spellbound by beauty: alfred hitchcock and his leading ladies
By Donald Spoto
Hutchinson, Stg £18.99
Was Alfred Hitchcock a misogynist? The great man certainly had his issues with the ladies, as this new book by Donald Spoto makes abundantly clear. Spoto is Hitchcock's unofficial Boswell: he interviewed the director extensively before his death in 1980, and has written several well-regarded books on his life and work. In Spellbound by Beauty, he focuses exclusively on the often troubled relations between Hitchcock and his leading ladies.
Though he worked within the studio system and produced very commercial films, Hitchcock was a secret auteur, an artist who used his films as canvases on which to work out his deep-seated psychological obsessions and flaws.
Most of these related to his rather grim and lonely London childhood. Catholic and cockney, Hitchcock was raised in a humble working-class background that left him with an enduring obsession with status and class. More importantly, his troubled relationship with his severe and austere mother left Alfred with deeply ambivalent attitudes to women. When he married, at 27, it was to a woman he listened to, respected, even feared. In other words, Alma Reville was a mother figure, a lifelong companion and a constant help in his work, but not an object for his romantic feelings, and their marriage remained largely chaste. It was with his leading ladies that Hitchcock acted out his deeper sexual impulses, and for some of them, working with the great man was nothing short of an endurance test.
Madeline Carroll, the graceful and beautiful English actress who appeared in several of the director's most notable early British films, was given the full Hitch treatment while working on The 39 Steps. Hitchcock sometimes seemed to endeavour to "break" his actresses like wild horses, and to that end Carroll was handcuffed to co-star Robert Donat for hours on end, and dragged through ditches and waterfalls. When calling for her, the director would shout out "bring on the Birmingham tart!" She was subjected to the smutty jokes and innuendo that would become Hitchcock trademarks, and when he was looking for a shocked reaction in one scene, he pretended to expose himself.
Joan Fontaine, the prim and proper English actress who worked with him on Rebecca, thought that she was seeing things when she noticed something sticking out of her director's flies -- it turned out to be a champagne cork.
Mary Clare, a young actress who didn't drink, was given a fruit drink laced with gin to loosen her up. Those he became romantically besotted with -- Ingrid Bergman, Grace Kelly -- were generally spared the worst excesses of his cruelty, but he did treat Kelly like his own personal Barbie doll during shoots, controlling her appearance on and off the screen and indulging his recurring fantasies about peroxide hair and black high heels. Kim Novak was pushed almost to breaking point by Hitchcock in his masterpiece Vertigo, and his incessant remodelling of Novak to fit his fantasy ideal curiously mirrored the behaviour of Jimmy Stewart's character in the film. But the worst treatment of all was reserved for poor Tippi Hedren. Hedren, an LA model, was plucked from relative obscurity by Hitchcock to star in his adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier's story, The Birds.
After grooming her to suit his ideals, the director became dangerously obsessed with her, ordered staff to follow her, and restricted Hedren's access to her little daughter, Melanie Griffith. Worse was to come, though, at the end of the shoot. For an entire week, Hedren was placed in a room surrounded by bird handlers with long gloves and gauntlets, who proceeded to throw birds at her.
By the end of each day the actress was covered in bird shit, cuts and bruises, and by the end of the week was an emotional wreck. Hitchcock hid in his trailer for the duration -- it was the high point of his directorial sadism.
Hitchcock was no oil painting -- at just five foot eight he usually tipped the scales at more than 300lbs -- and he seems at times to have bitterly resented the flawless beauty that would forever be denied him.
He seems to have been a seething mass of complexes and insecurities, but it was these very flaws and longing that led him to make truly memorable films.
They also make Mr Spoto's book a brisk and interesting read.
Paul Whitington is the Irish Independent Film Critic