Tippi Hedren: The Hitchcock Ingenue that Refused to Play the Part

Tippi Hedren: The Hitchcock Ingenue that Refused to Play the Part

The actress looks back at the legendary director with "admiration, gratitude, and utter disgust.”

The actress looks back at the legendary director with "admiration, gratitude, and utter disgust.”

Text: NELL BERAM

Really, now: when does the statement “I’m gonna make you a star” ever end well? If you’re the actress Tippi Hedren, the answer is, “Eventually.”

As anyone who has seen HBO’s guts ball 2012 biopic The Girl knows, Hedren, who gave two lauded performances for Alfred Hitchcock, in 1963’s The Birds and 1964’s Marnie, was the object of the legendary director’s obsession and was ultimately punished by him after she rebuffed his sexual advances: he refused to release her from her exclusive contract with him. This meant that the red-hot actress got a paycheck but couldn’t accept acting jobs for close to two years after she told Hitchcock that she was through working with him. In her no-nonsensically titled new memoir, Tippi, Hedren lists several high-profile film roles that the director turned down for her, including what would become Julie Christie’s shiny dual roles in 1966’s Fahrenheit 451. Hitchcock’s act of vengeance didn’t just sabotage the career of an actress about whom The New Yorker’s Richard Brody recently wrote, “Hedren’s performance [in Marnie] is one of the greatest in the history of cinema”; the director’s retribution screwed filmgoers as well.

The surprise isn’t that a powerful man would punish a woman who didn’t submit to his wishes; the surprise is that Tippi Hedren could act. Hitchcock and his wife and frequent collaborator, Alma Reville, first spotted Hedren on TV in 1961, in a commercial for a diet drink. After a decade spent modeling, the blond, Minnesota-born, freshly divorced single mother was perfectly at ease in front of a camera, but she hadn’t caught the acting bug; she was earning a good living from the impeccable set of facial features that had graced the covers of Life, Glamour, and Seventeen. She was such a knockout that Eileen Ford had overlooked her relatively diminutive height of 5’ 5”and signed her, setting a trying precedent, as Hedren recently told me by phone: “All these models would come in and want to be with Ford, and she’d tell them they were too short, and they’d say, ‘Well, what about Tippi Hedren?’”

But Hedren welcomed the opportunity for a screen test when she got the summons from Hitchcock’s people: the modeling work had started to taper off after she made the ill-advised decision to turn thirty. Hedren’s natural screen presence was enhanced by her distinctive flute-like voice—perfect for affecting sweetness that masked sublimated emotions. In other words, Hedren was a born Hitchcock blonde.

It started as your garden-variety predatory behavior. Hitchcock showed intrusive interest in Hedren’s diet and social life, and so on. He wanted influence over his leading lady’s wardrobe both on- and off-screen, and he didn’t allow Hedren’s leading men to touch “the girl.” (Poor Tippi: those men were Rod Taylor and Sean Connery.) Hitchcock had his limo drive past her house and occasionally had her followed. Over time it got worse: he asked her to touch him (she didn’t). He had her handwriting analyzed and a life mask made of her face that, she later found out, had no professional utility. If you’re out there, Norman Bates, you should be taking notes.

Hitchcock’s behavior was “such a disappointment to me because I respected the man so much,” Hedren told me. Hitchcock had become besotted with some of his leading ladies in the past—Hedren knows of two actresses for whom becoming pregnant served to get them out of their contracts with him—but the fact that she was uniquely vulnerable as a single mother might have made her especially appetizing prey. (Her young daughter, Melanie Griffith, would become an actress, as would Griffith’s daughter Dakota Johnson.) But quitting her job would have meant a lawsuit and top billing on the industry’s blacklist. And Hedren couldn’t rat the man out: “He was Alfred Hitchcock, one of Universal’s superstars, and I was just a lucky little blond model he’d rescued from relative obscurity,” she writes in Tippi. “Which one of us was more valuable to the studio, him or me?”

While she was playing the sympathetic kleptomaniac Marnie, Hitchcock made his move. “I’ve never gone into detail about this,” Hedren writes, “and I never will. I’ll simply say that he suddenly grabbed me and put his hands on me.” She told him no. Hitchcock said he would ruin her career, which he did indeed derail until she was finally free to work alongside Sophia Loren and Marlon Brando in a secondary role—after two idle years, her name had lost much of its heat—in Charlie Chaplin’s A Countess from Hong Kong, released in 1967. In her book, Hedren notes that she’s the only actress who has been directed by both Hitchcock and Chaplin, but she might also have the distinction of being the only actress who was propositioned by—and, let the record show, refused—both Brando and JFK.

After Hedren made a pair of movies in Africa a few years later, her infatuation with the big cats she’d seen there foreordained her and then-husband Noel Marshall’s decade-long effort to realize what would become the calamity-besieged movie Roar, released in 1981. Despite all the problems that accompanied making the film—fire, flood, blinding rainstorm, animal bites for one and all and gangrene for Tippi—one senses that working with Hitchcock tested her more.

During a 1973 interview to promote The Harrad Experiment—a sign-of-the-times movie distinguished not only by the fact that in it Hedren’s future son-in-law, Don Johnson, runs around with his Don Johnson hanging out—Hedren hinted at the fraught situation she had found herself in with Hitchcock: “He was too possessive and too demanding…I cannot be possessed by anyone. But then that’s my own hang-up.” Actually, it wasn’t, as Hedren surely realized before she went public about the director’s harassment in The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock, written by the Hitchcock scholar Donald Spoto; “He’s the only one I gave it to because I knew he would handle it with dignity,” Hedren told me. Spoto’s book was published in 1983—three years after Hitchcock’s death and almost a decade before anyone had heard of Anita Hill.

Since Hedren’s big brave reveal, there has been the predictable chorus of deniers insisting “He wouldn’t have done that” and “He didn’t do it to me so he wouldn’t have done it to her.” (This reminds me of a joke in my house: whenever someone wonders if a particular man is gay, I say, “He’s never hit on me, so of course he is.”) But how much could Hedren—or Anita Hill or the conquests of Bill Cosby and Roger Ailes—expect to personally gain from accusing a popular public figure of sexual harassment? This isn’t the sort of whistle blowing that’s been shown to boost a career; what sells is women wanting sex, not shutting it down.

A sub-chorus of binary thinkers has trilled about the actress’s presumed lack of gratitude—the there-but-for-the-grace-of-Hitchcock-goes-Hedren cavil. In Tippi, Hedren emphasizes that it’s not lost on her that Hitchcock—“a man I look back on with admiration, gratitude, and utter disgust”—taught her everything she knows about acting, and since the 1980s, she’s been employing her versatility and previously untapped comedic talents semi-regularly on television and in modest-size film roles. (Watch 2004’s I Heart Huckabees and try not to laugh when, after someone beheads the life-size Shania Twain cardboard cutout intended for Hedren’s character’s grandson, she pleads, “Can it be taped?”) Reflecting on her acting career, Hedren writes in her memoir, “I was never offered another role as deep and challenging as the two I did for [Hitchcock],” but the 2012 indie gem Free Samples provided her with a part befitting her talents. Her performance as an infirm former actress conveys exquisitely the unique cost of aging to anyone whose beauty has been a source of validation (“There was a time in my life when it was just a joy to wake up every morning and run to the mirror,” her character says). This is all the more shattering if you’re aware of who is saying these lines and how her beauty was both her ticket to professional success and, thanks to Hitchcock’s excessive attentions, her professional undoing.

While we’re on the topic: Hedren is easily the best-looking octogenarian you’ve ever seen. Before you ask: “I’ve had some tightening done around my neck and jawline,” she writes, “but I’m not about to subject myself to a facelift at the age of eighty-six, especially when we’ve all seen how badly those can turn out.” (I know who you’re picturing right now. Don’t say it out loud.) Her life’s work isn’t trying to stop time’s forward march; it’s protecting the big cats she lives among at her Shambala Preserve, outside Los Angeles. You believe Hedren when she says, as she frequently does, that while Alfred Hitchcock ruined her career, he didn’t ruin her life. Of course, one can be happy for Hedren but still mad at Hitchcock for, like Marnie, having had no respect for the boundary between what is and isn’t ours.

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