Guest Author - Barbara Rice DeShong, PhD.
Women are portrayed in mystery movies very differently depending on social attitudes and expectations. Consider the role of Joan Fontaine in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rebecca” as compared to Jodi Foster in “The Brave One.” Just how far have we come in thinking about leading women in mysteries? As a starting point, Joan Fontaine in “Rebecca” is listed in the cast, not by her given name, but as “the second Mrs. DeWinter,” though the first Mrs. DeWinter never appears in the movie.
Before anyone’s been murdered, the two leading women are different in the way they live and how they deal with challenges in their lives. As “Rebecca” opens, the second Mrs. DeWinter is working as a “paid companion” for an ill-tempered wealthy woman. She’s a young woman without a life of her own and without goals. When Mr. DeWinter (Lawrence Olivier) meets her and asks why she is working in such unpleasant circumstances, the soon-to-be second Mrs. DeWinter explains that her parents are dead, and thus, she had no choice. The implication is that, until the second Mrs. DeWinter finds a man who could take care of her, she simply would have to settle for having no life.
When “The Brave One” opens, Erica Bain (Jodie Foster) is a woman who sees herself has having many choices. She’s a successful radio host who has decided to marry a man with his own career path. The marriage, she assumes, will be a coming together of two lives. For the second Mrs. DeWinter, the marriage is clearly defined as her redefining herself to “fit in” to Mr. DeWinter’s life. Her days are filled with tasks not of her choosing. Her goal is to make good appearances at the social to-dos that are defined by being Mrs. DeWinter. She does not suggest any interests of her own, only asking that her husband think she is a “good wife.”
Then, Erica Bain (“The Brave One”) and her fiancé are brutally attacked and the fiancé dies. Erica, first out of fear, but later out of commitment, arms herself so that she will never again be helpless against physically stronger males. Erica searches down and kills the men who murdered the one man she knew she could have loved forever. Meanwhile, back with the story of the timid, second Mrs. DeWinter, Joan Fontaine is manipulated by the maid to dress like the former Mrs. DeWinter, nearly ruining her marriage. The second Mrs. DeWinter pleads with her husband offering that he doesn’t have to love her. She understands that he couldn’t love someone as simple as she is, but still she just wants a chance to be around him.
“Rebecca” ends with the woman being awarded the love she needed through a fortunate event she knew nothing about. “The Brave One” ends with the audience cheering. A woman has stood up against her fears. There is no “happily ever after” in a man’s arms, but Erica does learn that her radio audience has been behind her all the way. A new level of radio hosting work is opened to her. Each plot works in it’s own time. Which writer and director will bring us the triumphant woman of today?