Laurence Olivier, Joan Fontaine, and Alfred Hitchcock on the set of Rebecca (1940)
[While filming Rebecca],Hitchcock built up his power over Joan Fontaine while keeping her nervous & vulnerable enough to enhance the nervous, vulnerable character she was playing.
She was not, it must be said, all that popular on the set. Olivier, still smarting over the fact that Fontaine had beaten out [his lover] Vivien Leigh for the part, treated his costar with transparent disdain. Olivier’s “attitude helped me subconsciously,” Fontaine later conceded in No Bed of Roses. “His resentment made me feel so dreadfully intimidated that I was believable in my portrayal.”
Hitchcock encouraged these tensions as grist for the scenes between his two stars. When, during the first week of shooting, Fontaine expressed shock after Olivier used a four-letter word, Hitchcock stepped in. “I say Larry old boy, do be careful,” he cautioned. “Joan is just a new bride.” When Olivier asked who the husband was, Fontaine replied that she had married Brian Aherne. “Couldn’t you do better than that?” he flung over his shoulder before striding off imperiously. The retort demolished her; Aherne was a lightweight, often typecast as an English gentleman, and Fontaine said later that she could never look at him with the same eyes again. (An impulsive marriage to begin with, it would also be a short-lived one.)
Not just Olivier but the entire cast, behaved like a “cliquey lot.” United by their superiority and their purer Englishness, they sneered at the least-seasoned player behind her back, or so Fontaine believed. Hitchcock took advantage of this, too, drawing on Fontaine’s insecurity to inform her performance in Rebecca. Ordering Fontaine to the set on her day off, the director surprised the actress by throwing her a birthday party. She was equally surprised that the important cast members didn’t bother to show up; they stayed in their dressing rooms. Hitchcock could have summoned them – but their absence suited his strategy.
It wasn’t really a matter of “Divide & Conquer” as Fontaine described it in her autobiography. It was Hitchcock forcing a movie actress to become her character, by treating Fontaine like Mrs. De Winter. The actress felt as alone, as terrified, as de Winter’s young bride felt in Rebecca’s world.
-excerpted from Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness & Light