|Helen Mirren and Anthony Hopkins in Hitchcock|
Was the Master of Suspense a confused cinematic guru who finally learned to appreciate his long-suffering wife or a sadistic predator forever tormenting the blonde actresses he couldn’t seduce? Two recent films, with acting talent that cannot overcome bloated plots, offer conflicting points of view. Hitchcock, a theatrical release by Sacha Gervasi, purportedly chronicles the creation of Psycho in late 1959. Broadcast on HBO, Julian Jarrold’s The Girl zeroes in on what supposedly took place in the spring of 1962 while shooting The Birds, adapted from a Daphne du Maurier short story. Alfred Hitchcock is portrayed by Anthony Hopkins as a mischievous Peeping Tom in the former new production and by Toby Jones as a repulsive creep in the latter. Their so-so impersonations are undermined by the lack of much physical resemblance to a very distinctive-looking historical figure. Alma Reville, the screenwriter and editor to whom he was married for more than half a century, is alternately a spunky helpmate (Helen Mirren) or a sad-sack enabler (Imelda Staunton). The blondes – an ultimately appreciative Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson) screaming in the shower for Psycho and a thoroughly terrorized Tippi Hedren (Sienna Miller) battling feathered attackers in The Birds – present vastly different accounts about experiencing “the dark side of genius,” to borrow the title of Donald Spoto’s 1983 biography of the director.
|Sienna Miller and Toby Jones in The Girl|
Although roiled by jealousy, Hitch continues to play mind games with his unattainable blondes-of-the-moment: Leigh and Vera Miles (Jessica Biel), who had starred in The Wrong Man (1956) but could not be cast in Vertigo two years later because of her pregnancy at the time. He’s never forgiven her. Now, the beleaguered thespian is forced to perform in Psycho as Lila Crane because she’s still trapped in another kind of Motel Hell: a five-year contact with her persecutor. The twisted soap opera is annoying but not nearly as much as Gervasi’s decision to have Hitchcock haunted by Ed Gein. Yes! THAT Ed Gein (Michael Wincott), the Wisconsin monster who stashed female body parts all over his Wisconsin farmhouse and was building a suit out of skin. This ghost of serial killers past visits in daydreams and nightmares, dispensing evil observations, but to what end? Where is the evidence that Hitchcock, no matter how warped, was subject to hallucinations? Moreover, his obsession is with fair-haired ice queens, not Norman Bates.
|Alfred Hitchcock and wife Alma Reville|
While prurient and cringe-worthy, The Girl may capture more facts about the chief protagonist than Hitchcock does. To this day, Hedren reportedly contends he abused her – even though she went on to appear in Marnie for him in 1964. And if things improved regarding Hitch and Alma, as depicted by Gervasi (Anvil! The Story of Anvil, 2008) in the Hopkins-Mirren version, why would Tippi later need to suffer so much for her art? The truth of it all probably will never be fully understood. But a lot of show biz people suffered for the privilege of working with the complex, controversial filmmaker. A decade before his 2008 death, I interviewed John Michael Hayes. Between 1954 and 1956 he wrote The Trouble With Harry, To Catch a Thief, Rear Window and The Man Who Knew Too Much, featuring some earlier blondes like Grace Kelly and Doris Day. (Doris Day? Que sera, sera.) After several harmonious collaborations, the relationship turned poisonous when Hitchcock apparently began to resent sharing the spotlight. “I was nominated for an Oscar,” Hayes told me, referring to Rear Window accolades. “When I won the Edgar Allen Poe Award, the first time it was ever given for a movie, I showed Hitch the ceramic statuette and he said: ‘You know, they make toilet bowls out of the same material.’ Then he almost pushed it off the end of a table.”
Now that might make a chilling cliffhanger, especially if accompanied by a snippet of Bernard Herrmann’s screeching violin score from the Psycho shower scene, should anyone want to shoot yet another Hitchcock biopic.