Wednesday, November 28, 2012
Tales of Two Hitchcocks
by Sandra Parshall
Who was the real Alfred Hitchcock?
The sex-crazed obsessive who tortured Tippi Hendren when she rebuffed his advances? Or the henpecked director who let his wife tell him how to make his films and was sweet as a doting uncle to Janet Leigh?
A recent television film called The Girl and the new biopic Hitchcock remind me of the cautionary tale about two blind men who were asked to describe an elephant. After one touched the animal’s trunk and the other its tail, they gave wildly contradictory descriptions of the complete creature. The two films about Hitchcock have a lot of verifiable facts in common, but they offer very different perspectives. Hitchcock is so light and breezy and The Girl so dark that it’s hard to reconcile the two viewpoints.
In Hitchcock, which opened in theaters last weekend, Anthony Hopkins plays the director with a mild comic edge that makes him seem harmless and likable even when he’s conversing with the dead serial killer Ed Gein. The movie is about the making of Psycho, inspired by Gein’s devotion to his mother. Gein dug up his mom’s corpse and returned it to their house, where he slept beside the rotting body and carried on as if she were alive and well.
Hitchcock’s penchant for blonde actresses is well-known and was obvious in his films – he worked with Grace Kelly, Eva Marie Saint, Kim Novak, Vera Miles, Ingrid Bergman, among others. For the lead in Psycho he chose Janet Leigh, and he gave the subsidiary female role to Miles. Although the new biopic shows him briefly lamenting Miles’s refusal to let him turn her into a film goddess, there’s nothing obsessive about his behavior, and he is depicted as a perfect gentleman toward Leigh, played by Scarlett Johansson.
With a total lack of conflict in Hitchcock’s relationships with the actresses, the filmmakers resorted to invention, concocting a romantic attachment between Hitchcock’s wife, Alma Reville (played by the incomparable Helen Mirren), and a male screenwriter who wants her help in doctoring a script. Alma, by all accounts a gifted film editor who worked on her husband’s movies without an on-screen credit, is portrayed as the savior who whipped Hitchcock’s flabby, unexciting version of Psycho into shape and made it a masterpiece of suspense and terror. Without her intervention, it seems, Psycho would have had a limited release and died a quick, quiet death. Alma suggested killing off the Leigh character after 30 minutes, and she insisted on the unforgettable music in movie history’s most famous shower scene.
Alma is also depicted as a discontented wife, fed up with her husband’s “fantasy affairs” with his blonde leading ladies and craving his attention at the same time she feels disgusted by his weight and piggish eating habits. He rebels against her criticism at times, but he knows that he needs her.
The Girl, a joint production of the BBC and HBO that was shown on U.S. cable TV recently, is about the making of The Birds, the film that followed Psycho. Alma is a minor character in The Girl, and Hitchcock is a man teetering on the brink of madness. Played by Toby Jones, he is sexually obsessed with Tippi Hedren (acted by Sienna Miller). When the actress isn’t playing her physically exhausting role on the set, she’s narrowly escaping the director’s advances behind the scenes. Hitchcock punishes her for rejecting him by forcing her to do dozens of takes, a full day’s worth, of a scene in which she is attacked by a mob of birds. Nothing about that attack was faked. Hedren ended up collapsing, covered with bleeding wounds.
The Girl has stirred up a storm of protest from those loyal to the Hitchcock legend. The filmmakers say they based much of the script on interviews with Jim Brown, Hitchcock’s long-time right-hand man and assistant director on The Birds. But Brown died before the movie was completed, and his wife has declared in interviews that she is “absolutely sure” her husband would never have spoken ill of Hitchcock. Scriptwriter Gwyneth Hughes, a BBC veteran, responded that her screenplay reflects Brown’s frank statements about Hitchcock’s “painful relationship with Tippi Hedren.”
Hedren says the film is an accurate account of what happened to her while she was working for Hitchcock on The Birds and later on a second movie, Marnie. She has called him “evil and deviant” and told the audience at a London screening of The Girl that his obsession with her was “oppressive and frightening” and a “horrible experience.” Another of Hitchcock’s blonde leading ladies, Kim Novak, told the press that he never made a pass at her, therefore she doesn’t believe the stories Hedren tells about him.
It’s up to the viewer to decide which film is closer to the truth about the real Hitchcock... or whether they show two sides of the same man. Fortunately, nothing we discover about the filmmaker, his personal behavior, or his wife’s role in shaping the movies, can diminish the films themselves. Like any brilliant work of art, they live on as distinct entities, quite apart from their creator.