In many respects it is understandable that the second Mrs. de Winter would be Joan Fontaine's best known role. The film was based on the Daphne du Maurier novel of the same name and directed by Alfred Hitchcock. The film did very well at the box office--it was the third highest grossing film in the United States for 1940, after Boomtown and The Great Dictator. Rebecca also received its share of awards. It won the Oscar for Best Picture and Best Cinematography and was nominated for nine more. Indeed, Joan Fontaine received a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role.
Today it seems impossible that anyone but Joan Fontaine would have been considered for the role of Mrs. de Winter. That having been said, over twenty actresses were considered for the role. Among them were Maureen O'Hara, Anne Baxter, Loretta Young, and Anita Louise. David O. Selznick wanted Joan Fontaine's sister Olivia de Havilland for the role of the second 2nd Mrs. de Winter. In the end Olivia de Havilland would not get the part for several reasons, not he least of which was she was hesitant to take a role for which her sister was also being considered. Among the hurdles in Miss de Havilland taking the role of Mrs. de Winter were the fact that she was committed to appear in the film Raffles (1939) and Warner Brothers was being very stubborn about lending her out. Laurence Olivier wanted his lover Vivien Leigh for the role, but David O. Selznick felt that she was the "wrong type (the same reason that Loretta Young would not get the role)". Joan Fontaine was cast in the role of the second Mrs. de Winter after Alfred Hitchcock saw her performance in The Women (1939).
Joan Fontaine would not have an easy time during the shooting of Rebecca. Her co-star, Laurence Olivier, resented her for having been cast in the role rather than Vivien Leigh, and treated her horribly throughout the filming. Miss Fontaine also found herself largely isolated from the largely English cast, who tended to stick to themselves. Worse yet, to a small degree Joan Fontaine's situation in real life reflected the second Mrs. de Winter's situation in Rebecca. She had just married British actor Brian Aherne, and was still learning to manage the Aherne household at the time Rebeccca was being shot.
Given all of this, it should not be surprising that Joan Fontaine would give a convincing performance as the second Mrs. de Winter, a woman competing with the memory of the beautiful and seeming perfect first Mrs. de Winter (the "Rebecca" of the title) while at the same time adjusting the aristocratic lifestyle of Maximilian de Winter and dealing with the icy housekeeper Mrs. Danvers (played by the great Judith Anderson). Particularly given the situation on the set and to a small degree Miss Fontaines' real life at the time, in the hands of a lesser actress Mrs. de Winter might have come off as a weak, gutless woman spooked by the memory of a dead wife and fearful of her husband's admittedly frightening housekeeper. In the hands of Joan Fontaine, however, the second Mrs. de Winter is much more than this.
Indeed, the overriding emotion that Joan Fontaine brings to the second Mrs. de Winter is not fear, but instead a desire to be accepted, a desire for her husband to love her at least as much as the late Rebecca and for his aristocratic society to accept her on her own terms. To this degree one sometimes sees flashes of strength beneath the docile facade of the second Mrs. de Winter. This is perhaps no more apparent when the second Mrs. de Winter finally defies Mrs. Danvers and orders her to destroy Rebbecca's papers. There are perhaps only a few times in the history of cinema that an actress has delivered a line so strongly, so defiantly, as when Joan Fontaine as the second Mrs. de Winter tells Mrs. Danvers, "I am Mrs. de Winter now." Joan Fontaine as the second Mrs. de Winter isn't some simpering idiot, but instead a woman who has been bullied to the point that she discovers the spine she had all along.
Joan Fontaine was only 21 years old and inexperienced as a lead actress when she starred Rebecca. The film would prove a turning point in her career. She would go onto deliver several strong performances, appearing in such films as Suspicion (1941--once more working with Alfred Hitchcock), The Constant Nymph (1943), Jane Eyre (1944), and Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948). If the film Rebecca is about a woman who discovers strength she never knew she had, Rebecca could be considered the film that proved to Hollywood that Joan Fontaine was an actress with talent that they never thought she had.