The camera zooms in on a beautiful blonde woman asleep on the lawn. You can pick out livid scars on her eyelids, cheek, neck and hands. As her three-year-old daughter gleefully runs out and jogs her mother awake, the woman sits bolt upright. She starts shrieking and frantically scrabbling in the air as if she is fighting off a flock of imaginary angry birds. She does this for several seconds before falling sobbing into her daughter’s arms and hugging her so tightly that she knocks the young girl’s boater off. This is what Alfred Hitchcock did to Tippi Hedren.
Hitchcock’s films were cruel, but his behaviour behind the scenes was even crueller. In this crucial scene from The Girl, an absorbing new one-off BBC2 drama, Hedren, played by Sienna Miller, is re-living the horror of a scene she has just filmed for The Birds, Hitchcock’s deeply disquieting vision of a world in which previously friendly birds turn into terrifying assailants.
For the climactic sequence of the movie, in which Hedren’s character Melanie is attacked in an attic by a ravenous flock of starlings, the 62-year-old director (Toby Jones) had promised his jittery star, a naive former model, making her major acting debut and already highly unsettled by various close avian encounters, that he would only use mechanical birds in a very brief sequence. In the event, Hedren arrived at the studio to find several cages full of furious starlings which were duly unleashed. They were then chained to her body and hurled at her by heartless crewmembers over not a couple of hours, but five full days. They pecked at her face relentlessly, leaving her covered in scars.
All the while, the director did nothing to alleviate her fear – he just stood there and watched approvingly as his cameras captured her look of sheer terror. It wasn’t so much the birds that unhinged Hedren – it was Hitchcock. After such a terrifying experience, the actress was deeply traumatised and signed off work by her doctor for five days.
So why did the director, celebrated for such classic movies as Vertigo, North by North West and Psycho, behave in such a sadistic fashion towards the star of The Birds? The Girl, written by Gwyneth Hughes (Five Days) after extensive conversations with Hedren herself and surviving members of Hitchcock’s crew, suggests that the root cause of his cruelty was love.
When he recruited her after spotting her in an advert, Hitchcock believed that he could shape the 32-year-old as if she were a figurine made out of Plasticine. Ignoring the warnings of his long-suffering wife Alma (Imelda Staunton), he soon fell head-over-heels in love with this untouchable Nordic blonde. But when she spurned his advances, the director’s passion soon turned to spite. Hitchcock became the worst type of stalker boss. He had Hedren’s handwriting analysed and ordered his assistants to follow her home to make sure she wasn’t seeing any other men.
In their next and final collaboration, Marnie, he insisted on subjecting her character to a brutal rape scene that he actually seemed to relish. Hedren refused to work for the director again, and as she was under contract to him for seven years, that spelt the end of her career. It’s a deeply disturbing piece. In fact, it’s rather like one of Hitchcock’s own films – Trauma: The Movie.
On her day off, Miller is relaxing after the emotional demands of playing the tormented Tippi. Unwinding by a pool in Cape Town (which is doing a grand job of standing in for 1962 California). in shorts and T-shirt, she possesses the same winning combination of beauty and bonhomie as her alter ego. The actress, who has also starred in Layer Cake, Factory Girl and Alfie, travelled to California to meet the real Hedren, a woman who is still as bright as a button and runs a big cat sanctuary. “I had heard that she be could be tough, so I didn’t know what to expect,” says Miller. “But the person I met was very warm and natural. She is so beautiful. She’s 82 now, but still pencil-thin and stunning.”
Miller, 30, whose partner is the actor Tom Sturridge and who gave birth to their first child, a daughter called Marlowe, in July, learned plenty from Hedren. “She said that Hitch could be hilarious and had sides to his character that were wonderful. But she still bears a lot of resentment towards him because having made her career, he then completely destroyed it. Hitch giveth and Hitch taketh away.
“He had this clichéd ideal of a woman. He found this amazing woman who had never acted before and thought he could mould her. In his mind, he was creating the perfect woman – he even told Tippi what lipstick to wear. At first she adhered to it, unaware that it was not something that usually happened on a film set. Gradually, he became more and more obsessed with her.”
After a while, Miller adds, “Tippi wouldn’t play the game. When she refused to reciprocate and stuck to her own moral code, she became unattainable to him. And, of course, the more she became unattainable, the more he wanted her. You always want what you can’t have, especially someone like Hitchcock, who had no self-esteem.
“The fact that he loved this goddess who shunned him confirmed all his worst feelings about himself. So he resolved to make her feel very uncomfortable – for instance, he would recite very crude limericks designed to shock her just as she walked past. He inflicted deep psychological damage on her.”
Perhaps most shocking of all was the way in which Hitch wrecked her career after she rejected his suit. “He wouldn’t work with her after Marnie, but he wouldn’t let anyone else work with her, either,” says Miller. “She was his, and if he couldn’t work with her, then no one else could, either. By the time she was released from her contract after seven years, she had missed her window. You would feel complete resentment about that, wouldn’t you?”
For all that, The Girl, which goes out at 9pm tonight, is no mere black-and-white hatchet job on Hitch. It does not seek to portray him as an unambiguous monster; rather, it highlights the profound psychological damage that plagued the director throughout his life. Jones, well-known for portraying real-life characters in films such as Infamous (Truman Capote) W (Karl Rove) and Frost/Nixon (Swifty Lazar), reflects that, “Hitch could look like a monster because of his size. He certainly had power and drive and determination and a strident, big personality. I can understand how when you see some of the things he did, you might, in the early 21st century climate, be tempted to write him off.”
The actor, 46, who has two young daughters with his partner, Karen, a criminal barrister and who underwent a punishing four-hour regime in the make-up chair every day to replicate Hitchcock’s bald, jowly look, adds that, “People aren’t that straightforward. We don’t come to a conclusion about Hitchcock, but then about how many people can one say, ‘Oh, he’s absolutely a good guy or he’s absolutely a bad guy’? All being well, by the end people will have very mixed feelings about him. If this film opens Hitchcock up to debate, that would be really interesting.”
Hughes agrees that we should not dismiss the director out of hand. “Writing this film actually increased my sympathy for him. I’m a huge fan of Hitch – I love his work,” says the writer. “I didn’t want to monster him at all. Hitch was sexually obsessed with Tippi. But at the same time he was impotent, terrified of sex and consumed with revulsion for his own body. He was a sad old man who more than met his match in Tippi.
“Her rejection of him was very upsetting for Hitch. He really loved her, and it’s terrible to love someone who doesn’t love you back. He behaved very, very badly, but look at the poor old thing, and what brought him to that point. I defy anyone to get to the end of this film without feeling for him.”
Perhaps siding with her put-upon character, Staunton, 56, takes a less sympathetic view of the director, “Alma was very tolerant. She mothered Hitchcock, because he was like a bloody child. He was a bloody idiot with Tippi. People should have told him, ‘Just make the bloody film and go home.’
“But he was delusional. People say he was vulnerable – oh, for goodness sake, don’t be mealy-mouthed about it! He just needed to grow up – that may sound unkind, but it’s realistic. There again, if he had grown up, he wouldn’t have been such a brilliant filmmaker. All his many flaws made him the great director he was.”
Finally, do any directors behave in such a dictatorial way today?
“No!” replies Miller, in a tone that brooks no contradiction. “Hitch was so controlling. But a crew these days wouldn’t stand by and let it just happen. If a director behaved like that nowadays, there’d be a sexual harassment lawsuit.”
Staunton agrees. “We actors are like children – all you have to do is feed and encourage us, and we’ll be fine. That controlling animus has gone. No director treats us badly anymore. In fact, they should put that in the end credits of The Girl: ‘No actor has been harmed in the making of this movie.’”
‘The Girl’ is on tonight at 9pm on BBC2