Alfred Hitchcock and his Birds
Behind the camera, his pendulous lips exhaling bad breath and extraordinarily obscene jokes in a lugubrious Cockney accent, stood the corpulent figure of Alfred Hitchcock, acknowledged as cinema’s master of murder, mayhem and suspense.
In front of the camera, poised, elegant, remote, and seemingly unattainable, reclined the exquisitely beautiful Tippi Hedren, his latest star, and the last in a long line of ice-cool blonde screen goddesses with whom Hitchcock had become fixated during his 40-year career.
Hedren, a former model, was then 34 — more than 30 years his junior. She had a six-year-old daughter — now the movie star Melanie Griffith — and was about to marry a second husband, her agent Noel Marshall.
But Hitchcock, in spite of knowing this, had become dangerously obsessed with Hedren, behaving as the ultimate Svengali. He had started to bombard her with crude sexual overtures, and had ruthlessly sought to control every aspect of her life, off the screen as well as on it.
The flare-up that occurred that day had been a long time coming. After their second film together — the psychological thriller Marnie, in which she starred opposite Sean Connery — Hedren was nominated for the Photoplay Award as the most promising new actress of the year.
She asked Hitchcock’s permission to travel to New York to appear on The Tonight Show, where the award was to be presented. But Hitchcock could not bear the prospect of her departure, even for two days. He abruptly refused permission for her to go, telephoning the network on her behalf to reject the award and cancel her appearance.
For two years, Hedren had preserved an iron self-control in her dealings with the great director, refusing ever to rise to his sexual advances.
But that day, unable to contain herself any longer, all the pent-up emotion poured forth as she exploded, screaming at Hitchcock and allegedly calling him ‘a fat pig’ in front of the assembled crew on the set. Hitchcock froze. ‘She did what no one is permitted to do,’ he complained bitterly. ‘She referred to my weight.’
Furious, Hedren demanded to be released from her exclusive contract with Hitchcock.
From that moment, he brutally excised her from his life, threatening to ruin her career and declining even to address her personally, except through intermediaries. He never again uttered her name, referring to her only as ‘that girl’.
This astonishing saga is the subject of a 90-minute BBC2 television drama, The Girl, starring Sienna Miller as Hedren and Toby Jones as Hitchcock, with Imelda Staunton as Hitchcock’s wife, Alma, and Penelope Wilton as his loyal assistant, Peggy Robertson. This is a few years old now (about 4), but still worth a viewing.
Miss Hedren, now 82, is the artistic adviser on the film. Her ‘one reservation’, she says, ‘is that I worry they will not portray me as strong a character as I was — and still am. I had to be extremely strong to fight off Mr Hitchcock.
‘He was so insistent and obsessive, but I was an extremely strong young woman, and there was no way he was going to get the better of me.’
Alfred Joseph Hitchcock, the son of a Catholic greengrocer, was born in the East End suburb of Leytonstone in 1899. His father, William, was a strict disciplinarian who took to sending his son to the local police station with a note explaining that he had been ‘naughty’.
On arrival, a custody sergeant known to the family would lock the boy in a cell for five or ten minutes before releasing him. The clanging of the door, Hitchcock always insisted, used to cause him ‘dread’, and gave him a lifelong fear of arrest, jails and policemen. It also evidently appealed to his sense of drama.
His mother, Emma, was sharp-tongued and exacting. She compelled her son to stand at the foot of her bed and recite his daily activities — something he later referred to as his ‘evening confession’.
For years afterwards, he bitterly resented his mother’s tyranny, and close friends suspected that whenever he had one of his heroines murdered or violated on screen, he was mentally attacking his mother.
His marriage in 1926 to the film editor and screenwriter Alma Reville was to prove sexless. With the exception of one isolated occasion when they somehow succeeded in conceiving their daughter, Patricia — an experience in which he would admit to finding the ‘mechanics unpleasant’ — Hitchcock would remain celibate for the rest of his days.
By way of explaining this to friends, he would insist that he was ‘sexually impotent’.
His love life and more extreme sexual fantasies thereafter were played out on screen through his celluloid heroines, rather than in reality. And as the years passed, the line between that reality and his darker fantasies, arising out of his own desperate frustrations, often became invisible.
From adolescence onwards, Hitchcock’s principal obsession was with blonde women. Significantly, his wife, who had reddish hair, did not belong to that category.
His first screen blonde was the West End musical comedy star known only by her first name, June.
Her natural hair colour was light brown. But when he cast her as the threatened heroine in his silent version of a thriller called The Lodger in 1927, about a Jack-the-Ripper-type serial killer who enjoyed slicing up golden girls on foggy nights near London Bridge, Hitchcock insisted that his leading lady had to be blonde.
To her outrage, June found herself compelled to wear a blonde wig, the curls on which Hitchcock meticulously arranged personally. ‘By the end of the first week,’ she complained, ‘I looked like Harpo Marx.’
His second British blonde was the bisexual Joan Barry, mother of Henrietta Tiarks, Duchess of Bedford. As the young wife in Rich And Strange, Barry was filmed by Hitchcock in a water tank swimming with her husband, played by Henry Kendall.
Barry stands astride, daring him to swim between her legs. When he does so, she suddenly locks his head between her thighs until bubbles rise from his mouth. As he surfaces, he splutters: ‘You almost killed me that time.’
Barry responds: ‘Wouldn’t that have been a beautiful death?’
To Hitchcock’s infinite regret, the scene — perfectly capturing his lust for, and fear of, the alluring blonde — was killed by the censors.
The biggest star Hitchcock directed in the new talkie era was the reigning sex symbol of the day, Jessie Matthews. But Matthews, though teeming with sex appeal, was brunette and had no sexual message for Hitchcock.
She was also too powerful a box-office asset for Hitchcock to be able to impose his will on her, and she abruptly rejected his suggestion that she should adopt ‘a mincing operetta style’ in Waltzes From Vienna.
When he tried to insist, the head of the studio, Sir Michael Balcon, ordered him to desist, fearing that Matthews would walk off the picture and away from the studio. Hitchcock never forgave her snub to his authority, and was still hostile to her 40 years later.
Much more to his taste was the crystal-cool blonde Madeleine Carroll, star of The 39 Steps. But like his other blondes, Carroll fell victim to Hitch’s sexual fantasies. His fascination with bondage was satisfied on the first day of shooting by handcuffing Carroll to her co-star Robert Donat, whom she had never met before.
He then pretended to have lost the keys, leaving them shackled together in embarrassing discomfort and proximity for most of the day — a predicament they then also had to act out in the film.
A streak of ruthless sadism began to characterise Hitchcock’s dealings with his leading ladies. His first Hollywood blonde, Joan Fontaine, playing the shy second Mrs de Winter in the 1940 film Rebecca, was deliberately isolated by him.
‘He would constantly tell me that no one thought I was any good except himself,’ she said. He then undermined her by saying that her co-star, Laurence Olivier, disliked her and that she was liable to be replaced.
The much earthier Swedish blonde, Ingrid Bergman, tried to arouse Hitchcock’s dormant sexuality, but left him utterly humiliated when he proved physically incapable of responding to her overtures. He was hopelessly infatuated with her, a situation that caused tensions in his marriage to Alma.
Bergman, a warm-hearted, highly-sexed woman who was genuinely fond of him, believed him to be starved of affection and tried to remedy this, but his repressed libido could not be aroused, even by her.
Hitchcock’s perfect prototype of the screen blonde was undoubtedly Grace Kelly, the future Princess Grace of Monaco.
He was not deceived by her sedate, ladylike and refined facade. He would dine out with glee on her convoluted love life during the filming of Dial M For Murder, in which her frenzied struggle against strangulation had distinct sexual overtones.
‘That Gryce!’ he would declare in his sibilant Cockney. ‘She fucked everyone! Why, she even fucked little Freddie (Frederick Knott), the writer!’
American Kim Novak was another blonde whom Hitchcock bent to his will.
‘Before filming started on Vertigo,’ records one of his biographers, ‘he invited her to his house and chatted about everything except the movie — art, food, travel, wine — all the things he thought she wouldn’t know much about. He succeeded in making her feel like a helpless child, ignorant and untutored, and that’s just what he wanted — to break down her resistance. By the end of the afternoon, he had her right where he wanted her, docile and obedient.’
Janet Leigh also became a blonde sex object for the director. In the notorious shower scene in Psycho, the blade of the knife was employed to convey the impression of violent rape and sexual invasion.
As one of his screenwriters, Arthur Laurents, remarked: ‘He lived in the land of kink. Perverse sex, kinky sex, that fascinated him . . . essentially he was a voyeur.’ And then, one day in 1961, while watching a TV commercial for a diet drink, Hitchcock glimpsed his greatest blonde obsession of all, Tippi Hedren.
Putting her under exclusive contract at $500 a week — Poverty Row pay by Hollywood standards — he chose her clothes, her make-up, her jewellery, her coiffure, advised on what she should eat, whom she should see, and how she should live.
‘She’s already reaching the lows and highs of terror,’ he announced in 1962, and it was almost an understatement.
As the distraught heroine of The Birds, she was assured by Hitchcock that only mechanical birds would be used, instead of which Hedren endured five days of prop men, protected by thick leather gloves, flinging dozens of live gulls, ravens and crows at her, with their beaks clamped shut with elastic bands.
When one of the birds gouged her cheek, narrowly missing her eye, Hedren collapsed on the set, crying hysterically. A physician ordered a week’s rest, during which she was assailed by ‘nightmares filled with flapping wings’.
Small wonder, as she increasingly realised the full extent of Hitchcock’s domination of her, that in panic she finally rebelled and broke free from him.
He kept her on salary, holding her to her contract for two years, during which he refused all other requests for her services, including one from the acclaimed French director, Francois Truffaut, an offer of which Hitchcock never even informed her.
In 1967, after finally breaking free by accepting Charlie Chaplin’s invitation to appear in his film, A Countess From Hong Kong, Hedren grudgingly agreed to have tea with the Hitchcocks at Claridge’s.
The idea was a peacemaking bid by Alma, but it proved to be a strained and tense occasion on which Hitchcock could barely conceal his bitterness towards her. There are those who believe he never recovered from the blow to his pride that Hedren’s defection inflicted. He made only four further films after Marnie — Torn Curtain, Topaz, Frenzy and Family Plot — none of them vintage Hitchcock.
By 1980, when he was belatedly knighted, he had utterly withdrawn into himself, was declining food, refusing to get out of bed, and staring coldly at the very few visitors he received. He died on April 29, 1980, three months short of his 81st birthday.
If Tippi Hedren, through his egomania, lost her chance of major stardom, at least in the end she won back her freedom and reasserted her independence from a tortured and tormented genius.
There’s something eerie about sitting almost alone in a large cinema. It’s as though something has happened somewhere else and you are the only one who doesn’t know.
by Helena Bryanlith