Tippi Hedren sits on a sofa in a Beverly Hills hotel suite on a warm August day. Still exquisitely beautiful at age 82, she wears a dress of the same soft gray-green as her eyes. On her right lapel is an intricate gold and diamond brooch in the shape of three birds in flight. Behind her left shoulder is a lamp, on which is perched a faux raven.
If you’re familiar with the promotional stills from Hedren’s legendary 1963 acting debut, Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, the effect is stunning. That she is here to promote the absorbing new HBO film The Girl — which chronicles Hitchcock’s dangerous obsession with Hedren during the film and its equally legendary follow-up Marnie, when she accepted his mentorship but refused his love — is a revelation.
“It was a very odd thing to be told that they’re going to do the section of my life that changed my life completely,” says Hedren. “It was a monumental task and I was very, very fortunate that they were so interested in doing it correctly, the way it actually happened.”
Screenwriter Gwyneth Hughes tapped Hedren and her friend Donald Spoto, upon whose novel Spellbound by Beauty the film is based, as artistic advisers. She then conducted the only interview given by Hitchcock’s first assistant director Jim Brown before his death, and mined the memories of Hedren’s Marnie costar Diane Baker in assembling her script, which is brought to life with meticulous detail and goose-bumpy Hitchcockian nods by director Julian Jarrold.
A successful model and savvy world traveler, the 32-year-old Hedren was happily raising her young daughter (actress Melanie Griffith) alone when Hitchcock spotted her in a TV commercial and commanded Universal Studios to find him “The Girl” to add to the roster of beautiful, fair-haired women — including Kim Novak, Ingrid Bergman and Grace Kelly — that he would propel to cinematic stardom. He would also, as is the stuff of minor legend, develop mooning crushes on his leading ladies that lasted until he moved on to his next film, his next blond ingénue, as his long-suffering wife Alma and faithful assistant Peggy turned the other cheek for the sake of his career.
What the legends left out is that Hedren’s refusal to bow to Hitchcock’s increasing torment set in motion a dangerous dance of pathos and a power struggle that would ultimately define their careers — and then ruin them.
Both the real and the cinematic tale begin with the duo’s first lunchtime meeting in his office on the studio grounds. He pours her fine wine, comments on her pearls, then recites a filthy limerick — gauging Hedren’s reaction from under his famously heavy-lidded eyes. She neither laughed nor flinched and headed home hoping she might land work as an extra. Soon, she was summoned to dine again with Hitchcock and Alma, where they presented her with the brooch she wears today to offer her the much-coveted role of Melanie Daniels in The Birds. Hedren threw herself into the work, relishing her burgeoning friendships with the filmmaker and his inner circle and the exhilaration of learning this new craft.
Meanwhile, Hitchcock — a lonely child of cruel parents, who found solace in creating on film the physical perfection he craved — was imagining a fairy tale in which he and this challenging new beauty would form the perfect union of cinematic excellence and romantic love that he had failed to achieve with Alma. When Hedren repeatedly rebuffed his crude advances, he retooled The Birds’ most legendary scene in a horrific attempt to force her hand.
“I don’t understand why [Melanie] would go into the attic alone,” the actress wonders as they walk to the set. “Because I say so,” says Hitchcock, eyeing her stonily. What resulted was a harrowing five-day shoot in which Hedren — who had been promised one afternoon’s work with mechanical birds — was mercilessly attacked by dozens of frenzied live birds, mortifying the crew and leaving her badly hurt but unwilling to let Hitchcock bow her. And on the night of the film’s grandiose premiere, when Hitchcock tells her he could “only teach her so much through kindness,” she accepts it as an apology and takes the lead in Marnie, during which her torment — and Hitchcock’s emotional unspooling — would reach disturbing new heights.
“It became clear that the spine of the film [The Girl] was really about this intense psychodrama,” says Jarrold. “As we tried to work out what was going on in Hitchcock’s mind — and in Tippi’s as well — each time there was this sort of new little pawn put forward by them in the chess game, and that’s what really interested me. The parallels of how Hitchcock was using these films as reflecting on Tippi what he thought she was thinking — those are fascinating to film.”
Before production began Hedren says she sat down with Sienna Miller, who winningly portrays her in the film, to make certain Miller knew that she was not playing Hitchcock’s victim, but rather a survivor who refused to compromise the principles instilled in her by her beloved parents and the life she carefully crafted for herself and her child. “She explained to me who she was as a woman and why she wouldn’t respond to this kind of behavior in him,” says Miller, who was newly pregnant with her own baby daughter Marlowe during the shoot. “She just said, ‘I never gave in and I really want you to make sure that you hold on to that when you’re playing this role.’ That’s where my performance came from on all levels — this place of morality.”
“What makes it interesting is that I don’t think it was a sexual thing,” adds veteran character actor Toby Jones who underwent five hours of daily prosthetics for his disquietingly nuanced portrayal of Hitchcock. “Even though he attacks her physically, it’s ultimately about beauty and control. He had such a finely tuned aesthetic sense — interested in what women wore, interested in color, in shape, in movement — and then he was confronted with this woman who exuded a beauty that he couldn’t cope with. At a time when he was his most celebrated and his most powerful and his most popular — at a time when it seemed he had the most control — there was something, someone, resisting that control.”
When Marnie wrapped, premiering to only lukewarm review by critics who did not understand its sophisticated examination of childhood trauma until many years later, Hitchcock refused to utter Hedren’s name again — referring to her only as “the girl” — or to release her from her contract, effectively snuffing out her promising career as a leading lady.
“It was so easy for him — he kept me under contract,” Hedren sighs. “He paid me $600 a week — isn’t that amazing? — for almost two years. He then gave the contract to Universal who wanted me to do a television show I didn’t think I would be right for. They said, ‘Well if you don’t do it, you’re out of this contract’ and I went [thrusts out her hand] “Shake on it!” Two weeks later Charlie Chaplin called me directly to ask if I would play Marlon Brando’s wife in A Countess From Hong Kong. So I was back, but it wasn’t a lead role. From what I understand, Hitchcock (who released four more films before his 1980 death, none of them the commercial or critical success of his work with Hedren) almost had a heart attack when he heard.”
To watch The Girl and then revisit the two iconic thrillers at its core is to see them in an alarming new light. But, Hedren — now a passionate wild animal activist and currently appearing with Griffith on Raising Hope — is pleased that The Girl affirms her triumph, not her destruction. “He ruined my career, but he didn’t ruin my life,” she smiles. “I hope that women, when they see this film, realize that they don’t have to acquiesce to anything they don’t feel is morally right.”
The Girl premieres Oct. 20 on HBO.
The Girl HBO Images/video: HBO