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The Guardian (05/Mar/1999) - Can I mould her into the heroine I want?




Can I mould her into the heroine I want?

Alfred Hitchcock on what he demanded from his actresses

The chief point I keep in mind when selecting my heroine is that she must be fashioned to please women rather than men, for the reason that women form three-quarters of the average cinema audience. Therefore, no actress can be a good commercial proposition as a film heroine unless she pleases her own sex. Screen assistants please note!

The fallacy of sex appeal

Cynics may sneer at this, but they cannot deny it, any more than they can deny that it is true to say of every artist who has been "boosted" on account of alleged superabundance of sex appeal that, in the words of Old Omar Khayyam, "he abode his little hour and went his way". In using the masculine pronoun for correctness of quotation, I embrace actresses also. Metaphorically, as always, for, as a producer, the more fascinating business privileges enjoyed by the actor are, alas! denied me.

To regain my customary gravity, as befits the serious subject under discussion, I believe that the vast majority of women, in all ranks of life, are idealists. They may not live up to their own ideals, often they cannot do so, but they do like to see them personified by their favourite film heroines, and I have heard of a good many cases, particularly in humble life, in which mothers have attempted to model the conduct and sentiments of their young daughters on those supposedly identified with their favourite women stars, and in instances where there has already existed a slight physical or psychological resemblance have proudly declared "Isn't our Nelly like --. The same look in the eyes, the same curl in the hair, the same high spirits and love for animals!" or words very much to the same effect.

Women may tolerate vulgarity on the screen, but not when displayed by their own sex, for they are so constituted, bless 'em! that they cannot help feeling that such an exhibition is lowering to women generally.

A thoroughly nice girl

Physically as well as mentally the screen heroine of today must not only be a thoroughly nice girl, but must possess vitality, both in looks and in the quality of her voice. The reign of the purely pictorial heroine is over.

Choosing a heroine for the screen is much more difficult than choosing one for the stage. The appeal of the stage is necessarily an artificial one, materially assisted by the distance of the audience from the players. Thus a middle-aged actress of moderately good looks can often contrive to look young and beautiful. But the screen has no "distance to lend enchantment to the view". for the events it portrays are usually brought so close to the audience that, in effect, the face of the heroine is but a few feet away, even from those in the back row of the gallery. Therefore she must have real beauty and real youth; imitations of them would be instantly detected.

Five-foot heroines

In addition to the qualities I have enumerated, a screen heroine should not be above medium height; indeed, smallness is a definite asset. A little actress not only photographs better, particularly in close-up scenes, than one who "rears her form to stately height", but is more pleasing to the audience, who like to see the heroine's curly head nestling against the hero's manly breast. If it is a foot higher, she is apt to make him look insignificant. That is why practically every actress who has attained success on the screen in romantic or emotional roles has been on the short side.

And last, but by no means least, I have to consider whether my potential heroine is sensitive to direction. In other words, whether she is the kind of girl I can mould into the heroine of my imagination. With such a rare combination of qualities required, is it any wonder that first-class screen heroines are almost as rare as the proverbial dodo, or that film producers occasionally wear a worried look?

•This article was originally published in 1931 in Who's Who in Filmland by Langford Reed and Hetty Spiers. It is republished in Faber's Hitchcock On Hitchcock, available at £9.99 plus 99p p&p (rrp £11.99) from the Guardian CultureShop on freephone 0500 600 102.