Hitch was scarier

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By Alfred Hitchcock's iciest blonde Tippi Hedren talks to Andrew Billen about her terrifying time filming The Birds and the director's unwelcome sexual advances
  • Published 26.06.05

More than 40 years after he made her famous, Tippi Hedren, perhaps the ultimate Hitchcock blonde, hasn’t forgotten a detail about her relationship with the genius who, having failed to cage her, destroyed her career. “Hitch giveth and Hitch taketh away,” is how she sums it up.

I am no less likely to forget this encounter with her ? and only partly because it takes place on a big-cat sanctuary. On the Shambala reserve where she lives, an hour’s drive from Los Angeles, reside lions, tigers and the breeds’ miscegenated offspring: ligers and tigons. The 70-odd beasts have been rescued by her charity from private zoos, dodgy circuses and numbskull private owners who belatedly discover that a tiger doesn’t make such a good children’s pet. As I am led from pound to pound, I feel as if I’m an expendable bit-part player in the first reel of a horror film and that in reel two the cats escape. But I am thinking inferior Spielberg and I need to be thinking superior Hitchcock.

Once we start talking, it is not so hard. Everything about the demeanour and still-svelte appearance of Hedren, who is 75, recalls the final age of drop-dead Hollywood glamour that Hitchcock exploited and subverted.

It was in October 1961 that the 62-year-old Alfred Hitchcock spotted her flicking her mane on a TV commercial for a diet drink. She was a 31-year-old single mother, divorced from her wayward husband, a property agent named Peter Griffith. For her daughter’s sake, she had migrated from New York to more verdant Los Angeles but now, she was finding her career as a model faltering.

She had no great expectations when the MCA talent agency phoned her one Thursday to ask for her show reels and photo book. She was recalled after the weekend and, on the Tuesday, an agent summoned her. She still had no idea who had shown an interest in her.

“And he finally said, ‘You want to know who this person is?’ I said, ‘Oh, that would be nice.’ And he said, ‘Alfred Hitchcock wants to sign you to a contract.’ Not ‘wants to see you’. ‘Wants to sign you to a contract’.”

The contract, which was for seven years, matched but did not exceed her unspectacular income as a model. “So we went over to meet him and he was looking very pleased with himself, arms folded in front of him, and we talked about food, we talked about wines, we talked about travelling ? everything but movies.”

Some $25,000 worth of colour screen tests followed, with Hedren, coached by Hitchcock and his wife, Alma, re-enacting scenes from previous Hitchcock movies at their home in Bel-Air. Three months later she was invited to join them and Lou Wasserman, head of Universal, at Chasen’s restaurant in Los Angeles.

“Hitch placed a very, very beautifully wrapped package in front of me from Gump [an upmarket store] in San Francisco and I opened it and it was a very beautiful pin of seed pearls and gold of three birds in flight.” He said, ‘We want you to play Melanie Daniels in The Birds.’ Well, I was so stunned.”

The Birds, taken from Daphne du Maurier’s short story, tells the fable of how Melanie, a feisty heiress and experienced practical joker from San Francisco, turns up in the small fishing town of Bodega Bay in pursuit of an eligible bachelor, only to find that its avian residents are turning on its citizens. It remains a terrifying film. The cast of extras comprised real birds. “And they were more worried about the birds,” she says, “than they were about me.”

The picture’s devastating emotional climax comes as Hedren and her boyfriend’s family lie besieged in their boarded-up home. While the household sleeps, Melanie creeps upstairs to an attic bedroom. Like Pandora, she opens it, whereupon she is attacked by hundreds of ravens. It is, she concurs, an almost gratuitous scene.

“I said, ‘Hitch, you know I’m not a Method actress but I need motivation for this. Why is she doing this?’ And he said, ‘Because I tell you to’.”

The morning before filming, an embarrassed looking assistant director came to her dressing room. “He couldn’t look at me,” she recalls. “I said, ‘What’s the matter with you?’ And he said, ‘The mechanical birds don’t work. We have to use real ones’.”

She believes, however, that there had never been any intention to use props. “There were cartons, huge cartons, filled with ravens ? very nicely ? I mean they weren’t in misery or anything ? and three prop men with great big leather gauntlets up to their shoulders. And they hurled birds at me for five days. By the very end of it they had me on the floor.

Rita Riggs [the wardrobe supervisor] had put bands around my body, about an inch thick, and they tied the birds very loosely to me with the elastic around their little ankles and finally, on the last day, one of them jumped from my shoulder and really cut me, way too close to my eye. And I just got the birds off and just sat in the middle of the set crying, because I was totally exhausted.”

Hitchcock, however, would stay in his office until the cameras were ready to roll, as if embarrassed at what he was asking his star to endure. But if Hedren survived the ordeal, Melanie was less lucky. The movie ends with her being escorted, helpless, out of the house ? this clever, feisty, controlling person a virtual zombie.

“Catatonic,” she agrees. “Well, that’s what Hitchcock loves to do with his women. Take a woman who is in control of herself, very sure of herself, and beat her up and see how much she can take.”

But why?

“Well, I think there’s some sort of psychological mishap going on there, don’t you?”

Did she ever ask him? “No, but, actually I think he was a bit ? what is that word ? misogynist.” The word almost, but not quite, fits.

If Hitchcock was a misogynist, he was one who relied on the judgement of his wife, with whom he had a strong relationship, and also one who included Hedren in meetings with the writer, Evan Hunter, and with the director of photography, Robert Burks. She says that she was a “sponge”, learning everything she could from the master, but was not intimidated. “I don’t,” she explains, believably, “intimidate too easily.”

Perhaps it was this quality that so fascinated a director who liked his blondes icy (and believed that beneath the ice they were nymphomaniacs).

Off screen, Hedren was not about to submit to whatever it was the sexually impotent Hitchcock wanted from her. During the filming of The Birds, crew members noticed he had begun staring at her on set. At one point he employed staff to spy on her during her time off. Between the two shoots, his fixation had grown. Over the winter he sent Hedren notes and gifts and, on Valentine’s Day 1963, a long romantic telegram signed “Alfredus”.

“I don’t know whether he did this with other actresses,” she says. “I have no idea, but there certainly was an obsession there and it’s difficult to be the object of someone’s obsession if you’re not interested in being that object.”

She says everyone knew about Hitchcock’s feelings but no one dared mention the subject, although Alma personally apologised to her. “It became very difficult. It is hard to be your own woman and have your own life and your own ideals. I think if someone’s going to be a Svengali they have to choose a much younger woman who doesn’t have her mind set and doesn’t know what she wants out of life or who she is.”

As his version of a gilded cage, Hitchcock had built her a lavish trailer, complete with a bar, in which he would engineer private meetings with her. The more she laughed off his attentions, the more domineering he became.

What happened next in Hedren’s trailer, one evening in February 1964, remains one of Hollywood’s most celebrated mysteries. In some accounts, Hedren fought back by mentioning the unmentionable: Hitchcock’s weight.

Twenty-five years after Hitchcock’s death, is Hedren willing to reveal what really happened? “No,” she states. “I probably never will.”

Would it harm his reputation that much? “Yes, I think it would and, you know, it’s over and I don’t think it’s anybody’s business.”

It wasn’t actually a sexual pass? “No, not that.”

“More something he said?” She nods.

Whatever it was, they didn’t talk after that? “Not very much. I finally said, ‘I have to get out of this contract, out of the whole thing’. And he said, ‘Well, you can’t. You have your daughter to support, your parents, your...’ and I said, ‘You know, none of these people want me to live in a situation I am not happy with and I want out’. And he said, ‘I’ll ruin your career’. And he did: kept me under contract, kept paying me every week for almost two years to do nothing.”

So he was trying to destroy her as he did his heroines? “Exactly.”

Finally, he sold her contract to Universal, which fired her after she refused a role in one of its TV shows. She was, naturally, delighted, because it freed her to accept other work. “But, of course,” she says, “by then all the momentum had gone.” Had she ever regretted standing up to him? “Never. I had to look myself in the mirror.”

They met for the final time in London in 1966 while she was filming Charlie Chaplin’s last film, The Countess of Hong Kong. Hitchcock and Alma took her to tea at Claridge’s. The atmosphere was tense. She knew he was upset that she had been cast in what was expected to be a big film, and he was unable to hide his bitterness.

Twenty-four years later she was at a Hitchcock festival in Italy when she heard he had died. “I felt,” she says, “almost a sense of relief”.

The bad director in me wants me to synch in from outside the sound of a penned lioness growling for her freedom. Miss Hedren, who does not need to bite, evidently won hers long ago.