A conversation with the last of the Hitchcock Blondes
According to Donald Spoto's 1983 biography The Dark Side of Genius, Alfred Hitchcock's tendency to become overly enamoured with his blonde stars reached an ugly head with Tippi Hedren during the filming of Marnie. Revisiting the book now, several years after first reading it and resisting some of the allegations therein, I see an author whose love for Hitchcock the auteur is at war with the unpleasant details of his subject's emotional life. As Ms. Hedren so delicately put it when I had the pleasure of chatting with her the other night: "As a man, [Hitchcock] was found wanting." Spoto's declaration that Marnie is a result of sloth but also unusually personal and effective as art and even memoir illustrates, I think, the schism at which most scholars of Hitchcock at some point arrive. When I read The Dark Side of Genius as a college freshman, it was a gateway to understanding better exactly what was going on in Notorious, and exactly what Hitchcock's men are always playing out.
Hitchcock's movies are confessions, it's true, but they're also very public workings-out of personal slights, imagined and real, proximate and ultimate. Calling Hitchcock a misogynist is shallow (something Laura Mulvey herself has begun to teach in the last few years): Hitchcock is Hitchcock because he was able to--helpless but to--express the essential, Freudian conflict of men who view women as binary objects. I see Hitchcock's films as efforts at self-medication--auto-therapy. They're tragedies in that way; there's a certain poignancy to them for their failures as personal epiphany. The Birds and Marnie, for instance, are Hitchcock's thoughts on marriage, probably his own.
I've long held the idea that The Birds and Marnie are different strategies for illustrating how it is that powerful women sell out their power once they enter, willingly, into the marriage contract. Knowing Hitchcock's obsession with Hedren and knowing, too, his personal/professional co-dependence on wife Alma, the theme plays out as astonishingly complex. The more one unravels the Gordian knots in Hitchcock's pictures, the more one begins to understand that works like I Confess and The Wrong Man (not to mention, of course, Vertigo) point to the filmmaker's "true north." By the end, he recognizes the role he's playing in the subjugation and destruction of that which he most admires/desires, and he hates himself for it--but he hates his objects more for their willingness to participate. What's fascinating about Ms. Hedren is that she didn't participate (neither did Vera Miles, or Claire Griswold), placing her in the position of eternal beloved/never won--and, more than that, following Hitchcock's death in 1980, neither did she keep quiet about it.
Moreover, she started a refuge for big cats, Shambala in southern California--the only result of which most have fixated upon the self-funded, not-well-received Roar, during the production of which actress Melanie Griffith (Hedren's daughter) was mauled by a lion. What struck me is that Ms. Hedren, a victim of abuse, sought refuge in an enterprise that likewise championed the helpless. Consider that she's currently working with American servicewomen who were raped by their comrades in arms and subsequently instructed by the military establishment to keep quiet.
I met Ms. Hedren in the lounge of Elway's on the first floor of Denver's Ritz-Carlton. I imagined her to be a giant--my mental image of her is of that quintessential, towering, totemic Hitchcock Blonde. I thought she'd be six feet tall. In reality, she's about 5'5", and tiny--wispy. I was afraid to shake her hand, but her grip is iron, that voice is authoritive, and as she looked me directly in the eye, suddenly--poof: towering, totemic. We talked about her new pursuits and her "second career" in the movies, though we started as most any conversation with Tippi Hedren must: with her time with Hitchcock.
FILM FREAK CENTRAL:
Melanie and Marnie end The Birds and Marnie catatonic and
decorating the arm of a man. How did you end The Birds and Marnie?
TIPPI HEDREN: Oh, I was fine. They were just movies for me, you know, just jobs. As far as the characters and what they went through, I didn't make the connection between what they went through and what I went through until much later. I think a lot of my confusion was this blurring between what was just a job for me and what was much more than that for Mr. Hitchcock.
What was the
connection you made later?
Well, I began to see that this was a pattern for Mr. Hitchcock--that he had run people out of the business, that there was even an actress who had to keep changing her name to keep working because Mr. Hitchcock had made it clear that he wouldn't allow her to work without his permission. I began to see that the movies we did together had to reflect that controlling nature in some way. And they do.
I watched the
rehearsal reel he made with you and Martin Balsam for Marnie--they feel
Yes. Working with Mr. Hitchcock was very much like that--he controlled every moment, every aspect of production. It was hard--it is hard--to separate his genius [from] his less honourable intentions. I was certainly in no position to question. When I first sat down with Donald [Spoto], here was this man who was obviously enthralled with the legend of Hitchcock, as we all were...
How did you trust
him? Why did you begin to have this conversion?
Well, I didn't for twenty years. I was embarrassed, I was humiliated.
You were the victim
of sexual assault.
By the most powerful man in Hollywood--one of the most powerful in the history of Hollywood. I was confused. I deflected this for twenty years after it happened. I didn't talk about it, I didn't want to. Even though I knew that he'd done it to other women, I was silent. People would ask and I would just give the accepted line about how great an honour it was... And it was a great honour. I'm incredibly grateful to have had the opportunity to work with Mr. Hitchcock and to have been in these movies that everyone is still talking about, still studying. I'm incredibly grateful to have the voice that these films allow me to have even after all this time.
How did you begin to
talk with Spoto about what happened to you?
It took time but I trusted Donald. He and I are still close. He gave me a safe environment--he was clear about his intentions and he was a willing and sympathetic listener. What I feared the most was that people wouldn't believe me, but he made it clear that he did, and that was empowering. I think it changed the course of his book.
(laughs) It wasn't called The Dark
Side of Genius when he approached you?
(laughs) No, it was not.
It's hard not to believe you, given the evidence
that the films themselves represent.
Have you been shaken, disappointed by the
reaction from some to your comments--the ones saying that you should feel thankful
and lucky, no matter the abuse you suffered?
I wish I was more surprised. The attitude has always been that--it's always been this way, hasn't it? With powerful men and pretty young women. I suspect that there will always be a little of that. Look, I do feel lucky, I do feel grateful. Hitchcock the artist was an incomparable genius. Hitchcock the man left a little wanting.
Talk to me about that "voice" that you
I'm working now with an American servicewoman who was raped by one of her peers and has been told--in no uncertain terms, ordered--to be quiet about it or else. It sounded all too familiar. The studio system that I was caught in was similar: They tried to intimidate me into doing whatever Mr. Hitchcock was asking of me by suggesting that I knew that all that was part of the bargain. They suggested that I was property to be ordered around and forced to do things. If I didn't, I was told, my career was over, so I said, "Okay, my career is over."
Where does the courage to do that come from? Was
it naivety or was it something else?
Do you mean did I believe they meant it or could do it? I knew they meant it and I knew they could do it. Mr. Hitchcock was powerful and I knew that he'd done it before, but I also knew I couldn't do what he was asking me to do. The courage came from my Lutheran parents. They were strict, but they never punished me or my sister without first telling us the reasons why. It's the only armour you give your children when they go out into the world. If you don't tell them the "why," don't instil in them a sense of what is right and what is wrong, they enter into the world unarmed. When I was there, at that moment when an ultimatum was presented to me, they were on my shoulders.
Did they ask afterwards what had happened?
No, we didn't talk about it, but I was sure that they knew that I was grateful that they were essentially in that room with me.
Your work with big cats, your work now with
American servicewomen--did you think you'd be here, now, fifty years later?
(laughs) Never. Everything that's happened to me in my life, I see now, has just happened. I feel like it's only recently that I've been the director of it. When I became a model, it was just that someone spotted me getting off a bus and gave me a card and asked if I wouldn't ask my parents if it would be all right for me to be a model, and then, there I was, a model. Then Mr. Hitchcock saw me on the television and there I was, an actress. Now, I guess, I'm something like an activist..and an actress... I don't know, but none of it was planned.
Was there resentment about that among your
None. They were all lovely to me: supportive, kind. There must have been some jealousy, I mean this was Hitchcock, everyone wanted to be the star of a Hitchcock picture and then, there I was, never done a thing, not even an actress.
Did Hitchcock set you
against your brunette co-star/antagonists, Suzanne Pleshette and Diane Baker?
Not at all. We were all doing a picture. It was work. When things started going a little sideways on The Birds, though, Suzanne pulled me aside and said to me, "It's not always like this." I'll never forget that kindness. I didn't know, you know, I thought it was all normal. Unpleasant, maybe, but normal. But I felt very taken care of, then. She was the loveliest person. Diane Baker, too. We were there to do a job and we did it. I never for a moment felt any kind of tension with my co-stars, not even the ones I was set against in the pictures.
Did you ever think about how you being set
against brunettes was analogous to you being set against Alma?
(long pause) Alma and Mr. Hitchcock were enigmas to us all. They would throw these parties, they were in so many ways connected at the hip. There was one day when Alma came to me on the set and apologized--she told me she was sorry that I had to go through what I was going through...at the hands of her husband!--and I said that she could stop it with just one word. But it was like she didn't hear me... Or understand me. She just turned and walked away.
How do you interpret that?
I don't know. It's what she knew.
We get trapped in the familiar.
Like Marnie in Mark Rutland's empty glass cage?
(laughs) And Melanie in her gilded one.
Yes, he actually put Melanie in a literal glass
cage: a phone booth.
How far have we come on the question of
Not far, I think. But there are two films coming out this year about Mr. Hitchcock and both, to some degree, deal with his shortcomings as a man and his treatment of the women he cast in his films. That's some progress, at least.
Tell me more about your work now with this
I'm telling her to say "no." I'm telling her that there is nothing that is worth what she's been asked to give up--that she has value. I'm telling her to quit, to run, to get out of the Army, and to speak. She can't be quiet about it. I wouldn't be where I am now, in this position to help, if I had remained quiet, and it took me a long time to learn that. I'm working now as an actress, I'm speaking for the voiceless, I lost nothing by speaking and I gained everything. If I can be an example to one young woman, then I'm grateful most of all to be that. No matter what I went through, that's the past and I would not change one thing about the past if it meant me not being exactly where I am at this moment. It's a privileged place. I'm telling her that this won't be the end of her, that she can't let it break her, because we come through these things stronger and it's our duty to not remain silent.
There's been some backlash, from Kim Novak and others, to the portrayal of Hitchcock as a sexual predator.
Posted by: Richard | November 21, 2012 at 11:24 AM