Perhaps it would have been better to say that in a live interview at the Virginia Film Festival last weekend Hedren shared mixed emotions about the legendary director. Although if I am any judge of body language, she leans more toward loathing than gratitude.
The event was a 50th anniversary screening of The Birds, which appeared in 1963.
From my seat in the middle of the row about a third of the way back at the palatial Paramount Theatre, she looked mah-velous. Really. Mah. Veh. Lus
Now 83 years-old, she is just as trim as in her Hitchcock heyday, wearing a black knee-length sheath, nude hose, and high-heeled pumps I thought only Tina Turner would be able to handle at that age. Her hair is short and a tad spiky. Occasionally, her expression or movement evokes her daughter, actress Melanie Griffith. If I were being catty, I would guess that they have the same plastic surgeon.
Unlike Griffith, who is all breath and innocence, Hedren’s voice still has that tone to it. That crisp, slightly dismissive, possibly chain-smoking edge that makes it all the more startling when Hedren falls apart reliving a childhood trauma in Marnie or snuggles up to Jessica Tandy, broken, in the penultimate scene of The Birds.
I don’t know who planned–or more likely didn’t carefully consider–the arrangements for the post-screening interview. Poor Ms. Hedren was perched above the audience (you try watching The Birds on a large screen without having your subconscious, ahem, stuffed with avian imagery) on a high stage, on a hard, common black banquet chair, facing us head on. Think the Sharon Stone interrogation in Basic Instinct.
Hedren, though, remained tightly and properly crossed, which she probably does even when she is not in a precarious position. She has great legs, long and slender. The kind that used be called gams.
Which is probably where the trouble began.
From all reports, Hitchcock was completely obsessed with her.
Not that she couldn’t handle it. Although billed as an ingenue and an unknown, Hedren reminds us she was 31 when she began The Birds. She had a four year-old daughter and a successful career as a model and actress in national commercials. So what if her director hounded her to join him for drinks after work? Hedren was used to politely brushing off unwanted attention.
“It was not my first rodeo,” she shrugs, adjusting her blood-red scarf.
But Hitchcock’s sexual demands became cruder and more insistent; his direction more cruel and tortuous.
She claims–as she has before–that he promised her the ravens, gulls, and crows who attack her at close quarters in the attic room at the culmination of the film, would be fake, mechanical. “Everybody lied to me about that scene,” she says. The morning it was slated to shoot, “the assistant director wouldn’t look at me.”
When she got to the set, the area was caged and four wranglers “with gauntlets up to their shoulders” hurled live, pecking birds at her face. For four days. On the fifth, she collapsed. The production company’s doctor prescribed a week of rest. Hitchcock balked. The doctor held firm.
“‘What do you want to do,” Hedren reports the doctor asked Hitchcock, “Kill her?” Hedren’s voice breaks and rises with a tinge of hysteria, just as it did at crucial points in Marnie. I sincerely believe that Hitchcock terrorized her.
The rest is murky. Hedren explains that while wrapping her second and final Hitchcock work, Marnie, she was invited to New York to receive an award from the then-very popular show business magazine, Photoplay. Despite a light shooting schedule, Hitchcock said no. Hedren asked to be released from her exclusive contract with him. He refused. For two years. “I’ll ruin your career,” she says he said.
And so, she says, he did. She says she was “hot” in the wake of Marnie, but Hitchcock wouldn’t allow her to accept any work. She says she could have been a big star if only he had let her.
She says. He says. Or actually, he’s gone and can’t say and probably wouldn’t.
She does easily admit he was her “drama coach,” that he taught her acting skills she hadn’t needed for commercials. How to break down a script. How to discover the character. How to become the character.
I believe this. I believe it is possible that with his cruelty, attempted sexual blackmail, and unorthodox methods, Hitchcock pulled a performance out of Hedren in Marnie she might never have matched. The Birds isn’t really an actor’s movie anyway. It’s more a prototype for modern horror flicks. People of all ages in the festival audience laughed a lot during the screening. I felt I was in an episode of Mystery Science Theatre 3000.
But when they made Marnie, even if he didn’t get what he demanded off the set, Hitchcock may have had Hedren exactly where he wanted her. She had the natural icy looks of a “frigid” (Hedren’s word) woman, knew how to play haughty, and when he needed her to dissolve into complete vulnerability, Hitchcock had badgered her to the point that it wasn’t a stretch. As psychological studies of wounded child/women go, the movie is one of my favorites, edging up there toward Now Voyager and The Three Faces of Eve. The unholy incorrectness of Hitchcock’s sexual harassment aside, I really have to wonder, was that performance in the acting or the directing? Afterwards, did he ruin her career or just keep her from embarrassing herself outside of his vicious but capable hands?
Hedren would say hogwash, or something along those lines, I’m sure. And Hitchcock isn’t here to sit on a film festival stage and enlighten us. I wish he were. I would drive back to Charlottesville in the dark ten times over just to hear him.
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