“Blonds make the best victims” – A. Hitchcock
First things first: last night’s BBC 2/HBO film The Girl was absolutely superb – by far the best new work to be seen on Brit TV over the Christmas season. If you missed it, make sure you catch up via iplayer or whatever, asap.
Briefly, this was the story of Alfred Hitchcock’s choice of the previously unknown Tippi Hedren to star in The Birds (his follow-up to Psycho) and his obsession with her, culminating in a campaign of bullying and intimidation when she rejected his blundering advances. Finally, Hitchcock sabotaged her career by refusing to either release her from her contract or to use her in any more films, apart from the rather unpleasant Marnie.
His behaviour, these days, would be considered completely unacceptable and probably place him beyond the pale in the eyes of polite society.*
Once again we are confronted with the old conundrum: to what extent is it possible to separate a great artist from the more unpleasant aspects of his (and, it would seem, it is usually “his” rather than “her”) personality? As an admirer of Philip Larkin I have difficulty coming to terms with evidence of his misogyny and racism, just as admirers of Eliot and Pound have (or should have) difficulty with the fascist sympathies of those two, and Picasso enthusiasts ought to be at least concerned by his Stalin-worship (which lasted into the 1950s). As for unacceptable sexual practices, the superb sculptor and designer Eric Gill probably leads the field, though I’ve no doubt there have been plenty of other major artists with similarly hideous sexual proclivities. Benjamin Britten‘s interest in adolsescent boys has long been the subject of speculation, though in fairness it should be stated that there has never been any evidence that he engaged in paedophilia.
Anyway, The Girl, based as it was upon Tippi Hedren’s own accounts (in interviews) of what happened, pulled no punches and made no effort to excuse or explain-away Hitchcock’s behaviour. But, thanks to a masterful performance by Toby Jones, we feel pity as well as disgust. Hitchcock was, by his own description, a fat, ugly walrus of a man who had only ever had sex with his wife (for whom the term “long suffering” scarcely suffices) and, now in his sixties, was impotent anyway. According to Jones’ portrayal, he appears to have felt that Hedren simply owed him a tumble for having made her a star.
The question that The Girl poses but doesn’t answer, is to what extent Hitchcock’s sexual obessions contributed to the dark, ambiguous power of his best work.
As well as Jones’ extraordinary portrayal, Sienna Miller gives a strong (in every sense of the word) performance as Tippi Hedren and Imelda Staunton deserves a mention for her profoundly sad Alma Hitchcock.