Friday, September 28, 2012

The Art of Accusing Alfred Hitchcock

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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7 comments:

Richard said...

I'm a massive fan of Hitchcock and can't wait to watch the drama this autumn on BBC2. Like you say "I do not believe that Alfred Hitchcock was a woman-hater. His truth is in his work." and his work had many dark elements to them but never of a misogynistic nature from my recollection.

There are modern day directors such as Michael Bay who stand out from the crowd due to their particular slants on female characters in films. This sets them apart from Hitch who may have had strong feelings for his leading ladies but this meant for strong female roles not deminished carbon copied characters.

The Girl will be an interesting watch and hopefully not a sensational money spinner but only Hedren can tell us the truth really and there don't seem to be many facts being quoted so far as I can see.

Dave Pattern said...

An excellent and balanced article, Elizabeth :-)

It's interesting to see that Hedren is starting to distance herself from "The Girl" now, complaining that it doesn't reflect what really happened and isn't balanced... ho hum!

I've read pretty much every Hitchcock book I can get my hands on and Spoto's "Spellbound by Beauty" is the only one I gave up on -- he seems obsessed with bending the truth to fit his personal obsession that Hitchcock was a "dirty old man".

As for Hedren's acting career, I believe I'm right in saying that she was the one who rejected the film scripts that Universal sent her way (whilst she was under contact to Hitchcock and the studio)?

Also worth noting that she did do some TV acting after "Marnie" -- but whilst still under contract to Hitchcock and Universal -- so not quite the period of enforced non-working that Spoto has claimed).

I'm sure Hedren has her reasons (perhaps the ongoing need to finance her animal reserve?), but she does seem to enjoy the bubble of publicity whilst ignoring the reality of the past -- e.g. her criticism of plans to remake "The Birds", whilst ignoring the fact she starred in the appalling TV movies "Shadow of a Doubt" (1991) and "The Birds II: Land's End" (1994).

One final comment... Tony Lee Moral (author of "Hitchcock and the Making of Marnie") wrote an early -- and fairly critical -- review of "The Girl" and it would seem that the web site hosting it were asked/forced to remove it :-(

Rafael said...

I hope this text reaches a big audience. Hitchcock and his family deserve it.

Anonymous said...

Great post. I agree with most of what you've said, except you're being too charitable with Ms Hedren. (I could not care less about Mr Spoto, in spite of your praises)
Hitchcock had many famous falling out with really talented people, like Bernard Herrmann and John Michael Hayes, men who, for some reason or another, never had it better than when involved with Hitch, whereas other authors like Evan Hunter, Jay Presson Allen, f.i., continued having great successes independent of their collaborations with him, fallout or no fallout.
Even Brian Moore, who wrote the weak Torn Curtain script an later savaged Hitch in a novel of his did not lack for a continuous, successful career on his own.
In none of these cases there is a doubt that these people were very talented, whether in good standing with Hitchcock or not.
I cannot say the same about Ms Hedren's acting.

I don't have any qualms about the truthfulness of her accusations, not even her late change of opinion, I can imagine that she could have felt intimidated, as the Hitchcock family appeared to have been a power within Universal, before the studio was sold to various corporations, beginning with Matsushita, (Hitchcock appeared to have been one of the biggest shareholders at the time of his death).
What is laughable is:
a) That she considered she had a career as an actress.
Why? She was not an actress! She was a model in a commercial. She starred in the two worst acted Hitchcock movies, bar none, mainly because of her acting.
b) Artists are supposed to live by a gentleman code of conduct in what universe? It is unfortunate when this kind of things happen, even if it is hard to imagine what was the worse that Hitchcock could have done, but then again I might have missed the memo where creativity is supposed to be an antiseptic world free of human complexities.

The only tragedy is that Hedren's betrayal was very predictable but, being in the entertainment world myself, I wager that we would not have heard a word from Ms Hedren about her private life if Marnie had been a success. The truth of the matter is The Birds was a hit in spite of her, not because of her.

I don't mean to say that Marnie's failure is her fault. It is not. It is clearly Hitchcock's folly, for thinking he could replace an actress, forget Grace Kelly, any other actress, with Ms Hedren.

In spite of this, I am very sympathetic to what Ms Hedren might have to endure, but I have no tolerance for mediocrity using misfortune to justify itself.

tonylee said...

Hello, this is Tony Lee Moral, author of "Hitchcock and the Making of Marnie" and the forthcoming "The Making of Hitchcock's The Birds".

The early review was removed at my request because I wanted to write a longer more detailed review of THE GIRL, which will appear on the following link just before the HBO premiere on Saturday 20th October.

ttp://savehitchcock.wordpress.com

Anonymous said...

Looking into Chinese astrology gives some insight as to why he was misunderstood and could be someone you would not want to anger. I'm not sure about the sexual depravity, but I'm sure he could have affected the carriers with those who he felt wronged him per below.

1899 Year of The PIG
Sincere, Honest, Trusting, Sociable, Hard Working, Stubborn.
The Pigs of the Chinese Zodiac are giving and principled beings without equal. Pigs are very pleasant and have flawless manners and taste. Because they are also perfectionists, they are often wrongly viewed as snobs or as having feelings of superiority. Pigs are sensuous and luxuriant by nature. They love the finer things in life. Pigs care deeply for their friends and family and will go to great extremes to keep them happy and well. Pigs do not see helping others as a duty but as a pleasure.
Pigs are so giving they are actually sad when they have no one to give to. Their need to be magnanimous makes them an easy mark for those who live by the con. Pigs make great friends and lovers. Truly believing there is a higher good in all of us, the Pig will do almost anything to not see the bad qualities in their friends and family members. However, once a Pig feels they have been wronged, they become a force to be reckoned with.
Pigs are curious, intelligent beings. Pigs are sometimes wrongly perceived as being lazy. Their love of family and warm hearts make them wonderful mates.

Manuela Hertel said...

"The Girl" ist nothing than an insulting piece of dirt and will rightly be forgotten soon. But Alfred Hitchcock's films will remain cinematographic masterpieces for ever. He remains the most brilliant director of all time.

A few questions: What took Tippi Hedren so long to tell her stories? Why had she to wait until the accused was already dead a few years? Why didn't she sue him at once? Why didn't she (or one of the directors supposedly so desperate to work with her) sue herself out of this supposedly so terrible constricting contract? Controlled Alfred Hitchcock whole Hollywood or the whole filmmaking world? How much was she paid for her vivid imagination? Would anybody in this world still speak or even know her if there weren't "The Birds" and "Marnie"? One single man destroyed her career? Was it not rather so that she had very limited acting skills and she received mostly only lukewarm reviews by the critics (only one Golden Globe, wasn't it?) and that's why her career went into nowhere. Hard to face the truth, isn't? So better accuse a man who is already dead and unable to defend himself. Would she still speak of sexual harassement if the supposedly indecent proposal have been made by a far more a far more handsome man? At least it was she who said "How can a woman be frigid with a man like Sean Connery?"

Hedren attented numerous gala dinners to praise Alfred Hitchcock and attended even his funeral. In numerous interviews she stated that she owes her career only to him and that he was a marvellous person. In the Making Of "The Birds" and "Marnie" (DVDs) she never says one unfriendly word about him.
And now suddenly Alfred Hitchcock is a monster that ruined her life because of his sexual harassment towards her. What happened? Some money came in from gossip loving authors? The need to have people still talk of her?
And finally: when did she lie - when she praised him or when she demonized him?

Alfred Hitchcock had a lifelong friendship with Grace Kelly (the two of them exchanged over many years very touching letters) and Ingrid Bergman (she visited him shortly before he died). Why haven't we heard such stories by them?

Alfred Hitchcock - a womenhater? Ridiculous! His wife Alma was his closest associate all his life. What about Joan Harrison, Peggy Robertson and Edith Head - three of his closest collaborators?

I don't believe a single word of this kind of gossip.