We always suspected he was a little off his rocker...but who knew he was this creepy and crazy? The late Alfred Hitchcock was the uncontested master of horror and suspense, a director so obsessed with murder and mayhem — much of it aimed at women — that one can't truly analyze his films without a Carl Jung handbook nearby. His greatest works, Rear Window, Vertigo and Psycho among them, still earn raves from critics more than half a century after they were made and his legacy as an artist remains sterling. But at what cost to the female stars who worked for him — the ones famously known as the "Hitchcock Blondes"?
HBO's new movie The Girl — about the psychosexual harassment suffered by actress Tippi Hedren at the hands of Hitchcock during the making of The Birds and Marnie — rips into the director's personal repute the way Anthony Perkins carved up Janet Leigh in the shower scene from Psycho. And with only slightly less blood. Based on Donald Spoto's tell-all book Spellbound by Beauty: Alfred Hitchcock and His Leading Ladies, the film paints Hitch — as he was known in the biz — as a self-loathing drunk so sexually repressed that he taunted Hedren with vulgar schoolboy limericks and took sick pleasure in being emotionally and physically abusive to her on the set. How much is truth, how much hearsay? Take it up with Hedren!
"For decades I kept quiet about what Hitchcock put me through," says Hedren, now 82, who has given her stamp of approval on the project. "You must remember that all this took place in the 1960s, when nobody talked about such things. I couldn't report him to the studio. I couldn't even tell my family. Thankfully, times have changed. If this were to happen to me now, I'd be a very rich woman."
Starring British actors Sienna Miller (Factory Girl) as Hedren and Toby Jones (The Hunger Games) as Hitchcock, The Girl also reveals that the portly director wanted Hedren to be at his sexual beck and call and promised to put her out of work if she didn't oblige.
"Tippi refused to capitulate or compromise her values in any way, yet her cool aloofness made her even more desirable to Hitchcock," notes Miller. "And he wasn't kidding! When she turned down his advances, he made good on his threat." After the release of Marnie in 1964, Hedren went three years without another film role. In strike-while-the-iron's-hot Hollywood, that's a career killer.
Perhaps The Girl's most shocking reveal comes during the filming of the memorable attic scene in The Birds, in which Hedren's character is nearly pecked to death by dozens of angry gulls and crows. Hitchcock assured his star that the sequence would take just a day to shoot and that the fowl would be mechanical. Instead, he took five grueling days to complete the scene, during which he had stagehands throwing live, freaked-out birds at Hedren's face and body. The experience was so horrific, she went into clinical shock and had to leave the film for several days.
"It's said that Hitchcock sat motionless and breathlessly fixated as he watched that attic scene being shot," says Jones. "The same thing happened during Marnie when Tippi's character is raped by her husband. He loved seeing her in extreme distress. Was he a monster? I don't know. But he was most certainly pathetic — deeply, sadly pathetic."
And a far cry from his public persona. The original "Where's Waldo?," Hitchcock charmed audiences by making impish cameos in his own films — he's seen sipping bubbly in Notorious, riding on a bus next to Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief — and his weekly intros to his long-running series Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955-62) were wonderfully high camp.
"He always winked at the audience, and we happily winked back," says Julian Jarrold, who directed The Girl. "But knowing what we now know, will we be able to look at his films in the same way again? I certainly can't. He was horrible to so many of the actresses he worked with, though Tippi got the worst of it. By the time he got to her, his powers were waning and he was facing mortality. He was like Picasso in his final years, having a last rage before the dying of the light."
Surprisingly, Hedren — who calls having her story play out in The Girl "bizarre but cathartic" — is willing to cut Hitch some slack. Professionally, anyway. "You can't take away his genius as a filmmaker because the best part of him was beyond compare," she says. "As far as his personal reputation goes? He did this to himself and the man should pay."
The Girl premieres Saturday at 9/8c on HBO.