On 'Rebecca' and 'Foreign Correspondent,' Hitchcock's 1940 double-shot at Oscar glory

Hitch probably never came closer to victory than his first time at bat

<p>Alfred Hitchcock and his &quot;Rebecca&quot; leading lady, Joan Fontaine.&nbsp;</p>

Alfred Hitchcock and his "Rebecca" leading lady, Joan Fontaine. 

Credit: AMPAS

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You needn't have been following the Oscars for long to know that -- the usual inseparability of the Best Picture and Best Director awards notwithstanding -- Academy voters aren't particularly auteurist-minded.

That's not a comment on the films and filmmakers they've chosen to reward over the years, though the winners list would look somewhat different if they were. Rather, it alludes simply to the practical consideration that their top prize is still awarded to a film's producer, not the director -- a tradition inherited from the days when producers often wielded more creative control in Hollywood than the helmers they hired to shepherd their projects to fruition. (Not coincidentally, the Academy was happier to split the Picture and Director awards back then.) If the Academy worked more along the lines of film festival juries, the director would claim, or at least share, credit for the year's best film -- and Alfred Hitchcock would have one competitive Oscar to his name. 

It's telling that in the 1966 volume of interviews between Hitchcock and François Truffaut, a founding father of auteur theory if ever there was one, Truffaut is under the impression that Hitchcock won the 1940 Best Picture Oscar taken by his neo-Gothic romantic thriller "Rebecca." Hitchcock rather tersely corrects him that the award was given to Hollywood super-producer David O. Selznick, and that he's never won a statuette; Truffaut swiftly changes the subject.

Given how routinely Hitchcock's name crops up on lists of artists most shabbily treated by the Academy -- see Kris' recent review of his strike rate with the voters -- those less well-versed in Oscar history may be surprised to learn that the great man did, in fact, direct a Best Picture winner, and not a negligible one, either. When the Academy splits its two top awards, the losing director is usually not a name held in the very highest regard: a John Madden, say, or a Hugh Hudson. But the club also includes such notables as Ridley Scott and Francis Ford Coppola, and Hitchcock is at the top of that rewarded-and-yet-unrewarded pile.

Hitchcock almost certainly never came closer to winning Best Director than he did with "Rebecca": for one thing, only one of his other four nominations, for "Spellbound" five years later, was attached to a Best Picture nod. But while general Oscar logic dictates that a repeat nominee gains momentum with each successive bid, this nearest of misses came not just at Hitchcock's first nomination, but for his very first American film. Had "Rebecca" been made a further few years into his career, by which time the British director would have been less of a stranger to the Hollywood crowd, things might well have gone differently. 

As it stands, Hitchcock was the most illustrious casualty of what was surely one of the most evenly matched and tightly contested fields in Oscar history. The opposition in the 1940 Best Picture race included not just substantial works from John Ford, George Cukor, Charlie Chaplin and William Wyler, but another of Hitchcock's own films. Yes, both his maiden US efforts -- "Rebecca" and pulpy WWII potboiler "Foreign Correspondent" -- made the grade, notching up 17 nominations between them, though the director himself was only cited for the former.

In a more contemporary Oscar race, directing two of the year's top nominees would launch a filmmaker to the front of the Best Director pack -- particularly if he were only nominated for one of them. Coppola reaped the benefits of double-dipping with "The Godfather Part II" and "The Conversation" in 1974; more recently, Steven Soderbergh overcame the risk of splitting his own vote when he was nominated for both "Erin Brockovich" and "Traffic," ultimately winning for the latter.

In 1940, however, when directors moved far more quickly between projects under the studio system, that wasn't nearly such a noteworthy achievement. Several names had already managed to steer two Best Picture nominees in a single year: most impressively, Michael Curtiz, who in 1938 even copped an extra lone-director nomination for a third film. Hitchcock wasn't even alone in the achievement that year: John Ford ("The Grapes of Wrath," "The Long Voyage Home") and Sam Wood ("Kitty Foyle," "Our Town") also boasted a brace of 1940 Best Picture nominees. By passing over Hitchcock and handing the Best Director prize to Ford for "Wrath," the Academy effectively split the difference between the year's two most commendable over-achievers.  

Viewed in isolation, however, Hitchcock's two 1940 nominees make an interesting pair: even as they contrast completely in tone, "Rebecca" and "Foreign Correspondent" both show the director assembling the stylistic building blocks of his future genre work in Hollywood, while hanging onto stray elements of his earlier British output.

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Guy Lodge
Critic
Guy Lodge is a South African-born critic and sometime screenwriter. In addition to his work at In Contention, he is a freelance contributor to Variety, Time Out, Empire and The Guardian. He lives well beyond his means in London.
2013-2014 OSCAR NOMINATIONS
UPDATED: MARCH 2, 2014