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The Season of the Hitch

The year in film was already marked by Alfred Hitchcock as Vertigo at last topped Citizen Kane in the Sight & Sound poll. Vertigo had been slowly climbing its way to the top and this year it finally broke Kane’s 50-year reign at #1. As human nature dictates, the larger they loom, the harder they fall and it was inevitable that the arguments would begin about Vertigo’s worth.

Simultaneously, two films about Hitchcock were nearing completion. The Girl on HBO, starring Sienna Miller as Tippi Hedren and Toby Jones as Hitch, and Hitchcock, directed by Sacha Gervasi, starring Helen Mirren as Alma Reville and Anthony Hopkins as Hitch. Both of these films seemed to appear like bad tabloid stories designed to take Hitchcock down a notch or two, more than 30 years after his death. Thus, the perennial question arises once more about how to separate the man (or the woman) from the art.

Joe Queenan told NPR, while remembering an old quote, “Someone once said about Emily Dickinson: The correct way to approach Emily Dickinson is on your knees.”

The correct way to approach the work of Alfred Hitchcock is on your knees. Yet because our prurient interests in the private lives of our celebrities and politicians tends to override almost everything else, the Season of the Hitch has not been an occasion to appreciate the master’s work, as it should be; but rather, a time to put him on trial for alleged sexual harassment and whatever else writers and directors come up with that has nothing to do with his films.

This is not to discount Tippi Hedren’s own account of what happened on the set of The Birds. But there is a difference between making an artistic decision that doesn’t make sense — like, sending Hedren’s character up to the attic only to be attacked by birds — and a filmmaker today condemning that decision by lamely deciding that Hitch devised that scene only to torture Hedren. If Hitchcock was guilty of anything in that regard, it’s this: he was not sympathetic to actors. Their comfort was secondary to his work. That is the dilemma, right? His work was exceptional. Can it not simply be appreciated as such? Or must we put an asterisk next to our assessment based on a personal judgments of his behavior?

The Girl is the more enjoyable of the two films for me personally, simply because I thought Sienna Miller captured the essence of Tippi Hedren better than Scarlett Johansson captured Janet Leigh. Miller’s touching performance made The Girl a better film overall. But Gervasi’s Hitchcock attempts to dive deeper into the influence of Alma Hitchcock, which gives that film the edge in bringing her back to life, at last giving her due credit for her devoted contribution to the Hitchcock canon.

But Gervasi has taken many liberties in explaining what inspired some of Hitchcock’s artistic choices and that — in both The Girl and Hitchcock — is where both of this year’s films go wrong.  Psycho and The Birds are two pinnacles of Hitchcock’s filmmaking genius, exemplifying the risks he was willing to take, the exacting methods with which he planned them out, his nimble handling of every effect he wanted to have on audiences. I don’t know if it’s necessary to delve into his personal life, or his psychology, to appreciate his films. Sure, you can always fill in the blanks with what you think you know about Hitchcock — or any artist. But my advice is to keep the two realms separate, the man and his work.

My own personal feelings about these issues have less to do with whether or not I “believe” Hedren, or the embellished stories of Vera Miles — there is no reason not to believe them. Hedren’s is a first person account of her experience and that makes it valid. Just because her experience left her feeling abused, does that mean we all should regard The Birds as nothing more than a way to cuddle up to Hedren and then torture Her? Moreover, would it be far more interesting to watch a movie being made about a movie if the story simply focused on the real reasons behind the artistic choices he made, without indulging in amateur psychoanalysis?

Harder to pin down is the notion put forth in Stephen Rebello’s book, Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, that Hitch was still feeling resentful of Vera Miles when he chose to cast her in Psycho.  Miles had been groomed to become Hitch’s next protégé — he liked to take plain-looking girls like Miles and Hedren, dress them, school them, monitor them to the point of suffocation — to make them stars.

According to Rebello’s essential and brilliant book, Hitch surrounded himself with a very tight and loyal group of collaborators. But that, along with many other great details, never make it into the film adaptation. Hitch was fairly shy. Expressing his emotion was hard for him. As for whatever desires and longings he may have had with his actresses, we have nothing but bits and pieces to hint at those obsessions — not nearly enough to understand the whole picture. From Rebello’s book:

“I felt the same way directing Vera that I did with Grace,” crooned a usually more circumspect Hitchcock to a reporter for Look magazine. “She has a style, an intelligence, and a quality of understatement.” Convinced that he had found in Miles another icebox blonde in the Grace Kelly tradition, Hitchcock ordered costume designer Edith Head and Paramount’s platoon of makeup and hair specialists to groom her expensively to his precise specifications. Hitchcock grumbled to Edith Head that Miles was “swamped by color,” so he decreed that from then on his protégée should be attired in nothing but black, white or gray. Upon inspecting Miles’s portfolio of publicity photographs, Hitchcock announced to the Paramount publicity department that he was putting a moratorium on any further “cheesecake” shots. Hitchcock and his minions scrutinized and advised Vera Miles upon every public and private move she made — from the company she kept to her commercial tie-in arrangements, such as the one she enjoyed with Lux Soap. Costume designer Rita Riggs observed: “The sort of eduction one got from Mr. Hitchcock and Miss Head in publicity and the presentation of a new personality, one could not get anywhere else in the world. Although Vera was a lovely girl, she was far too intelligent to be an actress, and too independent to be anyone’s Trilby.

To the surprise of no one, the relationship between the spunky Miles and her demanding Svengali deteriorated rapidly during the making of The Wrong Man, shot on location in New York and released in 1956. Miles found Hitchock’s attentions toward her stifling and inappropriate. Hitchcock smothered her with flowers, telegrams, and demands for private conferences. Miles found herself constantly in arrears to express her gratitude. “Dear Hitch,” began a typical note from Miles, almost three months too late. “It suddenly occurs to me that I didn’t thank you for the beautiful flowers you sent me, both when I started Beau James and on my birthday. I sincerely appreciate your thoughtfulness and good wishes. Sincerely, Vera.”

Matters worsened irrevocably when Miles married Gordon Scott, the new movie Tarzan, during the shooting of The Wrong Man. Hitch wasn’t happy about that. However, Miles’s performance as the wife of Henry Fonda in his spare, documentary-like, black-and-white thriller prompted the director to design Vertigo as the next picture to showcase her talents as his latest incarnation of the iconic Hitchcock blonde.

By the time the screenplay was ready and James Stewart was signed to squire Miles in the film, the actress enraged Hitchcock by announcing she was pregnant — for the third time. “He was over-whelmed,” Miles has said. “He said, “Don’t you know it’s bad taste to have more than two?” Instantly, the director cooled toward Miles. Hitchcock had lavished on his budding star time, money and most precious, emotion. Hitchcock associates say that he believed that Miles should have been grateful AND compliant. Privately, Hitchcock fumed like a rebuffed suitor. Miles observed: “over the span of years, he’s had one kind of woman in his films, Ingrid Bergman, Grace Kelly, and so on. Before that, it was Madeleine Carroll. I’m not their type and never have been. I tried to please him but I couldn’t. They are all sexy women, but mine is an entirely different approach.” Miles remained philosophical about losing the chance for Stardom in Vertigo, “Hitchcock got his picture,” she said. “I got a son.”


However, by September 22, 1959, with Miles still under contract when Hitchcock summoned her for the role in Psycho, Miles’s agent took a more conciliatory tone in his telegrams: “Be assured of desire to cooperate and intention of accepting your offer.” In what could only be read as a comeuppance, Hitchcock tossed his would-be ice goddess into a drab, underdeveloped part. Further worsening matters, Miles had just had her head shaved for a role in Five Branded Women, in which she played a Yugoslavian girl punished for consorting with German troops. For Psycho, Hitchcock paid off his one-time contender for the throne of “The New Grace Kelly” with a $1,750 a week and a dubious wig and wardrobe. “Vera was a pretty headstrong lady,” concurs makeup man Jack Barron, who recalled several set-to’s between leading lady and director. “She’d do things HER way and stand up to anybody. Even him.”

It’s an interesting back story, and one that caused both of them pain. But it’s all condensed in one line delivered by Jessica Biel who plays Miles (she is far too pretty for the part) to hit the audience over the head with Hitchcock and Vertigo. I won’t spoil it here. I bring it up only as example of how the filmmakers here oversimplify Hitchcock’s work with facile Freudian explanations, which I think, to put it mildly, is the wrong approach.

This is not to say that none of the personal stuff is valid, or that Tippi Hedren isn’t justified in speaking out about her claims of abuse. That is an important story that needs to be told. But does that invalidate The Birds as a great film? Hitchcock is rendered as a drippy neurotic mess in The Girl, and Gervasi’s Hitchcock comes close tothe same slander. In both films Alma is there to pick up the pieces. But I never got that picture of Hitchcock reading Rebello’s book. He was all about the work. For instance, when he filmed the shower scene in Psycho, careful thought and meticulous planning went into exactly how they would shoot Janet Leigh, who would have to either be covered with body makeup or use a body double. The body double was nude and walked around the set freely talking to people, including Hitchcock. Filming was long and laborious, over five days. This wasn’t at all how the shooting was depicted in Hitchcock, where emotions are shown inferring with the filming of the famous sequence.

On the plus side, Hitchcock does feature two outstanding performances by Hopkins and Mirren. Mirren, in particular, is the true standout here. Other than the fictional love affair the screenwriter invents to complicate Alma’s life — they also celebrate Alma Reville, a writer, editor and filmmaker in her own right. She stood in the shadow of Hitchcock’s famous silhouette for thirty years and let him take all of the credit. As Living in Cinema’s Craig Kennedy said about Alma, that illustrates a healthy ego. Yet both films make Hitchcock’s love for his leading ladies Alma’s biggest problem. In my eyes, I believe the work would matter to her more, getting due credit for basically being his co-director all the way through. In that way, she is the invisible woman. But perhaps those responsible for adapting truth into melodrama thought it would be more emotionally effective to make it about the Other Women.

Hitchcock will do well with the Academy I think, but will probably make its strongest impression in Best Actress with Mirren taking a slot. The tech crew may be recognized as well — art direction, costume and makeup. I also recommend reading Stephen Rebello’s book if you are a fan of Psycho. There is so much information in it about the sacrifices and concessions Hitchcock had to make in order to get it made at all, some of which the film depicts. For example, how Hitch had to get the film made on his own dime — foregoing his usual fee in return for a 60% stake in future profits — a move that would prove to be a canny financial gamble in the long run. How he had to navigate with the ratings board in order to get what he wanted — a sly game of compromise that would essentially make movie history. Gervasi’s film inflicts Hitchcock with an Ed Gein obsession, but in reality one of the main reasons Hitchcock was drawn to Psycho was that he had observed how audiences and box-office were changing, and he wanted to try his hand at one of these smaller but grittier horror movies that he saw were making money.

In real life, there was much ado about Janet Leigh being killed off after thirty minutes, who thought of it, why they thought of it, why they cast Janet Leigh because of it, and how they worked so hard to keep it a secret. To me, that kind of behind the scenes information is far more valuable than prurient speculation about what gave Hitchcock and erection and what didn’t. But you should probably read the book AND see the movie to decide for yourself — the film is worth seeing just for the performances alone.

But ask yourself when it’s over if every bad thing you ever heard about Hitchcock could ever ultimately ruin the movies for you. Similarly, can you watch Woody Allen movies or Roman Polanski movies without having their historic achievements diminished by your knowledge of their private failures?

I’ve heard tell of how cruel Gaugin was to Van Gogh. But those stories would never make me hate Gaugin’s work. What’s the best way to approach Gaugin? On your knees.

Extended Clip from Silver Linings Playbook

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12 Comments

  1. lane
    November 7, 2012

    agreed on everything in regards to “Hitchcock”… good flick, but seemed superficial. Very entertaining though and makes me watch to rewatch Psycho.

  2. steve50
    November 7, 2012

    Great article!

    The big issue with biopics has always been that 95 percent stumble into easy reverence or tabloid speculation. We may deny any impact on our opinion of a person’s body of work, but the fact is that the imagery suggested has worked its way into our subconscious and remains there, popping up unwantedly.

    This is especially true of cultural icons like Hitchcock and Marilyn, where we clearly remember their physical, vocal and professional characteristics.

    Success in this genre is rare – Gods and Monsters was brilliant, but James Whale certainly wasn’t a household name when it was released. Lincoln may well succeed, again because nothing of the actual man lives in our memory.

    The tabloid biopics of movie, political, or other royalty have the cards stacked against them, though. Unless they are cautiously well done, they will not only fail, but can damage one’s enjoyment of the original.

  3. November 7, 2012

    Second paragraph after the book quote…you have the actress as Vivien Leigh rather than Janet Leigh. Though you might want to know…

  4. unlikely hood
    November 7, 2012

    Films like this don’t *have* to be the works of hacks. I can think of five that were reasonable:

    1 Burden of Dreams by Les Blank, about the making of Fitzcarraldo by Werner Herzog
    2 Hearts of Darkness by Eleanor Coppola and friends, about the making of Apocalypse Now by Francis Ford Coppola
    3 Ed Wood by Tim Burton, about the making of Plan 9 from Outer Space by Edward Wood
    4 RKO 281 by Benjamin Ross, about the making of Citizen Kane by Orson Welles
    5 Shadow of the Vampire by E. Elias Merhige, about the making of Nosferatu by F.W. Murnau

    I realize that two of these are strict documentaries. However that doesn’t mean they can’t portray their lead subject – the director – in a rather subjective light. Comparing these white men rampaging through tropical jungles is instructive. Herzog comes off as something of a megalomaniac (not unlike his characters), while Coppola evokes a lot more pity. Doc directors have plenty of power to tell a story and to change our perceptions – so we shouldn’t be surprised when bio-pic directors also take their liberties.

    It’s hard to disagree with Burton and Johnny Depp’s choices, but that’s probably because we don’t know Ed Wood. For all we know he would have hated being portrayed in women’s clothes and over-acted to the hilt. The film about Murnau suffers in the same way (and from trying to be its own horror movie) – having said that, it’s kinda delicious to see John Malkovich as a stubborn director.

    Maybe RKO 281 sets the bar for nuance that we might have hoped for in these Hitch films. Liev Schreiber as Welles isn’t quite the headstrong narcissist cliche that we might have expected – instead he’s an artist blindsided by flaws he didn’t want to admit to himself. Still, you feel like, despite himself, he grew from the experience, and I did *not* get that from Toby Jones as Hitch (I have no special industry status, thus I haven’t seen the Hopkins film yet).

    The one I want made as a film is the making of American History X – Tony Kaye vs. Edward Norton. Finally, we can revel in pulp/gossip without guilt.

  5. Jaime
    November 7, 2012

    When are bloody gonna talk about SKYFALL!!!!

    It is all over the place, the reviews are out…. It’s made out of gold!

    At least 5 nods… Supporting actress, actor, score, cinematography and screenplay

    http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/envelope/goldstandard/la-en-gold-standard-20121108,0,4908260.story

    By Glenn Whipp
    November 7, 2012, 8:19 a.m.
    Sitting here in Best Picture Limbo, thumbing through the year-old magazines (Ryan Reynolds and Blake Lively? No way that works!) and waiting for the bell to ring on the remaining Oscar candidates — “Zero Dark Thirty,” “Django Unchained,” “Les Miserables,” the “Hobbit” movie — we can at least report on one sure-fire contender that’s arriving in theaters … not next month but tomorrow…. SKYFALL!!!!

  6. Mel
    November 7, 2012

    It’s hard to disagree with Burton and Johnny Depp’s choices, but that’s probably because we don’t know Ed Wood. For all we know he would have hated being portrayed in women’s clothes and over-acted to the hilt.

    I get this feeling. I feel like Sasha’s reception seemed to be colored by her feeling that she knows the real Hitch b/c of books she read and she likes that one better than the one in the films and is somehow afraid these films are going to tarnish her image or the public’s image of him and take enjoyment of his films away. But, I just don’t see that happening. People have known forever that he was an old wierdo, I think it’s probably what made him so great. As far as I know he never positively did anything illegal or conclusively morally abhorrent. Woody Allen and Roman Polanski did, without a doubt and conclusively.

    As long as Allen and Polanski are alive, I feel uneasy supporting them in any way. It is hard to articulate why exactly it is different if someone is living or dead and supporting them…..but it feels like those who are gone it is much easier for me to release those emotions b/c what is done is done and I might be able to enjoy the art without guilt. There is something about them living where support of their work feels like supporting them and saying, “hey, it was ok what you did” and assuaging them of any responsibility in some way.

    All of this said. I adore Hitch and I really hope Hitchcock does not hit me the way it hit Sasha. I wonder if these would be more enjoyable if we all didn’t think we knew Hitch and adore him so much. As said above, none of us knew Ed Wood, maybe that movie was a crock of shit too, would it have made us enjoy it less if we knew/thought it was just exploiting the man for camp or drama? How would you view The Girl and Hitchcock if you knew nothing about Hitch and he wasn’t already iconic? Would they still be enjoyable and interesting or no?

  7. November 7, 2012

    The fact that Alma Reville, an unknown, (incredibly talented and intelligent) woman to many for years and years, since forever, really,is FINALLY getting her due respect in “Hitchcock” with an iconic performance that yes, may get Dame Helen Mirren a second Oscar, is enough of a reason to put this enjoyable, hilarious film on my Year’s Ten Best List.
    You can read my ECSTATIC review by clicking on my name. Above ^ And as for the liberties both these films take with Hitchcock’s plaste, god-on-a-pedestal image, he would be the first to be delighted by all the attention.

    I’m sure YES, he thought A LOT about Ed Gein, as did the makers of “Silence of the Lambs” Jonathan Demme, Ted Talley & co. who ALSO based that movie on Gein’s proclivities and it won an Oscar.

    The subplot of Alma’s “affair” with Danny Huston/Whitfield Cook, a writer of “Stillborn” scripts, as Hitchcock deigns him in the movie, IS a bit much.

    Read Patricia Hitchcock’s book about her fascinating mother “Alma Hitchcock, the Woman Behind the Man.”
    In that book, maybe by accident, Pat Hitchock, who had final say on all this by the way, being the sole heir to the VERY wealthy Hitchcock estate, revealed her mother to have had a very close, personal relationship with – wait for it! Edith Head!

    Now, THERE’S a subplot I would’ve liked to have seen depicted!

    Mirren at a career high here could very well wrest that pre-ordained Oscar from Jennifer Lawrence’s nubile hands.
    Mirren is such a silver fox herself(check out the bathing suit/swimming scenes! And she’s nearly 70!)that they probably felt they had to take, er, advantage of still-ravishing appeal and give her another love interest besides the physically repulsive(to himself and to Hedren and Miles)Hitch.

    It’s a fiction. It’s a fantasy. It’s funny. Droll would be the right word. I was cracking up all the way through it.

    And Helen Mirren’s big “fight” scene got applause from a room full of male critics in NYC! That NEVER happens at a press screening!

    I think Hitch would have laughed at all this peeping tom-isms in both films. You could say the same thing about Brian DiPalma or Demme or any of those MCP filmmakers.He admits to this in his interview with Francois Truffaut and others when he calls himself “celibate.” And then makes a joke about it “I was the celibated director.” THAT I believe.

    He clearly had fantasies about all these women dating back to the silent era. THEY ALL DO. THEY’RE MEN.

    But then so is the Academy and wouldn’t be surprised if “Htichcock” got a best actor nomination, too, for Hopkins. A couple of people are going to get knocked out by this.
    Like for instance Joaquim and also Bradley Cooper.
    “Hitchcock” MIGHT even be nominated for Best Picture. It’s aimed RIGHT AT the Academy. The same way “The Artist”
    I can’t WAIT to see it again!

  8. Tony
    November 7, 2012

    Ingrid Bergman doesn’t quite fit in — she was a huge star on both sides of the pond before “Notorious” and “Spellbound.”

  9. November 7, 2012

    But Bergman was a big, buxom, Swedish blonde! In the movie, Mirren plays Alma as a redhead. Alma didn’t fit Hitch’s pattern either.

  10. November 8, 2012

    I don’t know if anyone ever really disassociates the person from their work. I may watch Polanski’s films still, but at the end of the film I can’t sit and say the darkness of his life doesn’t spill into the film. Similarly with Hitchcock films, the obsession with his leading ladies spills over.

  11. Scott
    November 8, 2012

    I think when you love the art it’s easier to overlook the personal flaws of the artist. It’s not difficult at all for me to dismiss Mel Gibson whose work I was never that fond of than it would be to have a single negative thought regarding Chinatown/Roman Polanski.

  12. Michael
    December 3, 2012

    save Hitchcock http://wp.me/2OfqE

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