When was Hitchcock joking and when wasn’t he? Take the epigraph that opened The Girl, Gwyneth Hughes’s drama about the relationship between Hitch and Tippi Hedren.
“Blondes make the best victims,” it read. “They’re like virgin snow that shows up the bloody footprints.” How exactly would you weigh that remark up? Hard evidence of a private pathology? Or just an example of the macabre teasing with which Hitchcock promoted his films? Hitch liked joking a lot, and a lot of his jokes trod the narrow line between what you could say and what you couldn’t. Which adds another complication. How often have abusive men shrugged off their abuse as “just a bit of fun”?
The Girl takes the view that he wasn’t joking at all. Hitchcock defenders (and they include another of his ice blondes, Kim Novak) have already objected to Julian Jarrold’s film of Hughes’s script, on the grounds that Hitchcock isn’t around to answer the charges it levels, which is that his obsessive relationship with Hedren turned very nasty indeed. In response, she pointed out that her drama is based on interviews with Hitchcock’s cameraman and Hedren herself, presumably the source of the sour moment when an embittered Hitchcock tells her, “From now on, I want you to make yourself sexually available to me at all times, whatever I want you to do, whenever I want you to do it.”
By Hitch’s account (in the drama at least), this crude coercion is all that she’s left to him. Because The Girl is both about the courtship and creation of a love object. Hitchcock takes an ingénue actress (she’d never done a major film before) and shapes her to his requirements both on screen and off. “I’ll be putty in your hands,” a grateful Hedren tells Hitch when she learns that she’s got the lead in The Birds. But Hedren isn’t nearly as malleable as Hitch would like. After she’s repelled a lunge from her increasingly infatuated director, the filming turns punitive, culminating in an exhausting five-day shoot in which Hedren has live birds thrown at her face by stagehands. Hitch looks on malevolently as his actress becomes increasingly distressed.
As Hedren, Sienna Miller was cannily cast – an actress whose screen presence has as much to do with static beauty as with emotional animation. And ironically her role required an almost identical submission to a director’s whim, as Jarrold reconstructed Hedren’s performance in the films almost frame for frame. But that helpfully underlined the central thesis – that this was a Pygmalion in reverse. Hitchcock’s fascination with a certain kind of beauty made him take a real woman and turn her into a statue. And he then used film to act out what she wouldn’t let him do in life. The drama concludes with the filming of a famous scene from Marnie, as if its shooting was a kind of proxy rape.
Jarrold’s matches for Hitchcock’s scenes were sometimes uncanny. But someone had carefully excised the tenderness out of this scene, a softness that makes it a far more ambiguous moment in the original film. And while Toby Jones’s performance as Hitch, pitch-perfect in the clotted vocal delivery, acknowledged the sorrow of a frog who knows he’ll never turn into a prince, it also presented him as knowingly cruel. I don’t know whether Hitchcock simply took his jokes too far, or whether they were the kind of jokes that aren’t funny at all. But I can’t help feeling that it was all a bit more nuanced than The Girl allowed.
I don’t get Miranda, the sitcom. I’ve tried, and I can sort of see why other people do when it’s at its giddy best. On the other hand, I do absolutely get Miranda Hart, who is a great comedian. When the sitcom humiliates her character, I can’t laugh. But when Hart plays a line that is about attitude alone, I can’t not. Odd, but true.