The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide (2001) - The Birds as a Pre-Stonewall Parable
- article: The Birds as a Pre-Stonewall Parable
- author(s): Bob Smith
- journal: The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide (30/Apr/2001)
- issue: volume 8, issue 2, page 25
- keywords: Alfred Hitchcock, Bates Motel, Bob Smith, Bodega Bay, California, Entertainment, Fort Point, Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco, California, Gays & lesbians, Human relations, Interpersonal communication, Jessica Tandy, Motion pictures, New York City, New York, Personal relationships, Rod Taylor, San Francisco, California, Suzanne Pleshette, The Birds (1963), Tippi Hedren, Veronica Cartwright
The Birds as a Pre-Stonewall Parable
Bob Smith is a stand-up comic and writer whose second book is called Way to go, Smith! (William Morrow, 1999).
IN one of the coming attraction trailers for Alfred Hitchcock's film, The Birds, Tippi Hedren screams, "They're coming! They're coming!" She's warning that a bird attack is imminent, but after seeing the film again recently--an interim of twenty years--I began to wonder if she was actually predicting the Stonewall riots and the approach of Gay Pride marchers. I first saw The Birds as a boy in Buffalo, but after seeing the film as an adult, it struck me that The Birds could be a parody of homophobia, for there are entire sections of dialogue in the film where the phrase "The Birds" could easily be replaced by "The Gays."
The Birds opens in San Francisco, where we glimpse Alfred Hitchcock making his traditional cameo appearance, this time as a big queen walking two prissy little dogs. He passes by Tippi Hedren's character, Melanie Daniels, as she enters a pet store, where she meets Mitch Brenner, played by Rod Taylor. Mitch wants to buy a pair of lovebirds for his sister's birthday, but after meeting, flirting, and arguing with Melanie, he departs the store without his gift. Smitten by the hunky Mitch, the infatuated Melanie impulsively decides to order a pair of lovebirds and deliver them to him the following day. Using her father's connections as the publisher of one of San Francisco's newspapers, she tracks down Mitch's address and is about to leave the cage and a letter outside his apartment door, when she learns from the queen who lives across the hall (played by a gay man, the famous character actor Richard Deacon) that Mitch has already gone to Bodega Bay to visit his mother for the weekend.
If we sex-change Melanie Daniels into Daniel Melanie, we have a story about a blond boy-toy chasing a ruggedly handsome young daddy. Driving up to Bodega Bay in her snazzy silver convertible to deliver the lovebirds, Melanie ends up staying the weekend with Annie, the town's school teacher. Since this film was made in an era when seemingly no gay man was complete without his gal-pal (who had a hopeless crush), Annie turns out to be a boozy, chain-smoking "fag-hag" played by Suzanne Pleshette, her husky voice beginning its descent to the register in which it sounds as if her larynx is a piece of smoked and pickled salmon. Puffing away on a cigarette, Annie admits to Melanie that she moved to Bodega Bay just to be near Mitch, and goes on to question his heterosexuality by suggesting, "Maybe there's never been anything between Mitch and any girl." Reflecting upon her remark, Annie says, "I think I'll have some of that," and reaches to help herself to a glass of brandy; and the viewer can almost imagine the heartsick schoolteacher embarking upon a lifetime of solitary drinking. It's a sad and pathetic confession, and since the audience grows to like the sympathetic Annie, it's almost a relief when, later in the film, she gets bumped off by a flock of crows instead of spending the rest of her life pining for a guy that she'll never have.
Mitch is still a "bachelor." And since the film was made in 1963, it comes as no surprise that he has a domineering mother, played superbly by Jessica Tandy. Mitch's Mom is a controlling sort who disapproves of everyone he brings home and openly worries that he might leave home. Twisted mother-son relationships were a subject that obviously fascinated Hitchcock, and I like to think that if the Bates Motel had been located in Bodega Bay, Mitch and Norman might have met and become boyfriends.
It's always been clear that The Birds is about "the birds and the bees." The arrival of Melanie, a bad girl who reportedly jumped naked into a fountain in Rome, coincides with the attacks by the birds. In the restaurant scene where the birds attack a gas station attendant, and a dropped match in the flowing gasoline causes a conflagration, a mother attacks Melanie in terms that could easily be used by homophobic nutjobs. "They said when you got here the whole thing started. Who are you? What are you? Where did you come from? I think you're the cause of all this. I think you're evil. Evil!"
In response, Melanie slaps the hysterical woman, an action that most homophobes deserve but few ever receive. The woman's question, "Where are you from?", is significant because, throughout the film, San Francisco is presented as a locus of evil. Whenever one of Bodega Bay's citizens mentions San Francisco, you can almost hear the disapproval in their voice. Of course, San Francisco has always had a raffish reputation, but since World War II the city has been regarded by some as a Sodom and Gomorrah where odd birds of a certain feather go to flock together.
The first major attack by the birds is at Mitch's younger sister's birthday party. The girl is played by the young Veronica Cartwright, who in The Birds discovered what would become her specialty as an actor, the portrayal of hysterical women. (Tears and panic have become the bread and butter of Miss Cartwright's career. Since her appearance in The Birds, she's screamed in Philip Kaufman's wonderful 1977 remake of Invasion of The Body-Snatchers, shrieked in Alien, and, in probably her most memorable performance, projectile cherry-vomited in The Witches of Eastwick.) In the movie, the birds are consistently portrayed as predators on children, a libel that has also been employed against The Gays. Hitchcock even goes so far as to suggest that the birds are lurking pedophiles stalking schoolchildren in the playground. In fact, the birds in the film seem to be truly evil queens, since the two people killed by the birds, Annie and a chicken farmer, are shown to have had their eyes scratched out.
Once the attacks begin, the residents of Bodega Bay have a difficult time accepting the idea that birds could ever become violent. After the attack at the birthday party, the sheriff dismisses the evidence that birds attacked people, and in the restaurant Mrs. Bundy, an ornithologist who to all outward appearances is the epitome of a butch lesbian, says, "Birds are not aggressive creatures. They bring beauty into the world." Mrs. Bundy goes on to suggest that if birds started flocking together, "We wouldn't have a chance. How could we hope to fight them?" It's probable that Mrs. Bundy and the sheriff would have voiced the same incredulity if someone had suggested that in a few years drag queens would fight back against the New York City police or in a decade the nearby town of Guerneville on the Russian River would become a gay resort.
It's a shame that Hitchcock didn't stick with his original ending for the film. The last scene of The Birds shows Mitch, Melanie, his mother and sister, driving off into the distance, but Hitchcock had planned another ending that would have been more memorable while continuing the homophobic subtext. Hitchcock was going to show their car arriving at the Golden Gate Bridge, which, to their horror, would be covered with perching birds. It would have made explicit what people have been saying for years about San Francisco: "They've taken over the city!"