I've been reading Tippi Hedren's autobiographical book The Cats of Shambala (1985) and, before I go on, I have to get this out of my system.
First of all, Tippi (or, perhaps, co-author for hire and ghostwriter extraordinaire Theodore Taylor) knows how to tell a good story and keep those 288 pages flipping by. But the best part is that just about every fifth or sixth page contains a revelatory bonne bouche that upends everything we thought we knew about Hitchcock's last official blonde.
For instance, says page 31: "I was a good technician, I believed, but I had no pretensions about winning Oscars." BOOM! Really?! Interesting slant, considering that, out of the blue, Ms. Hedren has recently started buttonholing anyone with ears to drop pissy-vinegary sound bites about how the director quashed her chances for earning an Academy AwardTM.
Better late than never, right?
The Cats of Shambala focuses on a fascinating—and relatively unknown—period in Ms. Hedren's life: a decade in which she tried to make Roar!, a movie starring 132 lions, tigers, jaguars and other wild cats, herself, her husband and four teenage children, including her daughter, Melanie Griffith (yes, one and the same).
Before I go on, I should mention that I met Tippi a couple of years ago and found her to be a sharp, beautiful, charming and indefatigable woman who seems old only when you look at the calendar. (I mean this sincerely.)
And then there's her legendary courage.
During her Hitchcock years, she dodged live birds hurled at her and allegedly ducked sexual advances from the (she claims) possessive director himself. But none of that was anywhere near the bravery she would demonstrate—and come to expect from cast and crew—as producer and star of her own movie.
In 1969 or 1970, she and then-husband Noel Marshall began development of a movie that they would co-produce about the mayhem that ensues when humans try to live with lions and tigers. Taking note of the risks involved in such an undertaking, they made a series of extraordinary decisions.
Realizing that they could not hire professional actors who had no experience working with wild animals, and that movie stars were out of the question, they decided to learn how to handle wild cats themselves. So they cast themselves and their children in the film. And in order to bond appropriately with the animals, they brought some of the creatures to live in their own home.
Talk about crazy cat ladies.
Thus, on May 2, 1971, Neil, a nine-foot-long, 400-pound lion, took up residence with Hedren, Marshall, 13-year-old Melanie and Noel's three teenage sons, Jerry, John and Joel.
Recalls Hedren, Neil "found a favorite sleeping spot in Melanie's bed.... One night the second or third week I went down to find them both asleep, side by side, Neil's big mouth not two feet from her body.... It was a sight some mothers might not relish." (Page 40.)
Soon, a retinue of six big cats shared a roof with the family. These would spend time living among them until they were moved on to a larger compound, which also served as their movie studio. The cats would then be replaced by new "trainees." The book is unclear about who was assigned litterbox duty, but we do what became of the furniture:
"One afternoon I came back from the canyon to view the wreckage of a cat tornado.... I found the Texas trio [of wild cats] pulling our king-size mattress out of the sliding door to the patio. The cover had been ripped off and the foam mattress looked like Swiss cheese, holes in it as large as dinner plates. They had also had a tug of war with the bedroom drapes, which were ripped our of the traverse rods and were hanging at half mast."Shooting was expected to last about six months. But floods, fires, budgetary crises, wild animal rampages and en masse resignation of production crews (for reasons that will soon become obvious) threw the schedule off and development actually stretched out to a full eleven years. Life-threatening animal-related injuries became routine. Read a few of Hedren's descriptions of these disasters—if you think your stomach can handle it.
During filming, while Hedren was lying across a log, Cherries, a 100-pound cat, started batting the actor's head with her paw:
"The next thing I knew, Cherries was running hard at me again, then she was on me, both paws on my shoulders, pinning me to the log. She took most of my head into her mouth, grasping the back of the skull. I could hear her teeth scraping bone and the sound was truly unforgettable. There was a resonance to it that I still find hard to describe. It was like being in an echo chamber as her teeth raked my skull.... The scalp bleeds profusely, I learned, and a gush of red spread over my face."Cinematographer Jan de Bont (Die Hard, Basic Instinct) had his entire scalp removed in a cat attack. 120 stitches were required to replace it.
On another occasion, Noel nearly died when a severe cat bite became infected.
Yet another event:
"One afternoon [teenager] John [Marshall] was walking with Tongaru near the newly-completed African house, by the lake, when he tripped over a rock hidden in high grass and landed face down. Before he could even try to push up, Tongaru was on him, his big mouth closing over the back of John's head. The lion did not try to penetrate the skull; rather, he seemed content to just hold John's head in his mouth.... Though he'd been around lions and tigers for almost two years, John had never experienced being trapped under one. He was visibly shaken from his twenty-five-minute ordeal. He was treated for scalp wounds at the hospital in Saugus, but not much could be done for his mental state."Jerry Marshall's leg was mangled by a lion that Hedren described chucklingly as having a "tennis shoe fetish."
Following an unexpected clash between two lions, Melanie Griffith quit production, saying, "Mother, I don't want to come out of this with half a face." She later reconsidered and joined the cast again—only to be clawed in the face.
Not only were the humans at risk, but so were the animals themselves. Violent territorial fights had to be broken up. The elephants fought.
Oh, did I mentioned that the menagerie included two elephants? In addition to the 132 lions, tigers, leopards, cougars and jaguars, there were three aoudad sheep, as well as ostriches, flamingoes, marabou storks, black swans and, of course, the elephants.
One of which broke Hedren's leg.
Which subsequently developed black gangrene.
Check out what happened to assistant director Doron Kaupler while on the set:
The lion Tongaru "sprang out, ramming him in the left side of the head, breaking three teeth. Doron went down with the cat on top of him, canines entering his throat less than an inch from his jugular vein. His left ear was almost severed as the teeth went down the side of his head and into his throat." (Page 233)Their neighbors' safety was put at risk when the cats would periodically escape from their home and from the compound.
I'm just scratching the surface here. There were many more bumps, scrapes and near-death experiences. Hedren was once bitten on the breast by a needle-fanged lion cub while bottle-feeding it. She lost track of how many times Noel was bitten, having stopped counting after 11.
Toward the end of the ordeal, Hedren concluded that "we had gambled everything, risked our lives and those of loved ones as well as crew members, to make the picture." (Page 260.)
She also chalked up their determination to continue production as an "obsession." Finally, though, they were done. "Noel had had a vision and together we had accomplished it, no matter the cost, in both money and human terms."
Despite 11 years' grueling effort and cost overruns well into the millions, Roar! was a critical and financial flop. Summarizing the errors in judgment that led to its failure, Hedren admitted that "we could not see beyond our own hopes and egos." (Page 259.)
All right. Enough about Roar!. Let's return to Hedren's aforementioned recollections about shooting conditions for The Birds. By the end of that week shooting the attic scene with live birds hurled at her, Hedren was on the edge. As she told biographer Donald Spoto, "One bird that was tied to me jumped from my shoulder onto my face and landed near me eye, scratching my lower eyelid." She collapsed into hysterics. Later, physicians ordered a 10-day leave of absence to recuperate, but Hitchcock allegedly protested, saying, "We can't do without her! We need her on Monday for the last few shots. According to Hedren, the doctor said, "Are you crazy? Are you trying to kill her?"
Fans of Hitchcock are familiar with this story, and it is a central talking point in Hedren's narrative about how abusive she claims Hitchcock was.
Yet, her personal sacrifices for that film pale in comparison with the ordeal she inflicted on herself and others while making Roar!. And, though she suffered for Hitchcock's vision, she was immortalized by it as well. To this day, in tribute to her unforgettable role, she embellishes her autographs ($20 a pop, thank you very much) with little v-shaped birds.
So it seems rather disingenuous that Hedren would wrap her reputation around the trials Hitchcock put her through when, upon being granted similar power as a producer, she went on to put more people in danger, overseeing more trauma and injuries in the making of Roar! than Alfred Hitchcock did in his entire 50-year career.
Is Tippi Hedren so lacking in self-reflective capabilities the she has failed to recognize the hypocritical position her own words put her in?
According to her, Cary Grant dropped by the set at that time and said, "I think you're the bravest woman I've ever met."
Her commentary? "I don't know if that was the right adjective for it."
What adjective do we use to describe her choice to cohabit with wild animals, putting her life and that of her daughter, her stepchildren and dozens of other people in jeopardy—all for the sake of a movie? What additional adjectives come to mind about about a person who does all that and then vilifies Hitchcock, who did far less?
And what adjectives should we use in reference to Shambala, her wildlife preserve, whose website proclaims: "As a true sanctuary, we do not buy, breed, sell, trade, or subject our animals to commercial use." But that's exactly how it got its start: purchasing animals from other zoos and preserves and augmenting that population via on-site breeding, all for one commercial purpose: to make a movie.
(To be fair, some of the founding "members" of Shambala were indeed rescued from abusive situations—but many weren't, while others were bred by Hedren herself.)
How did that commercially-acquired menagerie morph into the 501(c)3 non-profit we now know?
By the time filming on Roar! was completed, Hedren and Marshall's marriage (along with their finances) was in tatters, and they sought a divorce. Unfortunately, they now owned well over 100 wild cats and after the commercial failure of Roar!, neither of the two owners had the resources to care for them properly. Hedren writes on page 267:
"Noel had previously volunteered to take care of [the cats], financially, as long as they lived. We had assembled them for a purpose, and though that purpose had been fulfilled we still had a responsibility for their lives. Noel loved them as much as I did, but committing himself to feed them and maintain Shambala was more than a decent thing to do. Among my plans was one to establish the Roar Foundation, a nonprofit organization to assist in the care of the animals and continue further in-depth study of the great cat in captivity."Let's get this straight. Hedren and Marshall bought and bred a fuckton of wild animals so they could make a movie, which turned out to be an unmitigated personal and financial distaster. After the dust was settled, they realized they couldn't afford all these creatures, so Hedren devised a tax-sheltered business plan that allowed her to seek private donations to care for the mess she'd helped create.
The ironies abound. Alfred Hitchcock, the master of terror, was famous for maintaining an atmosphere of serene control on the set; his horror all appeared on the screen. Hedren, on the other hand, ran what might be the most terrorized set in Hollywood history in the making of a light comedy/adventure flick.
Yet, with a little script doctoring here and there, Tippi Hedren gets to be the hero of a story in which she originally played the fool. And that makes about as much sense as her assertion that she was a victim of Alfred Hitchcock's obsessiveness. On that note, drop by in a couple of days. Print this post