3 July 2018

You are as wrong for role as role would be for you

Following her legendary role in Gone with the Wind (1939) Vivien Leigh desperately wanted to play the female lead in Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca (1940). While initially uninterested in the part of the second Mrs de Winter, Leigh became eager to play it after Laurence Olivier (whom she was having an affair with and would later marry) had been cast as Maxim de Winter. Determined to be in a picture with Olivier, Leigh went after the part and was ultimately tested for it twice.

Rebecca's producer David O. Selznick, who had previously worked with Vivien Leigh on Gone with the Wind, was far from enthusiastic after seeing Leigh's screen tests. Selznick felt that Leigh didn't "seem at all right as to sincerity or age or innocence or any of the other factors which [were] essential to the story coming off at all". Others agreed with him, including Hitchcock and George Cukor, and even Laurence Olivier, who had lobbied to get Leigh cast, later said he found her wrong for the part.

David Selznick and Vivien Leigh on a plane to Atlanta for the premiere of Gone with the Wind in December 1939. 
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In August 1939, while aboard the ocean liner Île de France (having just spent a holiday with Olivier in Europe), Vivien Leigh received a radiogram from David Selznick, informing her that she would not be starring in Rebecca. The radiogram can be read below as well as a radiogram from Selznick to Laurence Olivier (sent that same day), in which Selznick also explained to Olivier his decision not to cast Leigh .

[Click here to watch Vivien Leigh during her screen test for Rebecca opposite Laurence Olivier (see also photo below). I think David Selznick was right! Leigh was indeed wrong for the role while Joan Fontaine, who was later cast, was the perfect second Mrs de Winter.]

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August 18, 1939
Vivien Holman* 
Île de France 
New York Radio  
Dear Vivien: We have tried to sell ourselves right up until today to cast you in "Rebecca", but I regret necessity telling you we are finally convinced you are as wrong for role as role would be for you. You must realize it is this same patience, care, and stubbornness about accurate casting that resulted in putting you in most talked-of role of all time in what everyone who has seen it agrees is greatest picture ever made. It would have been very simple to cast Bette Davis as Scarlett, thereby satisfying millions of people including everyone in the profession. It would be much simpler to cast you, who are under contract to us, in "Rebecca" lead, and thereby have saved us all great deal of expense and agony searching for right girl. And even though you must be completely wrong casting, we might still have put you in it had we thought it was good for you, regardless of the picture. But I am positive you would be bitterly criticized and your career, which is now off to such tremendous start with Scarlett, materially damaged. Although Hitchcock feels even more strongly than I do on this question, I was still not satisfied and therefore ran the tests of all candidates for Robert Sherwood, who is working on script, without giving him any hint of our feelings. His first and immediate reaction was how completely wrong you were for it. Still not satisfied, I repeated the procedure with George Cukor, knowing his high regard for you, and George's first and immediate reaction was identical with Sherwood's. Am hopeful of having something soon for you that we will both be happy about, and also hopeful you will recognize that same care that has gone into "Wind" and "Rebecca" will go into selection and production of your future pictures, which is something I have no hesitancy in saying does not exist in many studios. Affectionately,
David
 [*Vivien Leigh was married to Herbert Leigh Holman whom she divorced in 1940. She and Olivier were married that same year.]
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August 18, 1939
Laurence Olivier
Île de France
New York Radio
Dear Larry: Please see my wire to Vivien. I know you must be disappointed, but Vivien's anxiety to play role has, in my opinion, been largely, if not entirely, due to her desire to do a picture with you, which was best demonstrated by her complete disinterest in part when I first mentioned it to her as possibility and until she knew you were playing Maxim. You will, after all, both be working here, so I think her eagerness has become exaggerated and not rationalized. Because of my personal affection for Vivien and my high regard for you both, am hopeful you will recognize that my judgment has been fairly sound and successful in these matters for many years. Hopeful we will be able to find something for the two of you to do together for us at some future date. Script is coming along splendidly, and glad be able tell you Robert Sherwood is doing final dialogue rewrite. Believe we are assembling exciting cast including Judith Anderson as Mrs Danvers, George Sanders as Favell, Reginald Denny as Frank, and Nigel Bruce as Giles. Possible may be able let you have day or two in New York if you want it and if you will contact us before leaving for coast. Cordially,
David 
Source: Memo from David O. Selznick (1972); selected and edited by Rudy Behlmer.

Joan Fontaine received an Oscar nomination for Best Actress for her portrayal of the second Mrs de Winter, but lost to Ginger Rogers (Kitty Foyle). Apart from Fontaine's nomination, Rebecca was nominated for ten more Oscars, eventually winning only two-- Best Picture (David Selznick) and Best Cinematography (George Barnes).

2 comments:

  1. Selznick couldn't have been any plainer or any kinder. Sometimes you wonder at casting choices, but certainly not in this case.

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    1. I totally agree. Thanks again for visiting!

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