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The Guardian (06/Aug/1999) - Tippi Hedren: The blonde queen of King Alfred

(c) The Guardian (06/Aug/1999)

The blonde queen of King Alfred

Hitchcock made her, with The Birds, and maybe tried to ruin her, with Marnie. Does Tippi Hedren bear the director any grudges in his centenary year?

Of all Hitchcock's chilly, tormented blondes - a Hollywood sorority which includes Janet Leigh, Eva Marie Saint, Kim Novak and Grace Kelly - Tippi Hedren is probably the most mysterious. She soared to stardom in her first film and then vanished in a cloud of rumour and innuendo, as suddenly as she had appeared.

She was plain Natalie Hedren, a model from Minnesota, when Hitchcock spotted her doing a TV commercial for a diet drink. He whisked her off to LA and cast her as the lead in The Birds. Along the way he discovered her Scandinavian family nickname, Tippi, and insisted that the name was only to appear in single quotation marks in any credit. "Svengali Hitch strikes again," he crowed to reporters when The Birds was a huge success.

For the London premiere he arranged for two mynah birds named Tippi and Alfred to be installed in the foyer of the cinema. Hedren's performance was extraordinary but the critics dismissed her. "I don't think they could ever get over the idea that I was this girl who had come from nowhere," she says. "Every actress in town wanted that part so people were aghast when he chose a complete unknown. He gave me the confidence to believe I could do it and he had such a clear picture of what he wanted, right down to the colours of my costumes."

Viewing the film today, reissued in a newly restored print to mark the 100th birthday of its creator, the studied intention behind even the tiniest of her movements is still compelling. Yet Hedren was to make just one more film with her mentor, the critically misunderstood Marnie, before being sucked into the swampland of made-for-TV movies and guest appearances on The Bionic Woman.

Recently she was reclaimed by Camille Paglia as "the ultimate Hitchcock heroine". In her BFI essay on The Birds, Paglia asserts: "It's so unfair that Tippi Hedren has never had the credit she deserves for the two films she did with Hitchcock. I think the reason critics did not take her seriously is because she is too fashionable and therefore not 'serious'. The interplay between Hedren and Suzanne Pleshette in The Birds tells me more about women than any number of articles on feminist theory. And I love the way Hedren handles cigarettes and a martini glass with such remarkable sophistication. It is gesturalism raised to the level of choreography."

Hedren, now 64, lives on an animal sanctuary in California, surrounded by lions, elephants and, amazingly, ravens. "I really like birds," she protests, in contrast to Hitchcock, who loathed the creatures. "Everyone always wants me to say that I can't stand to go near them, just like they want Janet Leigh to confess that she can't bear to take a shower. Well, I'm sorry to disappoint you."

Nevertheless, she still has disturbing memories about filming the climactic scene with the birds in the attic. It took a week to shoot and at one point an overzealous raven clawed her left eyelid. "It was frightening to make, and exhausting. I was on the floor, on the ground by the door, and they had tied bands around my body before I put the dress on, with little thin elastics, and through the holes of the dress, they pulled the strings through, and then they loosely tied the leg of the bird to my body. And one of them was sitting here and it jumped up at my face and scratched my eye and I just said, 'That's enough'."

Hedren had to be put under sedation and after filming was put in her doctor's care, suffering from nervous exhaustion. "I was only allowed one half-day off during six months of filming," she recalls. But that was nothing compared to what she had to endure off screen. Hitchcock had already earned a reputation as being very controlling of his leading ladies. During the production of North by Northwest, for example, he personally ushered Eva Marie Saint to a department store to buy her costumes.

His fixation with Hedren reached epic levels. "She is like a dormant volcano we know one day is going to erupt," he pronounced. According to Donald Spoto, author of Hitchcock: The Dark Side of Genius, the director hired private detectives to check up on her, had her handwriting analysed for signs of morally suspect character and tried to control where she went and what she wore in her private life. After The Birds was completed, Hitchcock sent Hedren's five-year-old daughter, Melanie Griffith, a miniature doll of her mother dressed as her movie character in a tiny coffin.

This might explain why Griffith turned into such a wild child. "I never encouraged her to go into acting," says Hedren. "To be honest, I was very surprised that she decided to follow in my footsteps." Hitchcock's obsession grew beyond sending surprise gifts to her daughter during the making of Marnie, a film which deals with a sexually repressed kleptomaniac horse-lover and her fetishistic husband. He built a lavish trailer for her with a ramp leading into his private office, stocked the bar with fine wines and engineered a number of private audiences every day.

Observers on the set began to realise that the director was blurring art and life in his exploration of a man's thwarted desire. Marnie contains one of the creepiest rape scenes in cinema history, where Hedren's stricken features are held in excruciating close-up throughout the ordeal, so Hitchcock's mental state is all the more perplexing.

The rape scene caused ructions on set, and led to screenwriter Evan Hunter being dismissed. "Well, the sickest thing of all was casting Sean Connery as the husband, fresh out of Dr No," Hedren laughs. "I said to Hitch, look, she's supposed to be this totally frigid woman who screams when a man comes near her. Sean Connery would melt the coldest woman on earth. All he said to me was, 'My dear, it's called acting.' Maybe that's why he cast him, to show how damaged Marnie was."

Despite these misgivings, Hedren brought something outstanding to the part. In the scene where she pats her horse as it's being shot - "there, there," she coos - the wistfulness in her gaze reveals the pain of a woman who has never fallen in love.

"Marnie was ahead of its time. People didn't talk about childhood and its effects on adult life. It was taboo to discuss sexuality and psychology and to put all that into a film was shocking," says Hedren. Tensions between director and star intensified as the shoot progressed and culminated in a stand-up row a few weeks before the end.

Hedren wanted to take a long weekend to go to New York where she was due to collect a Photoplay Award for most promising newcomer. The director flatly refused. By then he was insisting that she spend her days in virtual isolation so as not to lose the psychological momentum that the part required. There are conflicting reports about what exactly happened next.

Spoto claims the director made a sexually explicit approach in her trailer. Hitchcock himself would only say that Hedren had done the unthinkable: "She mentioned my weight." The actress maintained a dignified silence but the two never spoke again and communicated through intermediaries for the rest of Marnie. "I was agonisingly unhappy for both of them. It was an old man's cri de coeur," says screenwriter Jay Presson Allen. "She had her own life and everyone was telling her not to make Hitch unhappy. But she couldn't help making him unhappy. By the end of the film he was very angry with her."

More than 30 years later, Hedren becomes distressed when she talks about what went on. "He just built this whole controlling situation around me. He wanted to change me. But I had my own life and I am not a woman to be controlled." What of the charges of sexual overtures towards her? "It was very, very difficult for me. I was a young woman, I wasn't married. He wanted me to be beholden to him for making me a star. Yes, he was sexually obsessed with me. It was awful but what could I do? There's no doubt about it, Hitch did have a very weird attitude towards women, perhaps because of his very strange childhood."

She says she believed the director lived in a body that he disliked a lot. "I think he would have liked to have looked like Cary Grant," she said shortly after his death. After Marnie, she was still under a seven-year personal contract from which she asked to be released. As an act of revenge, she was loaned to Charlie Chaplin's studio, where she co-starred in his much-maligned final film, The Countess from Hong Kong. She was never to repeat the success of The Birds.

"Working with Chaplin was very amusing and strange," she recalls. "His films are so funny, but working with him, I found him to be a very serious man. Whereas the films of Hitchcock are macabre, he could be a very funny man to work with, always telling jokes and holding court. Of course, when I worked with Charlie he was getting older." There are those, including Spoto, who claim that Hitchcock tried to ruin Hedren's career. Certainly he did little to promote Marnie, and never uttered her name again, referring to her instead as "that woman".

For her part, Hedren has deep regrets. "Yes, it was tragic, it was a terrible thing. But I'm still grateful to him for casting me. I was in good company, all of us Hitchcock women are compared to each other. I got used to that and it's interesting to talk to the others about their experiences. Eva Marie Saint had a wonderful time, but then she wasn't a divorced single mother. Anyway, celebrity has allowed me to go on and do a lot of things which I would never have been able to do otherwise."

She is referring chiefly to her beloved lions, whom she adopted after the filming of Roar, a peculiar wildlife film which featured her husband and daughter as co-stars. Her daughter brings her husband, Antonio Banderas, and their children to visit once a week. Tourists also visit once a week, lining up outside the reserve and paying $35 for the privilege of seeing her giant cats, and just maybe a glimpse of the elusive star. "Yes, people are always coming up to me and flapping their arms, making screeching sounds," she admits. "But I don't mind. I think it's wonderful that the film still lives on in people's memories, even after all those years."