(This review originally appeared in the November 30 issue of "The Oregonian".)
Ingrid Bergman. Kim Novak. Grace Kelly. These legendary screen stars and others owe their immortality in no small part to a rather unlikely impresario: the obese, deeply phobic son of a Cockney greengrocer, Alfred Hitchcock. While other directors accentuated the curves and smoldering sensuality of their leading ladies, Hitchcock iced things down, straightjacketing his beauties into demure pencil skirts and creating that countervailing Hollywood icon: the cool Hitchcock blonde.
Those relationships are examined in Hitchcock expert Donald Spoto’s third book about the director, “Spellbound by Beauty: Alfred Hitchcock and His Leading Ladies.”
Part biography, part analysis, this book covers almost the entire sweep of Hitchcock’s career, beginning with his early days in Britain’s silent film industry and ending – except for a brief coda covering his final decade – in 1964. Spoto focuses on the director’s professional collaboration and personal relationships with these women, adding behind-the-scenes insight into how Hitchcock elicited some of the screen’s most memorable performances. In his foreword, Spoto promises to tell a tale of “Hitchcock’s sadistic behavior and his occasional public humiliation of actresses” and later cites as an example an occasion when the director slapped Joan Fontaine in order to induce tears for an emotional scene in Rebecca.
But it’s in the book’s final three chapters where he delivers on that promise in full detail.
It has long been known that Hitchcock made a series of improper sexual advances toward Tippi Hedren, star of The Birds and Marnie – leading to a bitter falling-out – but Hedren has never gone on record to describe those events in any detail. This book fills in those gaps and a picture emerges of an excruciatingly painful and embarrassing time for her.
That episode aside, separating fact from the author’s scornful language, inflated with innuendo, is, at times, difficult. Take, for example, the above-mentioned slap: it had been delivered at Fontaine’s own request, yet Spoto uses it to demonstrate that Hitchcock had created an unpleasant atmosphere on the set.
Clearly, Hitchcock had his obsessions and weaknesses; over his half-century-long career he developed crushes on one or another of his leading ladies. Still, most of the actresses with whom he worked spoke fondly of their experiences with him. Spoto minimizes and dismisses that part of the story – even as he complains that Hitchcock partisans would “ignore or minimize” the “pain for which he was responsible.”
As a researcher and film scholar, Donald Spoto has few peers. His strength lies in his expert insights into Hitchcock’s films. With “Spellbound by Beauty”, however, his attempt to peer into the personality of Alfred Hitchcock the man reveals more about the biographer’s biases and character tics than it does those of the Master of the Suspense.