By Elisabeth Karlin
Like the stabbing violins of Psycho, my inbox has been shrieking with Google Alerts regarding Alfred Hitchcock: "Evil!" "Deviant!" "He ruined my career!" "He was a horror!" I got used to these loaded charges from Hitchcock Blonde Tippi Hedren (The Birds, Marnie) as her contribution to the PR campaign for the upcoming HBO biopic The Girl. Scheduled to premiere this October 20, this made-for-cable movie promises to dramatize the director's allegedly abusive behavior toward his leading lady--or, at least, Tippi's version of events. But then I came across the header that read, "News about the Hitchcock sexual harassment flick." I'm not sure why this comparatively low-key line annoyed me. Perhaps it was its one-sided matter-of-factness.
Accusations have become assumptions that now need to be addressed.
The Girl is based on Hedren's memories as they have been told to, or perhaps extracted by, author Donald Spoto, the creative consultant on the project. I cannot talk about the film itself until I see it later next month, but I can comment on the nature of its publicity, which I find disturbing. (To be clear, The Girl should not be confused with Hitchcock, the other biopic soon to come out with a higher wattage cast and more creditable source material, namely Stephen Rebello's very worthy book, Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho.)
For the record, I am a woman. I know what it is like to be a frightened and defenseless female caught in the grip of a powerful man, because, for several years, I myself was in a violently abusive relationship. Once I got out of that situation, I volunteered as an emergency room advocate for domestic violence and rape victims. I have loads of fellow feeling for any woman who needs someone to hear her story.
I have heard Hedren's story and can imagine the anguish she might have felt. "[Hitchcock] was almost obsessed with me," she once claimed, "and it's very difficult to be the object of someone's obsession. I never talked about it for twenty years because I didn't want people to think about it in the wrong light. I felt such empathy for Hitch, to have such strong feelings and not have them returned is very difficult." How did this honest, reasonable and rather touching assessment of their troubled partnership mutate into her recent characterization of Hitchcock as "evil and deviant to the point of dangerous?"
Apparently, for the sake of publicity, she is ready to turn on that wrong light and journalists are basking in the glow. I've read, based on her interviews, how "everybody knows that Hitchcock was mentally abusive to those who refused his advances..." Huh? And now the rather gruesome trailer for the film is circulating, accompanied by copy calling Hitchcock "creepy and pervy." Of course, more charitable writers will allow that he was a "creepy and pervy genius."
Was Alfred Hitchcock a pervy creep? Lifelong friends like Grace Kelly, Ingrid Bergman and Teresa Wright might argue that point, but they're dead, along with most of Hitchcock's (predominantly female) friends and associates. In the 1970s there was a round table interview of Hitchcock leading ladies. It's a jolly gabfest with Suzanne Pleshette, Janet Leigh, Eva Marie Saint, Karen Black and yes, Tippi too. And while Hedren does come off as the least bubbly and most self-conscious of the bunch, she says nothing to indicate that she doesn't share in the group's affection for Hitch. Interestingly, asked by the moderator about having called Hitchcock "fat" to his face, Hedren responds: "I may have done that. I don't remember. That could have happened. I honestly don't remember that."
Well, it did happen. There was a set full of witnesses on the day when Hitchcock refused to interrupt the filming of Marnie so that Hedren could go to New York and pick up Photoplay's "Star of Tomorrow" award. She in fact called him a "fat pig" and that showdown resulted in their official falling-out.
The Hitchcock-Hedren drama began in 1961 when plans to make Marnie as a returning vehicle for Her Serene Highness, Princess Grace of Monaco, fell victim to the complexities of diplomatic relations and the financial entanglements of Monaco. Hitchcock had to face the hard fact that Grace Kelly was gone for good and he shelved the project.
It was then that his gaze fell upon a blonde model in a television commercial. He liked her lady-like style and the way she tossed her head. He signed her to a seven year contract before they even met. He cast her as the lead in The Birds and just as Scottie Ferguson strove to turn Judy Barton into Madeleine Elster, Hitch was set on making Tippi Hedren into Grace Kelly. And as if to prove it could be done, he cast her as Marnie. That much we know.
Now to digress for a moment. When I was a kid my father launched a one-man publishing company that nevertheless had two names: Hopkinson and Blake. (It was named after the Brooklyn street corner where he hawked newspapers as a lad.) It occupied a small and unprofitable niche, publishing scholarly books about film. One evening he tossed a rejected manuscript on Hitchcock my way. Knowing my interest in the subject, he thought I might like to read it. And oh boy, did I read it. My mother, noting my intent rapture, picked up the chapters as I finished them and the two of us were up all night babbling about birds and bathrooms and eyeglasses and teacups and the way they linked every film. We considered the influence of Dostoevsky and Henry James on the director and how movies that we had looked upon as light thrillers were actually dark and complex meditations on a chaotic universe. It was the best time I ever had with my mother.
And that is how Donald Spoto's first book, The Art of Alfred Hitchcock, got published. I'm sure my mother's opinion carried more weight than my own but my father liked people to believe that it was published with the imprimatur of his teenage daughter. I remember so well the making of the book: examining mock-ups of the cover, watching my dad edit drafts and how he rewrote Princess Grace's preface to make it readable. I was put to work as a proofreader and once the book was out, you could read my indignant rebuttals to any criticism of it in the Letters sections of Film Comment, American Film and other magazines. It didn't make much money ("Don't worry, I don't blame you," my father told me) and he was forced to sell the rights to Doubleday.
Although Spoto's high regard for Hedren is evident in The Art of Alfred Hitchcock, it was in his following unauthorized biography, The Dark Side of Genius (Spoto had moved on to the statelier publishing house of Little, Brown), where his obsession with her really took hold. Written after Hitchcock's death, Dark Side disturbed many as a seamy and speculative intrusion into the director's personal life and private thoughts. It was certainly jarring to me that the man who wrote what many of us considered the definitive and seminal analysis of the Hitchcock oeuvre would be so hell-bent on depicting the great artist as a pathological misogynist. It left me severely disillusioned--not with Hitchcock, but with Spoto.
The book on the life of Hitchcock made Spoto famous in a way that his book on the art of Hitchcock could not, and he went on to serve as one of the publishing industry's go-to writers of celebrity biographies. In 2008, he returned to Hitchcock for the third time with Spellbound by Beauty, spilling more wild suggestions about the director's impulses toward his leading ladies, especially Hedren. In The Dark Side of Genius, he had written somewhat sympathetically (albeit with mysterious access to the inner workings of Hitchcock's mind and heart): "Had he actually touched the closest incarnation of his dream, the moment of physical contact might have been intolerable for him." In Spellbound by Beauty, Hitchcock's infatuaton is treated with less romantic gauze. Either way, how far Hitchcock actually went in his pursuit remains hazy. But now with The Girl, the Spoto-Hedren confederacy makes one last march to demolish the Hitchcock legacy for good.
"He ruined my career but he didn't ruin my life," has been a refrain wafting through Tippi Hedren's publicity soundbites (and to her credit, she has impressively put her life to good use with her Shambala Preserve for Big Cats.) (Full disclosure: Spoto serves on the Shambala Preserve's Board of Advisors.) To that, Hitch defenders have retorted, "Ruined her career? He gave her a career." But it is true that after their estrangement he kept her locked in her contract, drawing a salary but unable to work for those years. Still, I don't think other directors ever shared Hitchcock's entrancement. She insists that Francois Truffaut wanted her. If he did, my guess is that it was in homage to Hitch. And with Jeanne Moreau on hand and Julie Christie and Catherine Deneuve waiting in the wings, I doubt the French director was much vexed by her unavailability.
Hedren has claimed that Hitchcock blocked her Oscar nomination for Marnie. This is doubtful. for one thing, Hitchcock had no power over the Oscar nominating process where actors nominate actors. Unless he went knocking on the doors of Beverly Hills threatening to bust kneecaps at votes for Tippi, I can't imagine what kind of influence he could have wielded there. The nominations for Best Actress in 1964 were Julie Andrews (at the height of her popularity), Anne Bancroft (one of the most respected actresses in town), Sophia Loren (a legend), Debbie Reynolds (a triple-threat talent), and Kim Stanley (considered the best American actress, ever.) I'm curious as to which of these nominees took Tippi's spot.
We all hold our own opinions of Tippi Hedren as an actress--and they tend to vary widely. But as for Hitchcock ruining her career, I will concede that he obstructed it for a time, but as anyone who has seen Hedren in Charlie Chaplin's The Countess from Hong Kong can attest, she is blaming the death of her acting career on the wrong genius.
None of us knows exactly what transpired between the director and his protégée. In this sad story of an impossible meeting between love object and love subject, I can buy that Hitchcock probably behaved badly and yet I still question why Donald Spoto, the man who ignited my passion for Hitchcock, has been so determined to build some cautionary narrative out of the imperfect and inexplicable strands of human nature. He should know better.
As for the "Alfred Hitchcock sexual harassment flick," well, I have an innate suspicion of any "docudrama" told from the perspective of one of its subjects. Memory shifts with time and almost always in the most self-serving way. Autobiography is the least trustworthy of genres.
From the look of it, it appears that what might have been a story of depth and complexity has been reduced to a crude Victorian melodrama of an oily villain and a guileless damsel in distress--and this sullies and diminishes the very art of storytelling. We do not live in a world of victims and villains. Hitchcock knew that we are made of much more fascinating stuff. He showed us that in every regular Guy there lurks a disturbed Bruno. In every warped Uncle Charlie there is at least a vestige of a wholesome young Charlie.
And so, the man who was afraid of the police has been accused of terrible crimes against women and there is no way he can defend himself from the charges. I do not believe that Alfred Hitchcock was a woman-hater. His truth is in his work. That's all we can know and that's all we have a right to judge him on.
Elisabeth Karlin is a playwright living in New York City. Her award winning, Hitchcock-inspired play, BODEGA BAY, will have its world premiere at the Abingdon Theatre in New York, opening January 25, 2013.
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