Work­ing for Hitch­cock re­ally was for The Birds

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - ENTERTAINMENT - BRAD OSWALD

THE ti­tle of the movie is The Girl, but the fo­cus of the story is re­ally the guy. And in The Girl, the guy is a creepy, nasty, nox­ious, pa­thetic and de­spi­ca­ble lit­tle man.

The fel­low por­trayed in the film is leg­endary movie di­rec­tor Al­fred Hitch­cock, whose moviemak­ing ge­nius spawned such sus­pense clas­sics as Psy­cho, Rear Win­dow, Ver­tigo, Torn Cur­tain and The Birds. It’s dur­ing pre-pro­duc­tion of the last on this list that The Girl be­gins, with Hitch­cock seek­ing a young fe­male per­former to star in his avian-at­tack hor­ror story.

Hitch­cock — per­formed bril­liantly here by English ac­tor Toby Jones — be­lieved that the birds were ac­tu­ally the stars of The Birds, so it didn’t re­ally mat­ter who played the fe­male lead. At the sug­ges­tion of his wife, Alma (Imelda Staunton), who spot­ted an at­trac­tive blond in a TV com­mer­cial, Hitch­cock of­fered a screen test to model turned ac­tress Tippi He­dren (Si­enna Miller).

De­spite her com­plete lack of movie ex­pe­ri­ence, Hitch­cock gave her the role of Me­lanie Daniels, a stranger who ar­rives in the sleepy sea­side town that’s about to fall vic­tim to a fu­ri­ous feath­ered in­va­sion. At first, the di­rec­tor acted as a friendly and sup­port­ive men­tor to his young star, teach­ing her about the craft of act­ing and school­ing her on some of life’s finer things. But as film­ing on The Birds got un­der­way, Hitch­cock be­gan to de­velop a sex­ual at­trac­tion that soon be­came an ob­ses­sion.

He­dren, a sin­gle mother in her early 30s, did not wel­come her boss’s in­creas­ingly ag­gres­sive ad­vances, and the re­la­tion­ship turned ugly. How Hitch­cock chose to re­spond to be­ing re­jected is best demon­strated by The Girl’s re­cre­ation of film­ing of The Birds’ most no­to­ri­ous scene, in which He­dren’s char­ac­ter is at­tacked by birds in the at­tic of a house.

As shown here, He­dren was told that shoot­ing the scene would take one day and would in­volve stuffed birds that “flew” at her on wires rigged inside the sound­stage. When she ar­rived at the stu­dio, how­ever, Hitch­cock in­formed her that the scene had been al­tered to in­clude real birds, which were thrown at her by stage­hands as she fought to pro­tect her­self inside a screened-in set.

Shoot­ing lasted five days, and He­dren suf­fered nu­mer­ous in­juries that ac­tu­ally forced Hitch­cock to shoot for a week with­out his star.

It’s a ter­ri­fy­ing and very re­veal­ing se­quence, but it isn’t any­where near the be­gin­ning of the end of the Hitch­cock/He­dren re­la­tion­ship. In fact, the di­rec­tor of­fered the ac­tress the star­ring role in his next film, Marnie, af­ter Grace Kelly opted not to take the part.

Hitch­cock’s ob­ses­sion deep­ened, and his mis­treat­ment of He­dren be­came even more dark and twisted. In the end, when it fi­nally be­came clear even to him that she would never re­turn his “love,” Hitch­cock ba­si­cally halted He­dren’s act­ing ca­reer by keep­ing her locked into a con­tract that for­bade her to work for any­one else.

When HBO show­cased The Girl for TV crit­ics last sum­mer dur­ing the U.S. net­works’ semi-an­nual press tour in Los Angeles, He­dren, now 82, agreed to sit on an in­ter­view panel with Jones and Miller. When asked to re­flect on her Hitch­cock-movie or­deal, she of­fered this rather em­phatic ob­ser­va­tion:

“I can look at my­self in the mir­ror, and I can be proud. I feel strong. And I lived through it beau­ti­fully. He ru­ined my ca­reer, but he didn’t ruin my life.”

KELLY WALSH / HBO

Si­enna Miller recre­ates the fa­mous bird at­tack scene.

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