Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Trouble with Hitch: Dueling Screen Sagas – Hitchcock & The Girl

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
The Girl is largely based on another Spoto book, 2008‘s Spellbound by Beauty: Alfred Hitchcock and His Leading Ladies. Hitchcock draws from Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, a 1990 tome by Stephen Rebello. The contradictory narratives, both examining issues of lasciviousness and loyalty, are enough to make an ordinary person’s head spin. Of course, that’s a special effect from The Exorcist rather than any of the spine-tinglers in Hitch’s oeuvre. With Psycho, he wanted to capitalize on the success of North by Northwest and silence newspaper critics who suggested his work was old school compared with that of emerging auteurs such as Henri-Georges Clouzot (Les Diaboliques, 1955). Hopkins-as-Hitchcock reaches for edgier fare by building on a Robert Bloch novel (Psycho) about a crazy killer with a mother fixation that was fictionalized version of a Wisconsin real-life crazy killer with a mother fixation named Ed Gein. Paramount is not happy with a murder mystery involving the sexually deranged Norman Bates (James D’Arcy inhabits the role of Anthony Perkins) and so many other unsympathetic characters, even victims like Marion Crane (Johansson as Leigh). And then there is the matter of a certain famous watery crime. Studio bigwigs are unwilling to accept nudity, usually a given when someone is showering. Hitchcock points out that, thanks to clever editing, no forbidden womanly flesh will be evident and that the plunging knife can be conveyed without the gruesome outcome of such wounds. In other words, human imagination could fill in all the missing details. Nonetheless, the studio only agrees to distribute the finished film. The Hitchcocks must come up with the funds themselves, perhaps by selling their own home. These backstage Hollywood machinations in Hitchcock are fascinating and fun. The part that delves into his intimate personal life? Not so much. The marginalized Alma has had enough of her husband’s lurid fantasies. She begins going off with Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston), a manipulative Don Juan, ostensibly to pen a script together.

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
Obsession in The Girl takes an even bleaker turn, as Hitch hitches his wishful-thinking wagon to poor Tippi. He tries to control every aspect of the former model’s daily life, what she wears, where she goes and with whom. Hedren spurns his unsubtle advances and he unleashes the Kraken on her. OK, it’s only similarly aggressive creatures from the air instead of from the sea. But she is injured when genuine crows, gulls and ravens replace what were supposed to be mechanical birds in an extended sequence. Was Ed Gein whispering sour nothings in Hitchcock’s ear? Oddest of all in both the Gervasi and Jarrold projects is the fact that Alfred and Alma seem to be a childless couple whose love-hate dependency on each other unravels in a tomblike home. Yet, in reality, their daughter Patricia was a grown woman with three young girls during that period. Wouldn’t the Hitchcock household periodically have been enlivened by visits from grandkids playing with dolls and holding make-believe tea parties? If not, the genius may have been even darker than we’ve come to suspect.

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.

Susan Green is a film critic and arts journalist based in Burlington, Vermont. She is the co-author with Kevin Courrier of Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion and with Randee Dawn of Law & Order Special Victims Unit: The Unofficial Companion.

1 comment:

  1. Read the truth about Alfred Hitchcock and Tippi Hedren