[19 November 2012]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
He began in Britain, working his way up from title card designer for silent films to director, over the course of five frustrating years. Then, various production and financing snafus delayed his eventual status as one of England’s motion picture best. Over in Hollywood, producer David O. Selznick was looking for new blood, and based on his UK rep, the unknown was signed to a seven year contract. Thus began his time in Tinseltown, a four decade redefining of who he was and would eventually be known for. By the end, he was a true auteur, the Master of Suspense, and an unfairly dismissed, Oscar-less superstar. But who was the “real” Alfred Hitchcock. Which of the many rumored personalities did he offer to his cast, crew, and confidants when the media wasn’t manipulating his future myth?
That’s the proposed purpose behind two new films currently flooding the end of the year Awards season airwaves. On the one hand you have the HBO offering The Girl, which discusses Hitch’s horrifying obsession (and abuse) of newcomer Tippi Hedren while they were making the landmark fright film The Birds. It’s a portrait of a pervert and a petty tyrant. One the other side is the far more sainted Hitchcock. Based on a book about the making of Psycho, we are offered both a minor backstage, behind the scenes peek at the filmmaking process. For most of the running time, however, we delve into the director’s various anxieties, his overindulgence in food and drink, and the complicated relationship the man enjoyed with his wife and primary collaborator, Alma Reville.
As essayed by Toby Jones in Girl and Anthony Hopkins in Hitchcock, the famed filmmaker is seen as glum, hard to please, and quick to temper. His fantasized fetish over statuesque blondes becomes the basis for cable film’s eventual descent into darkness and despotism. In the latter, it’s barely mentioned, a mea culpa used to suggest Alma’s excused attraction to an over-attentive writer (Danny Huston). When placed side by side, when compared and contrasted, we still get an incomplete portrait. The Girl would have us believe that the man was borderline criminal, taking out his sexual rejection on Hedren in ways both comical and diabolical. Hitchcock is all about the snark - from a man who wants very little to do with the actual filming process to his proclivity toward quips and late night refrigerator binges.
In both cases, the actor essaying the icon is beyond reproach. While Jones is smaller in frame, he has the Hitchcock voice down pat. The familiar cadence, the breathy British elongation of vowels and turns of various phraseology become like listening to the man himself. For decades, Hitchcock was seen as quasi-cartoonish, a portrait and personality more than a mere person. The Girl emphasizes this. As he did in Nixon, Hopkins doesn’t strive for a specific imitation. Instead, he captures the real essence - or what we, the viewers, perceive as the real essence - of the man. The voice is almost there. The temperament the same. But instead of being impressionist perfect, the Oscar winner gets beneath the surface. Either man deserves as many accolades and kudos as can be given. They’ve managed to bring a famous figure to life without resorting to shortcuts or struggles.
The subtexts, however, couldn’t be more different. Hitchcock shows us an artist in freefall, a man who can’t get a movie made even though he is the biggest name in directing then currently working in Hollywood. He is dismissed by the studios (even though his most recent film, North by Northwest, is a runaway smash). He is dismissed by the critics (who consider him, by 1959, to be merely repeating himself), and even dismissed by Alma (a fertile Helen Mirren). Psycho is seen as the project that will jumpstart these dormant desires, to put him back in the game and give him a new lease on creative life. Though we don’t get to see how (the making-of material is sparse, to say the least), the eventual horror classic does come at the right time for Hitchcock. It prepares him for the ‘60s, and his eventual fade out from ‘important’ filmmaking.
The Girl abandons all pretense about pragmatics and process. Instead, this is a Hedren-ccentric apology for why the starlet didn’t ascend to higher Hollywood royalty. She is seen as fresh faced and naive. She is portrayed as falling head over heels for the possibility of international stardom, set up perfectly for Hitchcock’s fiendish personal plotting. She buys every compliment, is compliant within the parameters of her drive to please. By the time he feels rejected and subjects her to massive physical and psychological abuse during the filming of The Birds’ climactic assault, Hitchcock is part pathetic, part predator. Hedren is viewed as the last chance to fulfill his freak show “desires.” Even with Marnie keeping them together temporarily, Hedren was - apparently - his aesthetic Achilles’ Heel.
So the question becomes - which Hitch is/was which? Was he a sad old letch, or a truly troubled soul whose appetites eventually consumed him, or a borderline rapist who used a camera and crew instead of a secluded serial killer sanctuary to achieve his corrupt aims? Anyone whose read about the filmmaker knows the story about blondes: his unhealthy affinity, his torment of Kim Novak and Vera Miles, the lengthy costume and make-up sessions. We’ve also gotten to know the creative side of Hitchcock, a man who would percolate several possible scripts at once, waiting to see which would strike his fancy and force him back behind the lens. Neither of these elements are offered in The Girl or Hitchcock. Instead, we move beyond the man who made the myths to, instead, focus on the free for all that inspired the rumors in the first place.
Who knows - maybe what happened to Hedren is/was 100% true. Maybe the old man was really just trying to score, sexually or gender politically. It’s true that Psycho reinvented Hitchcock for a specious ‘60s audience, but to what avail? Even with The Birds and Frenzy, the era was a complex crapshoot. Maybe the point of both The Girl and Hitchcock is that we will never really know what made such an important film figure tick. Perhaps there’s more out there, waiting for additional biopic preeminence to make their points known. Whatever the case, both movies draw a legitimate line in the sand when it comes to the famed filmmaker. Perfectionist or pariah, cad or creative genius, Alfred Hitchcock is, was, and remains a cinematic legend…one that’s perhaps too big to encase in a single, celluloid statement.