'Hitchcock ruined my career, but he didn't ruin my life'
Published 16/12/2012 | 06:00
Director's muse Tippi Hedren talks to Declan Cashin about having her promising Hollywood career shattered – and birds flung at her face – by the obsessive Hitchcock
In some respects, this has been a stellar year for the reputation of one of cinema's most lauded directors, Alfred Hitchcock. His film 'Vertigo' was voted the greatest ever made in the decennial Sight & Sound poll, and an upcoming Hollywood film about the man (in which he's played by Anthony Hopkins) is being talked up as an Oscar contender next year.
However, a new BBC one-off drama paints an altogether more unflattering and disturbing picture of Hitch.
'The Girl' is about the actress Tippi Hedren (played by Sienna Miller) and her experiences of working with Hitchcock (Toby Jones) on two films, 'The Birds' and 'Marnie'.
It was a famously unpleasant relationship, with Hedren enduring what today would certainly be classified as persistent sexual harassment, as well as incurring physical injuries during the torturous shoot of 'The Birds'.
'The Girl' implies the suffering was Hitchcock's revenge on his leading lady for rebuffing his unwanted sexual advances.
Recently, Hedren, an insanely glamorous and active 82-year-old, came to London to talk about how her big movie break became a nightmare and resulted in a stillborn career, due to Hitchcock's obsession.
For the duration of the 1950s, she lived in New York, working as an in-demand model for the Eileen Ford agency.
Then, in 1961, Hedren, a divorced single mother to a four-year-old daughter (the future actress Melanie Griffith), moved to California for a better quality of life for her child.
"I rented an expensive home because I thought my career would go on as it had in New York – and it didn't," Hedren says. "I remember thinking, 'Okay, what am I going to do now? I don't type'."
That was when fate intervened. On Friday, October 13, 1961 – the date couldn't be more apt – Hedren got a call from an executive at Universal Pictures asking if she was "the girl from the Seago [shampoo] commercial".
As Hedren explains it: "Apparently, Alfred Hitchock and his wife [Alma] had been watching the 'Today Show' where the commercial was playing.
"Hitch saw the commercial, called the executive and apparently said, 'Find the girl'."
Hedren didn't know any of this at the time.
Indeed, when she drove to the MCA Talent Agency the following Tuesday for the meeting, she still didn't know that Hitchcock was the one who had called her in.
"I signed a contract to Hitchcock before I had even met him," she says.
Hedren's relationship with Hitchcock was a dream at the beginning.
"It was just wonderful and I learned so much," she says. "You must remember that I was bucking a lot of negativity from the studio heads, who were not happy that I, an unknown, was the leading lady in such a major film.
"Hitchcock assured me I was capable of performing the role. 'The Birds' took six months to film, and it went extremely well for the first few months. It wasn't until the very end of filming that I started noticing that he kept watching me, staring at me.
"He'd be standing off to the side of the set talking to people, carrying on the conversation, but still staring at me. Eventually, that became almost like stalking," she adds.
That was the least of it. According to 'The Girl' – and Hedren hasn't disputed anything shown on screen – she had to fight Hitchcock off after he tried to kiss and grope her in the back of his car on the way to the set one day.
"The phrase 'sexual harassment' didn't exist at that time," Hedren says. "If it did, I would be a rich woman."
Hedren resisted at every turn. So when it came to filming the key sequences in 'The Birds', when her character is attacked by the avian menaces, the actress was made to go through undue suffering for her art.
In one rehearsal, Hitchcock instructed that a mechanical bird fly straight at the phone booth in which Hedren was standing.
The force of the object shattered the booth's glass, and, caught completely unaware, Hedren ended up with multiple cuts to her face and arms.
Later, when shooting the attic scene in which she's ambushed by the nasty little flockers, Hedren was told she'd be filming for one day with mechanical birds.
It turned into a five-day shoot in which she had real-life gulls, crows and ravens repeatedly flung at her by prop men.
Though their beaks were tied shut, the birds gouged her cheeks and just narrowly missed taking out one of her eyes.
Hedren collapsed from exhaustion after the ordeal and production was shut down for a week.
"That couldn't happen again today," she says. "I came in at the end of the studio system where actors were kept under contract, and there was the underlying feeling of it being okay for the director to ask for whatever he wanted from his actors, be they male or female.
"Demands were made and most of the time the actors – the women – acquiesced. Even if you didn't want to do that, there was nobody you could go to in order to say, 'This is what's happening and it's wrong'."
Hedren's Lutherist upbringing in Minnesota is key to understanding both her resilience and her horror at Hitchcock's abuse of her trust and inexperience.
"My parents taught me about the good, the bad and the ugly," Hedren explains.
"If you stay with the good, you don't have to worry about the bad and the ugly. All those morals and values have served me well throughout my life.
"It was a very uncomfortable situation. I became very, very good at getting out. I'd always have somewhere to be, something to do, have to have a meeting with make-up, whatever, in order to not be alone around him."
She pauses before continuing: "The experience of being the object of someone's obsession is really horrible. It was oppressive and frightening. I found out I was being followed, my handwriting was being analysed, and I was being spied upon.
"Demands were being made to which I would never acquiesce under any circumstances."
After 'The Birds', Hitchcock hired Hedren to play the lead role in 'Marnie' (after his first choice, Grace Kelly, at that point Princess Grace of Monaco, turned it down).
Hitchcock's pursuit of Hedren continued on the set of 'Marnie'. At one point, he allegedly told her outright that he wanted her to be available to him sexually whenever he wanted.
"That was so offensive to me that it was right then and there that I stopped all of it," she says. "I thought, 'I'm not doing any more of this. As soon as 'Marnie' is over, I'm out of this contract'."
Hitchcock was less than happy when she confronted him, however.
"When I told him I wanted out, he said, 'You can't. You have your daughter to take care of and your parents are getting older'," says Hedren.
"I replied, 'Nobody who loves me would want me to be in a situation like this where I'm not happy. I want to get out'.
"He then said, 'I'll ruin your career'. I said, 'Do what you have to do. I'm gone'.
And that's exactly what he did.
"After 'The Birds' and 'Marnie', I was 'hot' as an actress," she explains. "I would later learn how many directors and producers wanted me for their films, but in order to get me they'd have to go through him. All he'd say was, 'She isn't available'."
Hedren eventually found a way to break her contract after Universal asked her to take a role in a TV show for which she didn't feel right.
"When I declined it, they said, 'Well, if you do, you're out of your contract'. I smiled and shook their hands. That was how I got out."
Hedren worked intermittently afterwards, but never enjoyed the kind of stardom for which she once seemed so destined.
Instead, she plunged into her charity work as "den mother" to 60-odd lions, tigers, leopards, cougars and servals at the Shambala Desert Preserve in California.
"Hitchcock ruined my career, but he didn't ruin my life," she says. "I did what I had to for me to maintain my sanity and my self-respect, knowing full well what it would mean for me professionally.
"But it was more important for me to hold my head up high and to know I'd done the right thing.
"I've never felt badly about losing whatever it was I might have had," she adds. "It just wasn't worth it."
'The Girl' is on BBC2 on St Stephen's Day at 9pm