You wouldn’t say that Tippi Hedren looked terrified, just noticeably apprehensive.
I watched the star of Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” and “Marnie” as she sat in an aisle seat on a Southwest Airlines flight from Phoenix to Los Angeles. No one else seemed to recognize her. To those who hadn’t seen Hitchcock’s films – or this evening’s “The Girl” on HBO – she is known, if at all, only as Melanie Griffith’s mother. She could have been any other elegant, deeply tanned Arizona aristocrat in her 70s on her way to L.A.
The middle seat was open next to her. A line of passengers passed it by. She was clearly uneasy as they filed past, thereby passing up the opportunity to talk for an hour to the star of one of the iconic and most memorable late-life films of the man who is, arguably, the most influential director in American film. She was clearly apprehensive about who’d be its occupant.
My problem: if it were still empty should I grab it and do what every passionate and dedicated movie critic I know would probably do – grill her as politely and charmingly as possible about her films with Hitchcock and her subsequent virtual disappearance from the film world? Or should I leave an uncomfortable, elegant and still beautiful older woman in peace?
I did the gentlemanly thing.
An old Buffalo neighbor coincidentally on the same connecting flight to L.A. was in front of me as we filed into the plane. “That’s Tippi Hedren, star of ‘The Birds’ ” I said, pointing discreetly. “Go sit next to her.”
And she did. I’ve never really regretted passing up the seat, though I’ll never forget it, either.
Maybe the fates in their intimate wisdom already knew the world – and me in it – would have the chance to see HBO’s “The Girl” tonight (and on subsequent nights on the HBO schedule). It is Julian Jarrold’s surprisingly good TV movie about the deeply troubled relationship of the portly and monarchic old film director and the thirtysomething model he plucked from obscurity for the last two films of his that anyone would care deeply about. (“Marnie” may have been, in retrospect, too revealing about its creator’s obsessions to be any good; “The Birds” wasn’t the traumatic “Psycho” success he hoped it would be, but much of its imagery remains burned into the brain of everyone who ever saw it – especially those who saw it when it first came out in theaters.)
HBO’s “The Girl” is not the only film this season to feature a fine actor playing Alfred Hitchcock at a crucial point in the British director’s life. In movie theaters soon will be “Hitchcock” (which I haven’t yet seen and which is about Hitch’s turning American film upside down with “Psycho”). Anthony Hopkins, no less, plays Hitchcock and Dame Helen Mirren is an incongruously regal and sleek version of his wife, Alma, the former film editor who was, as history has it, the best and most important creative sounding board Hitchcock ever had on his greatest films. (He had others – Joan Harrison, Norman Lloyd, his agent Lew Wasserman.)
It is the casting of HBO’s “The Girl” that is, by far, its greatest coup. Jarrold went for verisimilitude, not star power or heavyweight reputation. No disrespect to Hopkins and Mirren, but I can’t even begin to imagine them “doing” Hitchcock and Alma any better than Toby Jones and Imelda Staunton do them in “The Girl.” Jones may not look quite right as Hitchcock, but from the minute you hear him talk and see him walk you’ll believe him as the man who was a fixture in American living rooms 50 years ago, introducing each episode of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” (which can still be seen on cable TV). We – even critics – are generally in the dark about how Alma talked, but in looks it seems that Staunton couldn’t possibly be bettered as a likeness.
But “The Girl” in “The Girl” is Hedren, Hitchcock’s discovery, star in two films and unquestioned obsession during one of them.
The film is based on the sections about Hedren in Donald Spoto’s “Spellbound by Beauty: Alfred Hitchcock and His Leading Ladies.” Hedren was clearly interviewed at length about the relationship that, in only two films, made her a film icon. (Hitchcock owned her contract and forbade her to make other films in her most important years.)
It was, we’d all now agree, something of a horror – not the horror of a Hitchcock film but the horror of an era in which sexual harassment was usually laughed off (or clucked over trivially in nasty off-set gossip). Something that almost resembled contractual slavery could be enforced over an interesting actress by a sharp-eyed film director who was, in his work, self-evidently obsessed with a certain kind of woman.
We call them “Hitchcock Blondes” now.
No one would begin to claim that Hedren, in her two movies, made the profound impression that Kim Novak does in “Vertigo” or Grace Kelly did in “Rear Window” and “To Catch a Thief” – or even Eva Marie Saint did in “North by Northwest.” But he saw something in Hedren right from the beginning, and he was right. She was far from a proficient actress, but her combination of elegance and vulnerability become deeply affecting in “The Birds,” even if she couldn’t seem to make heads nor tails out of “Marnie” (which few other people really did at the time either; you need the primer in Hitch/Hedren relations that “The Girl” gives us from Spoto’s information between covers).
And that is where Miller does so well as “The Girl” – the typically generic way Hedren was initially referred to by the man who famously used to say “actors should be treated like cattle.”
In “The Girl,” Miller isn’t really a physical match for Hedren at all. In place of Hedren’s apparent aristocratic vulnerability (not real; she was a Midwestern farm girl), Miller is, in life, a brazen inhabitant of modern infotainment’s gossip world.
Miller, in life, seems to be about as vulnerable as Madonna.
But she’s also a surprisingly fine actress when she wants to be and is required to be. Which makes “The Girl,” even in its near-slander of Hitchcock as sadistic, bitter and grotesque, a powerful act of historical justice.
Hedren, you see, cooperated fully with the film, just as she did Spoto’s book, which quotes her at length.
Hedren was “the girl” Hitchcock never got over. The way he treated her, as relayed by the film, was abominable.
Finally, during the filming of “Marnie,” his sexual harassment became overt. At one moment he was so far gone, according to the film, that he thought he could get away with virtually ordering her to become his mistress.
Hedren, as the era dictated, took it all. And gave her performances. But never complied.
Thereby ending all possibility of a major film career, given Hitchcock’s reputation. He saw to it that her career was finished.
I still admire Hitchcock’s art and cede his influence on most of what we think of now as American movies.
But “The Girl” is probably the ultimate statement of what Hedren endured in the process of enabling a great man to realize his art. It’s genuinely horrifying.
Call it karma. And you know what the bumper stickers have to say about karma.