In 2008, two articles appeared on the online version of the London Times. The first, on September 6, asks: Was Alfred Hitchcock a misogynist? He was adored by actresses. The second, just a few days later on September 11, contradicts the first: Tippi Hedren: Alfred Hitchcock tried to destroy my career. Of course, in 2005, the very same website contains an article with this headline: The birds attacked me but Hitch was scarier: Hitchcock’s iciest blonde talks about her terrifying time filming The Birds and the director’s unwelcome sexual advances
The second article – the one that’s sandwiched chronologically between two that starkly contradict it, states: “And even Hedren, despite her quarrels with Hitchcock over his more-than-professional possessiveness, had no complaints about the support he normally gave her.”
But she did, and I’ve been hearing this story since childhood. Quotes come from the first linked article.
In 1961, Tippi Hedren was an unknown actress who’d done one commercial. Suddenly Hitchcock wanted her to star in The Birds. Back then, that meant she had to commit to a contract with him – which she did, because it was a fabulous break. Things went well on set for some time, then:
But near the end of filming, Hedren shot the final attack scene where Melanie [Hedren’s character] is brutally attacked by the birds. “An assistant producer came in and couldn’t look at me. He told me they were going to use real birds, not mechanical ones. Those birds pecked – I’d seen what had happened to the trainers. They tied the birds to me with elastic bands. They hurled birds at me. One of the birds tied on my shoulder only just missed scraping its claw into my eye. I shouted, ‘Get these birds off me’ and I sat in the middle of the sound-stage and cried. 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.”
Hitch had already told her, with some relish, about tying up Madeleine Carroll (the original Hitchcock blonde, star of The 39 Steps and Secret Agent) to a post and leaving her there all afternoon.
The story about Carroll is also famous, though to my knowledge she never complained about it. What many people don’t understand about Hollywood is this: women working on sets endure tremendous sexism, sometimes even downright sadistic misogyny, without complaint. Who would they complain to, after all? The industry as a whole is okay with this treatment of women. Hell, there seems to be some confusion about whether it’s okay to drug and rape little girls, so long as you’re a big famous director. The culture is that of a schoolyard in which all the other kids and the teachers see you being harassed and nobody does anything and, finally, other girls tell you, “It happens to all of us – you just have to be tougher than they are.” You learn to defend yourself through force of personality, by gathering blackmail materials, by befriending your harasser’s harassers or by getting close to their wives (which sometimes keeps them in check because anything they do to you could get back to the wife). That’s why “No actresses ever complained (publicly)” means absolutely nothing. Just look at what does get reported in an atmosphere that hostile to women exercising their legal rights. And Hedren’s story isn’t over yet:
Afterwards Hitchcock didn’t mention the incident with the birds. “Not a word,” says Hedren. “Which is weird. He was extremely complicated. I think he was a misogynist – absolutely, no doubt about it. But I wasn’t a wimpy girl. New York had made me tough. I wasn’t frightened….
His attention was also firmly, too firmly, focused on Hedren. “It was the start of an obsession,” she says. “Women aren’t stupid. It was a very uncomfortable thing. I wasn’t interested in him like that. He’d want a glass of champagne after shooting. He watched me all the time. He wanted to have private lunches. He really wanted to control my life which is very difficult if you’re a grown woman with a daughter. It was very wearing and frightening.”
A couple of times Alma [Hitchcock’s wife] said to her: “I’m sorry you have to go through this, Tippi.” Hedren thinks Alma loved him and he relied on her expertise and eye.
During the filming of Marnie, Hedren told him she wanted out of her contract. He refused. He said he would ruin her, and he did ruin her career: many directors and producers of note wanted very much to employ her, but he kept her under contract at $600/week, making no movies at all, until 1967. By then, those directors and producers had been forced to find other promising stars to take her place.
“I didn’t tell anyone about what had happened for 20 years because I was embarrassed. If it happened today I would be rich.” Because she would have sued him for sexual harassment? “Absolutely.” She felt “relief” when Hitchcock died. “It was so terribly hurtful.”
Hedren poured her money and time into a wildlife reserve called Shambala. She is a remarkable actress, and seems to be a most remarkable human being:
Shambala is her achievement and legacy, she says. In 2003 she successfuly lobbied for a Bill “stopping the interstate trafficking of exotic felines for personal possession”. Now she is campaigning for a federal ban on the breeding of those species for the same.
“Back in 2003 someone threatened to put explosives under my car and release diseases into Shambala. So this time I am going to ask Donatella [Versace, ‘she’s a friend of Melanie’s’] to make me a bullet-proof vest. All my ancestors lived to their late nineties. I’m planning on being around for a long time.” It’s that survivor instinct Hitch probably saw in her when casting the much pecked-upon Melanie Daniels; the same instinct he tried – unsuccessfully – to extinguish.
It’s not just a survivor instinct: it’s a willingness to take on people society deems more valuable than her. Some might consider that reckless behavior rather than a survivor instinct. But what are we surviving for, if we must always bow to to those who wield power irresponsibly or even sadistically?