Hitchcock’s Notorious conduct: Examining HBO’s ‘The Girl’

 

Again, my sincerest apologies for the delay in posts. I’ve been overloaded with work recently and am going through some issues with another publication I’m writing for. In said publication, I submitted an article that was heavily cut-down and much of the message lost, so I’m posting the full text here to tide you over and hopefully better convey my feelings on the subject. Enjoy!

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What can you say about Alfred Hitchcock that hasn’t already been said? A lot, say the makers of last month’s HBO Films production of The Girl, who aim to shed light on an aspect of the director’s personality shrouded in mystery. The film is based on the book Spellbound by Beauty: Alfred Hitchcock and His Leading Ladies, in which actress Tippi Hedren claims that the director became obsessed with her and, after she rebuffed his advances, began sexually and emotionally abusing her on the sets of both The Birds and Marnie. Far from the charming, witty entertainer we all know and love, The Girl portrays the filmmaker as a sexual deviant, an endlessly creepy old man using set pieces from his films to torture and exploit the actress.

Hedren explains, “I had not talked about this issue with Alfred Hitchcock to anyone. Because all those years ago, it was still [a] studio kind of situation. Studios were the power. And I was at the end of that, and there was absolutely nothing I could do legally whatsoever. There were no laws about this kind of a situation. If this had happened today, I would be a very rich woman.”

In the film, we watch as Hitchcock (Toby Jones) forces former TV model Hedren (Sienna Miller) to cower as real birds peck away at her, makes her strip completely naked on camera, flat-out sexually assaults her in his limo, and even threatens to destroy her career if she refuses him. The Girl is a disturbing experience, portraying a Hitchcock that violates Hedren in every way short of outright rape. I’d been oblivious to many of these supposed events, but they are indeed taken word-for-word from the real-life Hedren and what she claims the director did.

The Girl caused a good deal of controversy when in premiered last month for obvious reasons – it completely undermines the public image of the much-revered director. Researching further, I discovered that many of Hedren’s claims had in fact been brought to light years ago and have gone largely unnoticed. There is seemingly truth to her words, and in turn the film – Hedren’s career did indeed take a nosedive after Marnie, and yes, Hedren did take medical leave from production of The Birds after suffering from hallucinations and severe trauma as a result of her experience.

But the film’s outright condemnation of Hitchcock for his actions is a bit extreme, implicating both the man and his work in the process. It’s not uncommon for directors like Hitch go to great lengths just to get the performance they need, often putting their actors in very real danger in the process. Yet the film portrays this passion as sociopathic – “Why does she have to go up to the attic alone?” Miller’s Hedren asks of her character for the filming of the aforementioned sequence using live birds, to which Jones’ Hitch replies, “Because I want her to.” This idea that set pieces from The Birds were used to systematically torture the actress is a far-fetched and frankly absurd hyperbole, twisting the facts of the situation in Hedren’s favor and warping Hitch’s genius into mere malevolence. Is it so hard to believe that, thematically, Hitch needed the actress to do this for the sake of the film, not his own backhanded motives?

It’s this, the way the film showers Hedren in a light of ultimate good and Hitch in ultimate evil that’s troubling. It aims to fudge the truth and turn an unfortunate, little-known case of abuse at perhaps a more ignorant time into some sort of ultimate statement of female empowerment. We’re supposed to cheer when Hedren puts her foot down and walks away in spite of Hitch’s threats, yet by the final shot, it’s clear the lines between drama and reality have been severely blurred. Consider this: actor Carl Beukes, playing Hitch’s assistant director Jim Brown, bears an uncanny resemblance to Rod Taylor, the male lead of The Birds. Coincidence? Certainly not. It’s another example of the film confusing the reality of the situation and the fantasy of the director’s work, creating a damaging, misguided portrait of the director. For such serious claims, a documentary, or perhaps another medium detailing what actually happened, would’ve been far more effective. In these kinds of cases, blending fiction and reality serves no one; it’s the truth that packs the real punch.

And yet bizarrely, The Girl actually uses many of Hitchcock’s signature techniques to tell its story. For a film implicating nearly everything about the man, it sure does owe a lot to him aesthetically.

Then again, perhaps The Girl isn’t about facts. Of Oliver Stone’s JFK, a film which begot widespread controversy for its supposed claims of a government-funded conspiracy to assassinate the 35th president, film critic Roger Ebert wrote that the experience was not about facts but feelings, intended to convey how a fearful, confused public felt at the time of the tragedy. Perhaps The Girl, however inaccurate, aims to do the same – illustrate how Hedren felt towards Hitch after being subjected to his sexual advances and directorial demands. What Hitch may have seen as going to great lengths to get the shot, Hedren saw as literal torture.

For what it’s worth, The Girl is very effective at heaping those feelings onto its audience. It’s a challenging film to watch, inducing a chilling atmosphere whenever Jones’ Hitchcock is onscreen. But the way its script demonizes both Hitchcock the man and Hitchcock the filmmaker feels unfair, especially considering everything the man has done for film. No, it doesn’t excuse Hitchcock’s alleged behavior, but it also doesn’t justify such a heavily dramatized account of his private life. I do sympathize with Hedren and acknowledge the unfortunate truth to most of her claims, but I don’t agree with the way the film puts her on a pedestal and stretches the truth surrounding her experience. For such a serious and disturbing real-life situation, it just isn’t right to ignore the other side of the story.

Thus, it’s important to be able to form your own opinions about The Girl and understand the reality behind “based on a true story.” Do the research, determine what the truth is for yourself, and if you’re still interested, the film may be worth a watch. In my own findings, I saw a video of an elderly Hedren recount her experience, a woman that, despite everything, acknowledged both sides of Hitch’s personality. “There was the good side and the bad side,” she says of working with the director. The truth in that, I believe, lies in both, not one.

A version of this article was originally featured in The Behrend Beacon, Volume 65, Issue 13, on December 4th 2012.

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