The Times (05/Apr/2005) - Even scarier than Psycho
(c) The Times (05/Apr/2005)
- keywords: Alfred Hitchcock, Alma Reville, Jane Wyman, Janet Leigh, Marlene Dietrich, Patricia Hitchcock, Psycho (1960), Stage Fright (1950), Strangers on a Train (1951)
Even scarier than Psycho: his 'great production'
Hitch's daughter Patricia says he was unfairly maligned.
Hitchcock's films may be scary but his daughter is positively terrifying. I would rather watch Psycho than spend another morning in the company of Patricia Hitchcock O'Connell. She has agreed to meet me at her home in southern California to talk about her father as a family man on the 25th anniversary of his death.
When I arrive, it soon becomes clear that she would rather not talk at all.
Aged 76, she lives alone in a large and beautiful house on a secluded estate, set around a golf course, in a pretty valley near Los Angeles. As my taxi pulls up to her front door, I see her standing in the doorway, a diminutive figure in a short-sleeved black wool top and pale gold trousers. She does not smile and leads the way abruptly into a spacious wood-panelled sitting room overlooking the golf course. There are no niceties - she does not offer me so much as a glass of water. Maybe she is nervous or ill.
But as the interview develops, the idea of nervousness seems laughable. And there is no suggestion of ill health. I take a seat on her sofa and she sits in an armchair on the opposite side of the room, as far away from me as possible. At first I wonder whether I will even be able to hear her but her voice is stentorian and carries well. She puts her feet up on the stool in front of her, folds her arms and awaits my questions.
I ask her what stands out in her childhood memories of her father. "I don't think there's any particular thing at all," says Hitchcock O'Connell, who was the only child of Alfred and Alma Hitchcock. The name O'Connell comes from her late husband, Joseph, with whom she had three daughters. To prompt her, I say that I have read in a biography of her father that he used to paint her face when she was asleep.
"Sometimes when I was very young," she is quoted as saying, "I would wake up and look in the mirror, and he had drawn a clown's face on me. This happened a lot."
But when I mention this, she looks cross, as though I have intruded. "That was once," she says, dismissively.
I try a more general tack: how would she describe him? "He had a great sense of humour and he said if you couldn't look at life with a sense of humour then you were in a lot of trouble." Has she inherited this trait? "Yes," she says, without a flicker of a smile.
How did her father's sense of humour manifest itself? "All sorts of ways." I wait to see whether she will elaborate, but her mouth remains shut. Like her father, she has a jowly round face and a tendency to look sullen. She has lived in America since the age of ten; her accent is American with a trace of English.
From accounts I have read Hitchcock comes across as a devoted father, calling her "my greatest production". He once said: "I wanted a girl very much but I never told Alma. I said I would be just as happy with a girl or a boy." But it is hard to get a sense of this devotion from his daughter. "We were a very close family," is all she says. Was he the sort of father who would sit in the corner reading a paper or would he be on his hands and knees playing with her?
"He did a lot of reading," she replies. In her book about her mother, Alma Hitchcock: The Woman Behind The Man, she describes how her father captured much of her early life on video. "I love watching one particularly funny home movie of my second birthday, where my parents had given me a toy kitchen set as a gift and I served cake around to them, several friends and family," she wrote. When I mention this, she glowers. Does she watch the video? "No."
Perhaps unusually, he, instead of her mother, would take her shopping for clothes.
Did he always make such outings into fun events? "No, because I was with him so much." He would choose her classically tailored skirts, blouses and sweaters, which she wasn't too thrilled about. "I liked it to a certain extent but you really want to wear what everybody else is wearing."
When the family was living in London, a nanny, Gladys, looked after her during the day because her mother, a film editor, was closely involved in her father's work, co-writing screenplays and vetting scripts. Hitchcock O'Connell sometimes appeared in her father's films.
In her book, she describes her father's fixation with tidiness. "Daddy was neat almost to the point of obsession," she writes. "He never washed his hands without using two or three towels to wipe dry the basin and faucets," she writes.
I ask her if she remembers any other examples of this characteristic. "I don't really understand the question." I explain, adding that I read her description about Christmas -how her father liked to have his presents neatly stacked and would throw all wrapping paper away immediately. "I don't think that's unusual, frankly," she retorts.
She writes that her parents would take her to the theatre with them in the evening, when she was as young as three, and she would also accompany them on set.
"My parents treated me like an adult," she writes. But when I mention this she disagrees. "Not as an adult, no."
At her father's suggestion, she attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London and while there took on a role in one of her father's films, Stage Fright (1950), which starred Jane Wyman and Marlene Dietrich.
Hitchcock O'Connell doubled for Wyman. "I looked like her and (my father) asked me if I would do the stunt driving as they didn't want to risk Jane doing this, so I said 'Sure'."
I laugh. She doesn't. Was he not worried that you might hurt yourself, I ask.
"No," she says. She had a bigger role in Strangers on a Train, in which her character is nearly strangled at a cocktail party. In Psycho, she has a role at the beginning as Janet Leigh's plain and timid office colleague. I ask her what it was like working with her father. "It wasn't really any different from working with any other director." So on set, I say, he never treated you like his daughter? "Of course not," she says, impatiently. "What a silly question."
So did she call him Mr Hitchcock on set? "NO," she says, looking at me as if I am mad. "I would call him Daddy, if I called him anything."
We are not getting very far. The reason for her ill humour is perhaps explained when I ask if she is ever tempted to move back to England. "NEVER!" she almost shouts. "After the way I was treated the last time I was back in England? It was ATROCIOUS. The press were so cruel and nasty. They would come up to my hotel room and the first question they asked: 'Is it true that your father had affairs with all of his leading ladies?' That wasn't just one, everyone did it."
"I thank you for agreeing to this interview then," I say. She splutters indignantly, but says nothing. Why did you agree to meet me, I ask curiously.
"Because they said there was going to be an interview," she replies, illogically.
Surely she could have said no, I think, but I keep my mouth shut. Maybe she has simply decided to wreak her revenge on the British press through me.
Nevertheless her antipathy towards England seems to spread beyond the press. "I was in boarding school when I was eight, which I think is archaic of the English.
I think they should be absolutely SHOT for sending children at that age." She blames the system, not her parents, for this decision. "That's the English; that's what they do."
Is that a picture of your father on the wall, I ask, pointing to a black-and white photograph. "Yes," she says incredulously. "You mean it doesn't look like him?"
Up to a point, her defensiveness is understandable. Her father has often been represented as cruel and manipulative and a predator on his leading ladies. "They don't give him any credit at all," she says in exasperation. "They resent the fact that he came to America. They resent the fact that he was more successful."
Does she think about her father much? "No," she states baldly, then adds: "These are the oddest questions I've ever been asked in my life."
I say that it is not very easy as she doesn't seem to want to talk. "It isn't that I don't want to," she says grumpily. "I don't know what you want to talk about."
Having spent over an hour here and put well over a hundred questions to her, I ask her if there is any aspect of her father's life that she would be happy to discuss.
"There you go," she says, with a hysterical screech. "I ask you a question and you answer me with 'Talk about what you want to talk about'. I don't want to talk about anything."
Enough is enough. Right, I say, I think I'll leave you in peace. We walk to the door. "Is your taxi here?" she asks. Yes, I say desperately, although I can see very well that it isn't. As the door closes behind me, I breathe a sigh of relief.
Then I hear it reopening. "Wait," she says. "I forgot to give you something." I wait on the pathway as she goes back inside. Out she comes again with two new men's Sweda watches in boxes which she hands to me. Taken aback, I say: "I can't take these." "It's fine," she mutters, brusquely, shutting the door in my face. I am so discombobulated by now that I don't know what to do. So I take the coward's way out and post them back to her a few days later. I have no idea why she gave them to me: it is a twist even her father could not have contrived.