New Jersey Online (08/Nov/2008) - The most select club in Hollywood: The Hitchcock Blondes
(c) New Jersey Online (08/Nov/2008)
- keywords: "Spellbound by Beauty: Alfred Hitchcock and His Leading Ladies" - by Donald Spoto, Academy Awards, Alfred Hitchcock, Anne Baxter, Carole Lombard, Donald Spoto, Doris Day, Eva Marie Saint, Family Plot (1976), François Truffaut, Frenzy (1972), Grace Kelly, Ingrid Bergman, Janet Leigh, Joan Fontaine, Julie Andrews, Kim Novak, Madeleine Carroll, Marnie (1964), Notorious (1946), Patricia Hitchcock, Rear Window (1954), Rebecca (1940), Sean O'Casey, The 39 Steps (1935), The Birds (1963), The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927), Tippi Hedren, Torn Curtain (1966), Universal Studios, Vera Miles, Vertigo (1958)
The most select club in Hollywood: The Hitchcock Blondes
It is perhaps the most select club in Hollywood: The Hitchcock Blondes.
He cast the pale beauties almost exclusively from his first thriller, the silent "The Lodger" in 1927, and by his final film, "Family Plot," not quite 50 years later, the list had grown to include some of cinema's best. Grace Kelly and Ingrid Bergman. Janet Leigh and Julie Andrews. Doris Day and Joan Fontaine, Eva Marie Saint and Carole Lombard.
Although he joked it was only because fair hair was like "virgin snow that shows up the bloody footprints," his tastes were precise. He ignored the obvious bombshells, the Mansfields and Monroes. If the woman was normally brunette, like Anne Baxter, he chose the hair dye; if she was an unknown, like Tippi Hedren, he chose everything.
Yet there is a line between being involved and with being obsessed, with controlling a production and controlling a person. And it was a line that Alfred Hitchcock often crossed.
Every good director is an obsessive in some way -- they have to be, if they're going to be successful. And Hitchcock was a great director, and perhaps Hollywood's most popular. A new, deluxe DVD set from MGM collects eight of his films; a recent one from Universal spotlighted even more. His name has become an adjective; his caricatured profile, a logo.
Yet there was a side of "The Master of Suspense" that the canny self-marketer took pains to conceal. The witty raconteur who, off the record, was fond of filthy jokes. The devoted husband who pined after frosty beauties like a schoolboy. And, most dreadfully, the kindly mentor who ruthlessly pursued his own young discoveries.
The new book by Donald Spoto, "Spellbound by Beauty: Alfred Hitchcock and His Leading Ladies," captures all of it. Spoto, who's written two other books on the director, has spent years speaking to many of his stars and colleagues. And the picture that develops is of a deeply unhappy and darkly secretive man.
It's certainly not the witty image the filmmaker or his family presented. When I interviewed Pat Hitchcock nearly a decade ago, she described her father as "very kind" ("I wish people would know that," she added wistfully). She claimed that, although she hadn't read Spoto's first unauthorized biography, "nothing that people quoted to me from it was true."
Yet even if the doting father was beloved in his own house, there are too many stories in too many other books for Spoto's to be ignored. Yes, Hitchcock's films are amazingly enjoyable (and, on second viewing, extraordinarily deep). But clearly they sprang from his own pain, and working with him could be a torment.
Born Catholic and a Cockney -- two circumstances that would shape the Englishman's attitude toward sin, and his feelings of exclusion -- Hitchcock grew up, he said, "uncommonly unattractive" with an artist's eye and a fondness for detail. That led to a job designing title cards for silent movies -- which, in those all-hands-on-deck days, soon led to directing.
Hitchcock would spend the first 17 years of his career in Europe in a variety of genres -- he made a musical, even adapted a Sean O'Casey play. But it was his touch with thrillers that made his name. And Hitchcock soon remade them in his name, with a focus on unfair accusations and inescapable guilt.
Yet there were other obsessions, too.
The most obvious on-screen fetish was for blondes. (The very first shot in the very first Hitchcock thriller, "The Lodger," is of a screaming, fair-haired woman.) The most disturbing off-screen fondness was for bullying his actresses (he delighted in putting Madeleine Carroll through painful stunts in "The 39 Steps," and left her in prop handcuffs until her wrists were raw). Like some holier-than-thou inquisitor, he tortured his temptations.
Directors are manipulators, of course -- it's in the job description -- and there were times when his bad behavior served his art. (Would he have gotten that perfect insecurity out of Joan Fontaine in "Rebecca" if he weren't privately telling her how much everyone disliked her?) Yet other times, like the elaborate practical jokes he played, it was simple sadism.
Not all of his actresses were victims. Ingrid Bergman was far too clear-headed; Grace Kelly, for all her chilly class, far too worldly. Both women knew he was half-in-love with them; both diplomatically deflected his attentions. And the movies that resulted were amazing, and oddly revealing (in "Notorious," a vulnerable Bergman is debased by her own lover; in "Rear Window," an eager-to-please Kelly is endangered by her boyfriend voyeur).
Arguably, both women did their best work for Hitchcock. Yet the Bergman collaboration ended when she left him -- and her husband, and the country -- for Italian director Roberto Rossellini; the Kelly union stopped when she married Prince Rainier. As Vera Miles would discover years later -- after Hitchcock had signed her to a rigidly exclusive contract, and she finally dropped out by getting pregnant -- there were only a few ways of escape.
"Vertigo" was already being planned for her, and when it was finally made and released, many viewed it as a convoluted mystery with a peculiar hero. Decades later, when I interviewed replacement star Kim Novak, she said she'd seen it as a metaphor for her own career, always being re-imagined as "this year's" somebody-or-other.
Yet today, it seems like a sad parable of Hitchcock's life as an artist.
The hero's flaw is that he tries to "direct" another person -- recreating a fantasy, dictating the heroine's "look." (In real life, Hitchcock was furious -- and immovable -- when Novak balked at a pair of pumps he insisted her character wear.) And, in the end, the heroine's independence tragically defeats the hero's fantasies -- as much as Bergman's and Kelly's quietly defeated Hitchcock's.
If "Vertigo" detailed his frustrations in directing a star, there was still one method of control left -- creating his own. This time, however -- instead of the 25-year-old, twice-married Miles -- Hitchcock picked a more malleable figure. Tippi Hedren was 31, a divorced mother (of the then-toddling Melanie Griffith) and a model with a slowing career. Her performing experience was minimal; her gratitude for his interest, immense.
Hitchcock counted on both.
The two films they made mirrored their relationship. In "The Birds," she plays the victim of senseless, meaningless attacks; on the set, Hitchcock's cruel insistence on using live animals for the final assault (which took a week to film) nearly sent her to the hospital. In "Marnie," she's a dazed young woman brutalized by her own husband; off the set, Hedren said, it was at this point that Hitchcock declared he was taking her as his mistress.
There have been too many spurious books written about dead celebrities to simply accept this, now that Hitchcock cannot defend himself. Yet Hedren -- who says she spurned his advances -- tells the story herself, and her co-stars have corroborated details. Even the late François Truffaut, a devoted partisan, called Hitchcock a "frustrated Pygmalion" who was never the same after "Marnie" ended his "personal and professional" relationship with Hedren.
There were still good films to come -- there is a cool assurance to "Frenzy," and a sort of peace to "Family Plot" -- but once he dropped Hedren's contract, Hitchcock dropped the polite mask as well. "Torn Curtain" features a gruesomely realistic killing and "Frenzy" a graphic rape; he then spent years planning a film that would open with a brutal sex murder. The project never came to pass; the director died in 1980.
Elegies were not easy to compose.
A shy man of peculiar phobias (raw eggs, policemen, untidy bathrooms) he made some of our most terrifying films; an astoundingly gifted filmmaker, he never won a best-director Oscar. When praised for the complexity of his work, he always changed the subject with a quip, or switched the topic to technical details; having cast the world's most beautiful actresses, he often greeted them with dirty jokes and sometimes dirtier behavior.
In the end, we honor the art, not the artist; if film lovers have -- mostly -- forgiven the sins of Charlie Chaplin, Woody Allen and Roman Polanski, surely there is room for Hitchcock's redemption, too.
Yet his flaws and fears are so interwoven with his films that they haunt them; it is impossible, once you know something of the man, to ever watch "Vertigo" or "Marnie" or even "Notorious" in quite the same way again. Was it because he knew how much his films revealed that he pretended they were mere entertainments? Or did he honestly never realize what impassioned confessions he had made?
Of all the mysteries that Alfred Hitchcock created, the greatest was himself.