Okay, Mister Hitchcock, who are you really? Are you the sexual predator who made Tippi Hedren’s life miserable during the filming of The Birds (1963) and Marnie (1964)? Or are you the slightly goofy, oftentimes insecure blonde-obsessed director with a rather unhealthy appetite for caviar, wine and other greasy goodies who mortgaged your house to make Psycho (1960)?
Movies oftentimes come in pairs and this month saw the release of two movies that try really hard to portray a flawed genius at the height of his career: the HBO/BBC co-production The Girl starring Toby Jones as Hitchcock and Sienna Miller as Hedren, and Hitchcock starring Anthony Hopkins as the Master of Suspense and Helen Mirren as his wife and partner in crime Alma Reville. Even though both are based on full blown biographies —Donald Spoto’s Spellbound by Beauty: Alfred Hitchcock and His Leading Ladies in the case of The Girl and Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of “Psycho” by Stephen Rebello in Hitchcock’s— they barely scratch the surface of its subject matter. They either offer a one-dimensional portrait of the man (The Girl) or one that is partly based on the image Hitchcock created for himself for his television series Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955-61) and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour (1962-65).
No biopic can ever do full justice to its subject, unless it’s a David Leanesque epic like Sir Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi (1982). Unfortunately, Hitchcock was such a private and complex man that no film, no matter how focused, can fully capture his strengths and weaknesses.
Directed by Julian Jarrold (Kinky Boots, Brideshead Revisited) and written by Gwyneth Hughes (The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Miss Austen Regrets), The Girl portrays the making of The Birds and Marnie as a battle of wills between the director and his leading lady. After rebuffing his sexual advances, Hitchcock submits Hedren to the worst duress: instead of mechanical birds, he uses real ones to attack her during the filming of The Birds’ climactic sequence (which took five days to shoot), traumatizing her; he forces her to repeat one line of dialogue over and over and over until she gets the glacial tone he is looking for; and he refuses to let her out of her contract and orders her to make herself sexually available to him at any time. Jones’ performance saves the film from being a one-sided hatchet job. Jones portrays Hitchcock as a self-loathing, sometimes insecure, more often than not mischievous man. Jones humanizes the monster the script is so keen in depicting.
Hopkins’ Hitchcock, on the other hand, is a more agreeable fellow: not as lugubrious as Jones, nor as dry, he has a twinkle in his eye that can turn rather sinister in a second. He is also distrustful, a tad paranoid, even jealous, and as insecure as Jones’ take on the director. However, he is a man on a mission: he wants to prove the naysayers in the media, who questioned if he still had what it takes after the 1959 premiere of North by Northwest, wrong. So, off he goes in search of his next project and he finds it in Robert Bloch’s gruesome novel inspired on the crimes of cross-dressing serial killer Ed Gein. Paramount Studios’ boss Barney Balaban (Richard Portnow) thinks Hitchcock’s insane and won’t even touch the property with a ten foot pole while Alma snidely remarks that Hitchcock could turn it into a musical starring Doris Day. But Hitch is determined and decides to self-finance the film by mortgaging their house.
The film may be titled Hitchcock but Alma Reville is its true heart. Sick and tired of Hitchcock’s obsession with blondes, scriptwriter John J. Laughlin and director Sacha Gervasi (Anvil! The Story of Anvil) have her flirt with scriptwriter Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston) as they collaborate on a script, thus triggering Hitch’s jealousy. And here is where Gervasi and Laughlin commit the film’s greatest misstep by having Hitchcock engage Ed Gein in imaginary conversations.
Fortunately, these feverish fantasy sequences and Hitch’s increasing jealousy lead to one of the film’s best scenes: Alma’s monologue where she finally puts her rotund better half in his place. Helen Mirren delivers that monologue with so much dignity and élan that regardless of its veracity one can actually picture Alma having that face to face moment with her husband (a much different portrait than the one offered in The Girl where Alma is nothing more and nothing less than a meek enabler). And Hitchcock does an equally beautiful job in portraying this partnership, her contributions to his oeuvre and the playfulness with which both embraced domestic life. It also offers us two great actors playing off each other’s strengths.
And, unlike The Girl, we do see more of the actual production process…but not enough. Hitchcock overly simplifies the shooting of the famous shower scene by turning it into a product of one of Hitchcock’s many jealous tantrums; and we barely get a glimpse of the Bates Mansion, which Hitchcock had built on the Universal Studios lot. We do get some wonderful scenes of the wheeling and dealing prior to the film’s actual production and of the actual editing process.
And then there’s that magnificent scene where Hitchcock, standing outside the theater where Psycho is being shown, waits to hear the audience’s screams during the shower scene and, as those screams begin, waves his hands in the air, joyfully measuring each beat as if he were directing an orchestra.
The Girl, on the other hand, gives us a Hitchcock who is so focused in making Hedren’s life miserable, that he you have to wonder how he got the two films made and released in the first place. We do get glimpses here and there of what went on behind the scenes, but not of the artistry behind the making of The Birds and Marnie. Even Hedren herself has acknowledged in interviews that the good times she spent on the set with her colleagues offered some solace from Hitchcock’s abuse.
And yet, The Birds is still Hitchcock’s last masterpiece (and not Marnie like Jerrold and Hughes claim). Were his obsessions the source of his genius? The Girl never dares asks this question. Hitchcock at least does, even though it sometimes resorts to fiction to address it. What both movies prove is that no one chapter or incident in an artist’s life can do justice to that artist (or anyone for that matter), especially one as brilliantly flawed and complex as Alfred Hitchcock.