Jump to: navigation, search

The Telegraph (07/Jun/2008) - Hitchcock's leading ladies

(c) Telegraph (07/Jun/2008)

Hitchcock's leading ladies

Chris de Bray reviews Spellbound by Beauty: Alfred Hitchcock and his Leading Ladies by Donald Spoto

"The Birds is coming!" joked the posters for Alfred Hitchcock's movie, and come the birds did - right at Hitchcock's leading lady, a glassily demure former model called Tippi Hedren.

For a full working week, Hedren was locked in a wire cage while technicians threw squawking gulls at her, "one after another, again and again, take after take", her co-star Rod Taylor remembered. By noon on the first day, says Jessica Tandy (who played Taylor's mother in the movie), Hedren was "just covered in bird shit".

By the Friday, she had been so nipped and pecked and knocked about that she was sent home for 10 days' rest. When Hitchcock said he needed Hedren back on set by Monday morning, the doctor told him he was crazy: "Are you trying to kill her?"

Likely it felt that way to Hedren, who has always maintained that Hitchcock lied to her about how the scene would be shot. We're going to use mechanical birds, he told her - there was no way he would let live birds loose on his movie's most precious asset.

But he would have said that, wouldn't he? Because, as Donald Spoto unconsciously makes plain in this unctuous, moralistic account of Hitchcock's relations with his starrier players, his essential technique as a director was to shock actors out of their comfort zone - the better to shock the audience out of theirs.

Do you believe that when, seconds before the lights/camera/action moment on one of Marnie's more frigidly tortured scenes, Hitchcock whispered "Touch me" to Hedren, he really wanted her to cop a feel? And even if you do, do you believe that's all he wanted?

Hedren had, remember, no training as an actress. Yet she was completely convincing in a role most women would have found impossible - the ice maiden who comes over all catatonic whenever Sean Connery is in the same room.

In other words, for all his dismissal of Montgomery Clift's Actor's Studio angst on the set of I Confess, Hitchcock was a Method director. He didn't want his actors to fake the feelings a scene required of them. He wanted them to feel those feelings.

Working with a tenderfoot Joan Fontaine on Rebecca, Hitchcock was forever telling her that her on-screen husband, Laurence Olivier, thought her performance was a disaster.

And maybe he did - but who is to say that Larry came off best in that picture? His Maxim de Winter is, after all, a melodramatic cliché, a moustachioed patriarch who spends the whole movie preening and posturing to the back row of some imaginary amphitheatre. Fontaine, on the other hand, cowed by those thespian fireworks, hunches in on herself and becomes one of the movies' greatest casualties of doomed love.

Doomed love was Hitchcock's great theme, but it is too easy to say that the obsession arose because his infatuations - with Ingrid Bergman, with Grace Kelly, Vera Miles, Tippi Hedren - were fated to remain the merest fantasies. His problems went deeper than the fact that what Spoto calls his "morbid obesity" "isolated him, making any kind of intimacy impossible".

Only a fool would deny that Hitchcock was never going to loom large in the looker stakes, but his real problem with women was his inability to accept that they existed independent of him.

As Jay Presson Allen (who was brought in to rework the Marnie script when Evan Hunter refused to give a rape scene what Hitchcock deemed the necessary impact) tells Spoto: "Tippi wanted her own life... so she couldn't help making him unhappy." A kind of inverse Pygmalion, Hitchcock didn't carve figures so beautiful they came to life. He took real-life stunners and turned them into Platonic essences of the statuesque blonde he idealised.

If Vertigo is his best picture, it is because it faces up to this life-long need to create and coerce. The James Stewart character in that movie isn't in love with a real woman but an ethereal icon he convinces himself has been spirited into his life from times past. When the poor girl (numbly played by Kim Novak) comes clean and tells him he's been had, he throws her over - literally, and from a great height.

The problem is that for every Vertigo or Marnie, Hitchcock turned out many more clunkers - lifeless, ham-fisted embarrassments in which stars with rather more range than Novak or Hedren (Carole Lombard, Doris Day, Henry Fonda, Charles Laughton - the list goes on) fell at the fence of his diktats.

For Hitchcock wasn't joking when he said actors should be treated like cattle - hunks of meat to be prodded this way or that. Like his comic walk-ons, his bad-mouthing of his players was part of his strategy for convincing you that he and he alone was responsible for a picture.

Spoto, who talks a lot about "unassailable genius" and whose third book on Hitchcock this is, is a sucker for such self-aggrandising claims. The rest of us long ago worked out that movies are nothing if not a communal art, and that great directors - like all great managers - are people who grant their staff the freedom to do things their own way.

The fat controller had the Method all right - there just wasn't enough madness in it.