A poised, glacially cool blonde, ready to be made over by a distinguished but repressed older gentleman with a taste for the imaginatively macabre now caught in the grips of his own destructive obsession.
Sound like the setup for an Alfred Hitchcock film? Close. This time, it’s a film about the Master of Suspense and the actress he so desperately desired that he came close to destroying both of them.
“It was definitely a real-life 'Vertigo,’” Tippi Hedren tells of the HBO film “The Girl,” which chronicles the renowned filmmaker’s sad and often sadistic bid to bend the then-emerging actress to his will during their two films together, “The Birds,” then and now a hallmark of cinematic terror, and “Marnie,” a polarizing film about psychological control that many consider to be Hitchcock’s last great directorial effort.
“The Girl” – Hitchcock’s habitual term for Hedren – casts Sienna Miller as a 31-year-old Hedren in the early 60s, a busy fashion model, commercial actress and single mother (to future actress Melanie Griffith) from Minnesota. The 62-year-old director – played by a bone-dry Toby Jones – decides he can craft Hedren into a star of his own making, roughly in the image of his regular leading lady Grace Kelly, who’d abandoned both Hollywood and Hitch to marry and become the royal princess of Monaco.
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The story is drawn from Hedren’s real-life experiences with Hitchcock, as related in a portion of Donald Spoto’s 2008 book "Spellbound By Beauty: Alfred Hitchcock and His Leading Ladies," which details how Hitchcock’s long-brimming, often awkward fixations on many of his actresses finally boiled over with his new discovery.
“I think Sienna did a great job – I couldn't have chosen a better actress to do it,” praises Hedren, now 82, as she reflects on her experiences. But she admits there was some trepidation about seeing her story dramatized in chilling detail. “I had an initial sense of foreboding, absolutely, when I was first approached and told that BBC wants to do the story. But I also received information that it would be based on Donald Spoto's [book]. I trusted Donald – he was the first person I'd ever talked to about this issue.”
She remembers her reluctance to make the initial revelation – even for Spoto, one of Hitchcock’s most prolific and esteemed biographers. “I didn't talk about it for 20 years because at the time it was the end of this studio system, and prior to that it was just common that women would acquiesce to all kinds of demands just because they wanted the role,” she says. “I never wanted an acting career. I wasn't interested in it. My life was going along very, very well with the fashion modeling and the commercials that I had been doing in New York. I had been asked to go under contract twice, and I declined because it was in the '50s when television was taking over our homes – people weren't going to the movies.”
While Hedren continued to experience career highs, including appearing in a popular commercial for Sego diet soda, by 1961 her nine-year marriage to an ad executive had dissolved and she was now a single mother newly open to more secure career options. “When I did move out to California when Melanie was about four years old, I thought my career would continue as it had in New York and it didn't,” she explains. “I'm thinking, 'Okay, what am I going to do now? I don't type.'”
A new path revealed itself on a portentous date in a scenario rife with Hitchcockian intrigue. “On Friday the 13th of October in 1961 this call came asking me if I was the girl in the Sego commercials,” she recalls. “They said that a producer was interested in me, and I said, 'Who? Who?' And they said “Come over and have a meeting with us,' so I did. They wouldn't tell me at that meeting, and they asked if I would leave my reel of twelve or so commercials and my photo book over the weekend, which I did. I went back on Monday and met more executives. Nobody would tell me who this was!”
“It became kind of a game, and was kind of fun,” says Hedren. “I was asked to go to MCA, which was then the biggest talent agency in the United States, and it was then that I was told that Alfred Hitchcock wanted to sign me to a contract.
After inking a seven-year contract, Hedren was quickly whisked within the director’s world, where he immediately subjected the nervous and eager-to-please newcomer to a Hollywood makeover with Svengali-esque overtones – and eerily parallels to Hitchcock’s own “Vertigo,” in which Jimmy Stewart’s character obsessively tries to transform a plain woman into the romantic image of his lost love.
“The intent was apparent very, very soon because after about three weeks he decided to do a very extensive screen test,” says Hedren. “It was over the top. Edith Head did my clothes – designed a whole wardrobe for me. He flew Martin Balsam out, who became my leading man: we did scenes from 'Rebecca,’ 'Notorious', 'To Catch a Thief' – three entirely different women. We did extemporaneous stuff, and then modeling the clothes that Edith had designed. And that was a big deal – it was huge! I didn't even know how big it was.”
As her movie star metamorphosis and education – Hitchcock and his wife Alma also educated her, as was their custom, in the finer points of food, wine, art and other interests – continued, Hedren rarely had a moment to wonder exactly where she was headed. “It had never occurred to me I had never done a film,” she chuckles. “The commercials gave me a great background, technically – I wasn't afraid of the cameras, I knew my set manners, I knew all about it, so I didn't have to learn that. But it never occurred to me that I would even be considered. I thought I would be doing ‘Alfred Hitchcock Presents,’ the weekly shows, just to give me a basis.”
Hedren shows off the jewel-encrusted pin in the shape of a bird that adorns her blouse. “He invited me to Chasen's and he presented me with this pin and said, 'We want you to play Melanie Daniels in "The Birds,”’” she says, “and I was stunned – truly stunned! I got kind of teary-eyed, and I looked over at Alma, Mrs. Hitchcock, and she had tears in her eyes. I looked over at [Universal Studios president] Lew Wasserman, who had joined us, and he had one tear. He really did – It was amazing: just one! He was parsimonious with the tears. And Hitch looked very pleased with himself. And then, of course, the work began.”
Even frequently subjected to Hitchcock’s frequently bawdy and suggestive one-liners, which was a customary trait to shock others, Hedren didn’t suspect that her director had personal designs on her, and she was largely charmed by his attentions at first.
“If there hadn't been good times, I would've been out of there a long time ago,” she explains. “But it didn't happen until we were way into filming 'The Birds.’” Eventually Hitchcock’s intentions became clear. Usually a director who left his actors to their own devices on set, he lavished Hedren with attention and instruction, often physically isolating her from anyone else on the set. He showered her with gifts and notes, constantly studied and analyzed her. His obsession was obvious – not just to the increasingly uncomfortable actress, but to the cast and crew who, while sympathetic, tried to ignore the situation; and to the studio, who hoped to protect their prized filmmaker.
As Hitchcock increasingly crossed boundaries, Hedren was forced to more overtly rebuff him, which led to her most physically harrowing experience while shooting their first film together: the sequence in which the actress, as Melanie Daniels, is attacked in a cramped room by dozens of marauding birds.
“The fact that nobody told me that the mechanical birds were not even being considered for that scene was very devious – really, really awful,” she says, still shuddering at the memory. “I didn't find out until the morning that we were going to shoot that they were going to use real birds. And it was the first [assistant director] who knocked on my door in my dressing room bungalow on the set, came in and he couldn't look at me. He looked at the floor and the walls and the ceiling. 'What's the matter with you, Jim?' And he said, 'The mechanical birds don't work. We have to use real ones.' And out the door he sailed. And I picked my jaw up from the floor and went out to the set and there had been no plans to use mechanical birds."
Although displeased, Hedren soldiered forward to perform the scene – frequent Hitchcock leading man Cary Grant, visiting the set, praised her courage. “This was my job, and I was very committed to doing a good job – I didn't take the time to think, 'Oh, this man is so sick, this is a very, very strange situation,’” she explains.
Still, after “The Birds” was completed, Hedren believed that Hitchcock’s ardor had cooled and that they could work constructively together on their next film, “Marnie” in 1964, but the director’s sense of restraint eventually deteriorated even further (tellingly, Hedren’s character in the film is subjected to a relentless, violent campaign to be controlled by her husband) and he finally crossed the line. Privately, “he had made a demand to me,” she says decorously, “and I was done – truly done.”
“I said, 'I am out of here. When we finish "Marnie" I want to be out of my contract,’” she remembers. “And he said, 'Well, you can't. You have your daughter to take care of. Your parents are getting older...' And I just said, 'None of the people who love me would want me to be in a situation I'm not happy with.' He said, 'I'll ruin your career.' I said, 'Do what you have to do.' And he did it. He did ruin my career.”
Indeed, the terms of her contract allowed Hitchcock the power to approve any offers that came her way – or more specifically, disapprove. “When I got out of 'The Birds' and 'Marnie' I was, as the saying goes, 'hot,’” says Hedren, who nevertheless lost out on a steady stream of film roles because of Hitchcock’s refusals.
She weathered the loss of her Hollywood career with grace, making a film here and there, remarrying and focusing on her family, and dedicating herself to several humanitarian efforts that became passionate causes. One cause began with an effort to shoot “Roar,” a film about endangered African lions and led to her opening the Shambala Preserve, an animal sanctuary for abandoned big cats. As she’s watched the careers of her daughter and now her granddaughter Dakota Johnson (“Ben and Kate”) flourish, she looks back without regret.
“The celebrity that I attained from doing 'The Birds' and 'Marnie' opened so many doors for me,” she says after reflecting on her off-screen accomplishments. Hitchcock, whose career fell into decline after “Marnie,” was reportedly not able to move forward quite as sanguinely, however.
“He had a fondness to fall in love, or whatever you want to call it, with his actresses,” says Hedren, though his fixations on Kelly, Ingrid Bergman, Vera Miles and other stars never sunk quite to the depths displayed in “The Girl.” “Peggy Robertson, his assistant, and I stayed friends until she died, and she said, 'Tippi, he had this penchant for having these little quirks about his leading ladies. But he never got over you. Never.'”
“The Girl” debuts on HBO on Oct. 21.