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Hitchcock: “The length of a film should be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder.”
ALFRED HITCHCOCK: FILM GENIUS UNDER THE MAGNIFYING GLASS
No other film director represents suspense as much as Alfred Hitchcock, the legendary filmmaker behind classics like “Psycho,” “Rebecca,” “Vertigo” and “Rear Window.” Hitchcock was also the first Hollywood director to become a bonafide star and pop icon, with anticipated cameos in his own films, and his name appearing before the film title. He also presented the popular TV series, “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” (1955-1961) and “The Alfred Hitchcock Hour” (1962), both out on DVD.
Two new feature films take on the life of the English genius from Leytonstone. The first, “Hitchcock,” takes a look at the filmmaker's complicated state of mind during the preparation, filming and release of 1960's “Psycho.” Documentary filmmaker Sacha Gervasi directs Anthony Hopkins as Hitchcock and Helen Mirren as his wife and creative collaborator, Alma Reville. The cast includes Jessica Biel as actress Vera Miles, Scarlett Johansson as actress Janet Leigh and James D'Arcy as actor Anthony Perkins.
The second film, “The Girl,” deals with Hitchcock's morbid voyeurism and obsession with Tippi Hedren, the blond star of his thrillers “The Birds” and “Marnie.” In the Julian Jarrold film, Hitchcock is portrayed by Toby Jones and Sienna Miller is actress Tippi Hedren.
Says Miller, who met with Hedren before filming began, “Hitchcock was a difficult man.”
No surprises there. Donald Spoto's 1983 biography “The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock” depicted him as sadistic and controlling to his leading ladies, as a creep with a mother fixation - a wannabe Norman Bates - whose films were autobiographical projections of his own sick erotic fantasies. Although he had a good relationship with his favourite blond, Grace Kelly, who starred in three of his classic films, there is no denying that late in his career something went wrong in his relationship with Tippi Hedren, with whom he became fixated.
Hedren, who is the mother of actress Melanie Griffith, was a fashion model and the star of only a soft-drink TV commercial when Hitchcock offered her an exclusive studio contract in 1961. She burst into tears for being handed “an incredible situation on a silver platter”, not realizing that she would soon become Hitchcock's personal muse and that the director would obsessively control her image, dictate her off-set wardrobe, eavesdrop on her phone calls, and interfere in her love life.
“He was thrilled that I hadn't had any acting training,” she recalls of his putting her through a gruelling, detailed screen-test that lasted three days. He then became her private drama coach. “I didn't have to unlearn anything.”
Of his constant and unwanted sexual advances, she says, “It was a very uncomfortable thing. I wasn't interested in him like that. He wanted to have private lunches. He'd want a glass of champagne after shooting. He really wanted to control my life. It was very wearing and frightening.”
Hitchcock's frustration with Hedren came to a head while they were filming the final and unforgettable scene of “The Birds,” where her character is pecked at by aggressive gulls. Hitchcock replaced the mechanical birds used in rehearsals with real ones. “Those birds pecked,” tells Hedren. “They hurled birds at me. They tied birds to me with elastic bands, one of them only just missed scraping its claw into my eye. At the end I was so exhausted I was out cold. I don't remember anyone driving me home. I realised that Hitch had chosen an unknown actress because no famous actress in their right mind would have done this movie.”
“He was extremely complicated,” adds Hedren, who refers to this period in her life as “pure hell.” “No doubt he was a misogynist (a person who hates, dislikes, mistrusts, or mistreats women).”
During the filming of “Marnie” the following year, things deteriorated further. The “many demands” Hitchcock made on Hedren, made her ask to be released from her contract. Hitchcock refused.
“He said, 'I'll ruin your career.' And he did,” she claims. “He kept me under contract - $600 dollars a week for almost two years to do nothing. I couldn't make any other movies. I was 'hot' and later found out how many directors and producers had wanted me. It was very frustrating.”
For twenty years, Hedren did not tell anyone about what had happened during the making of the Hitchcock pictures “because I was embarrassed. If it happened today I would be rich.”
Because she would have sued him for sexual harassment?
When Hitchcock died in Los Angeles 32 years ago, Hedren felt “relief. It was so terribly hurtful.”
Of her relationship with Hitchcock being explored in “The Girl,” the 82-year-old actress claims that it is “quite terrifying that they have made a movie about me while I'm still alive.” And she finds it “quite offensive” that its director, Julian Jarrold, did not meet with her before making the film. Hedren did, however, meet with Sienna Miller to discuss the script and her memories of the time. And she found the meetings “absolutely fabulous.”
While “The Girl” focuses on Hitchcock's obsession with Tippi Hedren, “Hitchcock” tells the story of the director's trouble in finding financing for “Psycho,” his desire to prove to his doubters and himself that he still had an edge, and his battles with the Hollywood censors.
Hitchcock made “Psycho” as an experiment in horror, claiming it was “a big comedy.” When it opened, the reviews were not very good. Many disliked it vehemently, especially that the director killed off his leading lady thirty minutes into the film. The gruesome shower sequence was looked upon as something out of a tacky horror movie and not appreciated for its remarkable shots and editing. Later, Walt Disney even refused to allow Hitchcock to film at Disneyland because he had made “that disgusting movie “Psycho”.”
But the audiences loved the film that ended up among the top three grossing films of 1960. And Anthony Perkins would never be remembered for other roles than that of Norman Bates. The actor returned to his iconic role in a 1983 sequel, then directed himself in a second sequel in 1986. Four years on, and only two years before his death at age 60, Perkins portrayed Bates for the last time in the TV film, “Psycho IV.”
“Hitchcock,” based on Stephen Cobello's book, has Oscar-winner Anthony Hopkins dressed up in a fat suit for the role of the director and Helen Mirren looking appropriately plain and asexual as his wife, Alma. Scarlett Johansson portrays Janet Leigh, the actress immortalized by the infamous 45 second shower scene that took seven days and seventy camera set-ups to produce. Johansson says that Hitchcock must have been “difficult to work with, but also fascinating.”
Because Hitchcock was famous for scaring his actors into giving memorable performances. Once he tied up Madeleine Carroll, his star of “The 39 Steps” and “Secret Agent,” to a post and left her there all afternoon. His practical jokes on cast and crew were also said to have been more cruel than funny. After finding out about somebody's phobias, such as mice and spiders, he would in turn send them a box filled of them.
Maybe Hitchcock was a self-loathing, psycho-sexual sadist, but his films are not any less genius as a result. And he did direct eight actors to Oscar nominations, although only one would win: Joan Fontaine for “Suspicion.”
Still, Hitchcock is thought of as someone who disliked actors due to stories of him referring to them as cattle. He is said to have found them childish and bothersome, stating, “Cartoonists have the best casting system. If they don't like an actor, they just tear him up.”
Another time, he was quoted, “When an actor comes to me and want to discuss his character, I say, 'It's in the script.' If he says, 'But what's my motivation?', I say, 'Your salary.'”
Naturally, the director denied the accusations with his usual witty tongue, “There is a dreadful story that I hate actors. I can't imagine how such a rumour began. Of course it may possibly be because I was once quoted as saying that actors are cattle. My actor friends know I would never be capable of such a thoughtless, rude and unfeeling remark, that I would never call them cattle... What I probably said was that actors should be treated like cattle.”
More tellingly, he once admitted, “Cary Grant is the only actor I ever loved in my whole life.”
The two new films about Hitchcock show his many fears and phobias that he would use in his films so well. The director's fear of the police stemmed from him being sent to the local police station as a boy by. The desk sergeant read his father's letter and immediately locked Alfred up for ten minutes. After that, the sergeant let the boy go, explaining, “This is what happens to people who do bad things.” Hitchcock had a morbid fear of police from that day on.
The filmmaker cited his phobia of police as the reason he never learnt to drive (a person who does not drive can never be pulled over and given a ticket). Hitchcock also referred to the incident as the reason for the recurring “wrong man” themes in his films.
“I'm scared easily,” he explained and listed his most prominent fears: small children, policemen, high places and ovophobia (a fear of eggs). “Fear isn't so difficult to understand. After all, weren't we all frightened as children? What frightens us today is exactly the same sort of thing that frightened us yesterday. The fright complex is rooted in every individual.”
The new films will certainly have Alfred Hitchcock spinning in his grave. In his defence, not all actresses had a tough time with the film genius. “Vertigo” star Kim Novak says that she enjoyed working with him because he knew exactly what he wanted. “He knew how he wanted me to play the character, how to get me to deliver, in which way I were to dress, even though I often disagreed. And he kept himself behind the camera so he should not intimidate me too much.”
Even Tippi Hedren appreciated his “brilliance.”
“I had training from the best,” she agrees. “He might not have been the greatest of men, but he was a great story-teller.”
SIDE-BAR: DID YOU KNOW THIS ABOUT HITCH?
1. At the height of Hitchcock's career, in the '50s, he received $150.000 per film, plus ten percent of the film's profit. However, for the 'experimental' “Psycho,” he got no upfront salary but would receive sixty percent of the net profits. Not a clever move for the studio that ended up paying him over $15 million for directing the film, about $180 million in today's terms.
2. The two new films about Hitchcock represent a growing fascination that film makers and audiences have for stories and myths behind their favourite films. Las year's “My week with Marilyn” dealt with the filming of “The Prince of the Showgirl,” starring Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe and Kenneth Branagh as Laurence Olivier, and soon we will get “Liz & Dick,” a TV biography of Elizabeth Taylor (Lindsay Lohan) and her iconic love affair with Richard Burton (Grant Bowler).
3. Hitchcock was recently voted the Greatest Director of all time by the US show business bible, Entertainment Weekly (with four of his films on its 100 Greatest Films of all time list), but the director never won an Oscar (although he received a Honorary Oscar late in his career).
4. In 1998, director Gus Van Sant remade “Psycho” shot-by-shot, but in colour, and proved above doubt that Hitchcock was the cinema's only Master of Suspense.
SIDE-BAR: MEMORABLE HITCH QUOTES
“The length of a film should be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder.”
“A good film is when the price of dinner, the theatre admission and the babysitter were worth it.”
“Even my failures make money and become classics a year after I make them.”
“Blondes make the best victims. They're like virgin snow that shows up the bloody footprints.”
“It has been rumoured that “Psycho” is so terrifying that it will scare some people speechless. Some of my men hopefully sent their wives to a screening. The women emerged badly shaken but still vigorously vocal.”
“I'm very pleased that television is now showing murder stories, because it's bringing murder back into its rightful setting - in the home.”
© IFA-Amsterdam 2013.
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