE LIES...Mrs. Danvers, played exquisitely by Judith Anderson who was nominated as Best Supporting Actress of 1940 for her work in Rebecca. She lost the Oscar to Ma Joad and vanished in the fire.

I grew up in a family where Hollywood classics were as revered as Catholic saints. I remember being a child and being freaked out by the black and white people uttering undecipherable phrases from what I assumed was some sort of TV grave. None however freaked me out as much as the wide eyed Mrs. Danvers (did she ever blink?!?) who endlessly haunted the poor new Mrs. de Winter (Joan Fontaine).

The passing years didn't make Mrs. Danvers less creepy. In fact, the more I aged, the scarier she got. It must be due to the fact that she's not only a horror figure in the strict physical sense. Yes, her long black dress, severe hairdo and eerily seductive voice didn't help, but there was something else about her that made me fear the idea of marrying Laurence Olivier and moving to a mansion. 


Reading Hitchcock Truffaut I suddenly got what is it that made her so terrifying and the master himself explained it best:

Mrs. Danvers was almost never seen in motion. [The heroine] never knew when Mrs. Danvers might turn up and this in itself was terrifying. To have shown Mrs. Danvers walking would have been to humanize her.

So, there we have this diabolical creature, almost a human mausoleum, whose entire existence revolved around protecting the legacy of a woman who was never that nice to begin with. The director cleverly framed all of Mrs. Danvers scenes so it always appears that it's Mrs. de Winter who must serve her.

The heroine's submissive position and Mrs. Danvers' ominous presence make for one of the most complex relationships in any Hitchcock movie (the homoerotic and homophobic undertones contained in this movie have inspired countless essays of their own!). Though Hitchcock would go on to shape countless other fascinating character dynamics, Mrs. Danvers still looms large. She's inspired a myriad of characters since that range from the surreal (HAL 9000) to practical carbon copies (Mrs. Obrien in Downton Abbey) whose only purpose is to show their masters who's the boss.

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Reader Comments (6)

I absolutely love the idea of O'Brien being descended from Mrs. Danvers and I totally see it now. What a great observation.

October 15, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel R

That negligee moment...

October 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTB

I give my respect to Ma Joad but I'd have prefered if Anderson scored the golden boy that year, along with Joan Fontaine (I prefer her in REBECCA than in SUSPICION)...even because rewarding her a year before could have make the Academy free to give the award to Stanwick or Davis, nominated for two mighty performances

October 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMirko

Great article, Jose. :) loved the Hitchcock / Truffaut excerpt.

October 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBeau

Ha! I love you guys. I thought I was the only one who saw the likeness between Danvers and O'Brien. Gawd, Danvers was terrifying. And like Margaret Hamilton, I was never able to see Anderson in another role because "Why don't you? Why don't you? Go on." kept playing in my head.
Fontaine was great, Olivier, his usual hammy self, and Sanders, the best smarmy character actor of the 1940s. One of my favs and a great pick for your Oscar horrors series.

October 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPam

It's wierd to me to think that of the four leading actors in Rebecca, Judith Anderson is the one without an Oscar. I actually think this is my favorite Hitchcock or at least the one I return to the most often.

Really it doesn't get much creepier than Mrs. Danvers. She's right up there with Angela Lansbury in The Manchurian Candidate for creepy villains in psychological horror movies.

October 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDave in Alamitos Beach
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