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The Guardian (09/Aug/2006) - Tippi Hedren: The star who said no to Hitchcock

(c) The Guardian (09/Aug/2006)

The star who said no to Hitchcock

by Aida Edemariam

Tippi Hedren is watching two lionesses having breakfast when I call. Then a tiger wanders up to feed. "Sometimes he's a real good guy and sometimes it's bloodcurdling how frightening he is," she says. Her voice is ladylike, tough, midwestern but also classic movies. "Here he comes." She opens a window and sticks the phone out, but he is in a gentle mood today and all I hear is a brief cough.

In 1972, Hedren established a sanctuary at the edge of the Mojave desert for the surprising number of exotic cats needing rescue from zoos; from animal lovers who acquire tiger kittens and are surprised when they grow into killers; and even from bankruptcy - Michael Jackson's two Bengals, Sabu and Thriller, have recently arrived from Neverland.

Tonight she appears on British TV screens in The 4400, the latest suspenseful import from the US. The fact that she is in her mid-70s, and still working, is a triumph both over the ageism of Hollywood and the tendency to misogyny of certain members in it. "I play the part of a woman who's 29 years old -" then she pauses. She tries again, to do it without giving away all-important plot twists, then gives up: "I can't - it would destroy it."

In October 1961, Alfred Hitchcock, casting The Birds, saw the untried Hedren in an ad for a diet drink and offered her a seven-year contract. "I got in on the tail end of the studio system. They would really groom an actor." They micro-managed publicity too: Hitchcock's costume designer was responsible for Hedren's clothes off-screen as well as on.

Hedren attended script, costume and set-design meetings, but was not allowed to contribute. "It was schooling for me," she insists. She entrusted herself to Hitchcock even when she discovered that for the scene in which she is besieged by birds in an attic, she would face real birds, thrown at her unrelentingly for five days, until she cried with exhaustion. Were you scared? "When you're doing the film you're not necessarily frightened. It's when you watch it, when it's finished - that's when it's scary."

Hitchcock gave her the world, but then he took it away. His interest tipped into obsession. On the set of Marnie he sent her champagne every day, had her handwriting analysed and built her an opulent trailer. Did you feel stalked? "Yes. Actually I did. He was trying to control my life. I was supposed to go to New York to accept an award, and he wouldn't let me go. It had been planned, the airline tickets were in my hand."

There have always been rumours about what happened then - a sexual pass from him? A furious allusion to his weight from her? She has never told. What was that last conversation like? She dodges the question. "It was a short conversation, and it was over very fast." A slight laugh. I circle back. "Oh, I just said, 'I have to get out of this contract'. And he said, 'You can't. You have your daughter to take care of, your parents are getting older.' I said, 'They wouldn't want me to be in a position where I'm not happy.' And he said, 'Well. I'll ruin your career.'

"And he did. He kept me under contract, kept paying me $600 a week for something like a year and a half. A lot of directors and producers wanted me for their movies, and Hitch would just say, 'She's not available.' It was very hurtful. But I guess there was a bigger plan."

She talks of the sanctuary, the bill she got put through Congress and the Senate to end the breeding of exotic cats as pets - and the huge wheeling flock of ravens that every day follows the meal-trucks through the reserve. So, strangely, things come full circle. "U-huh," she says. "Yes, they do"