birds
Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Hitchcock said he would ruin me...and he did

Her relationship with Alfred Hitchcock was one of the most dramatic in film history. Now, Tippi Hedren speaks to Sarah Chalmers about the director’s obsessions… and how her daughter got her through the most terrifying day of her life

Written by Sarah Chalmers

Even before Tippi Hedren had met Psycho director Alfred Hitchcock, it was clear that his interest in her was more than professional. ‘He had seen me in a diet-drink commercial and was asking: “Who’s that girl?”’ says Tippi, now an impossibly glamorous grandmother of 82. ‘When he found out, he had me brought to his studios, but I wasn’t told who it was who wanted to see me. I had just moved to California after working as a model in New York and I was invited to meet all these film people, and bring pictures of myself.’

The date was Friday 13 October 1961, and Tippi, then 31 and already mother to Melanie Griffith, her daughter from first marriage to Peter Griffith, was subjected to a ‘thriller suspense of a weekend’, before learning which director wanted to employ her.

‘Finally, on the Tuesday I was invited to the offices of MCA talent agency and offered a contract with Alfred Hitchcock. Of course I said yes immediately – I had my daughter to think of – and only then was Itaken to meet him at his studio where he was looking very pleased with himself.’

That meeting, and the contract, which effectively signed Tippi’s life over to the director for seven years, marked the start of one of the most extraordinary and damaging relationships
in Hollywood history. By the time it ended, some five years later – after a prolonged course of what today might be dubbed sexual harassment: it had effectively ruined both their careers.

Yet next month, a remarkably sanguine Tippi will speak publicly about the relationship at a concert in Croydon, called Hitchcock And Hollywood. Bluntly conceding: ‘He was successful in ruining my career, but not my life,’ the renowned actress says, ‘I forgave him a long time ago. You have to, because if you don’t it eats you up and shows in your face and I couldn’t let that happen.’

Still beautiful today, it was those captivating, icy looks – reminiscent of another of the director’s obsessions,
Grace Kelly – that first ignited Hitchcock’s interest in Tippi. Back then, the Minnesota-born model could only see the benefits of being protégé to a man who initially seemed charming.

‘On that first meeting we spoke about travel and food and wine and nothing about motion pictures.’

Having never acted in a film before, Tippi did not realise she was given extraordinary treatment from the outset. The director arranged the most elaborate screen test – a three-day extravaganza that cost $25,000. A specially commissioned wardrobe was assembled, and Psycho star Martin Balsam was flown in from New York to play opposite her.

Only then, after watching her recreate three very different roles from Rebecca, Notorious and To Catch A Thief, did Hitchcock invite his ingénue to the famous Hollywood haunt Chasen’s, and tell her she was to star in The Birds.

‘I sat down with Hitch, his wife Alma and the head of Universal, and he placed in front of me a parcel from a very elegant shop in San Francisco. Inside was a gold and pearl pin of three birds in flight. I had a tear in my eye, Alma
had a tear in her eye and Hitch just looked very pleased with himself.’

Tippi never thought she’d be considered for the role of Melanie Daniels: ‘I had no training, it wasn’t my career at the time. I’d done an enormous amount of commercials in New York, which give a great technical background but don’t tell you how to break down a script or define a character.

‘Hitchcock educated me and it was fabulous. He was not just my director but my drama coach.’ But her initial delight in the part gave way to terror as the final, dramatic scenes of the bird attack had to be shot. ‘All the way through the shoot I’d been told we would be using mechanical birds like they did for the children’s scenes,’ she says.

‘Then on the day we were due to shoot, the first assistant director came into my dressing room. He couldn’t look at me. He looked everywhere but – at the floor, the ceiling – and told me: “The mechanical birds aren’t working, we have to use real ones.”

‘I was stunned. I walked out on set and the area I was to film in was surrounded by a big chain fence. Inside were three crates of ravens, seagulls and pigeons, and bird handlers with leather gauntlets on.’

With sickening clarity, the realisation dawned that there had never been any intention to use mechanical birds for her scenes. For the only time during our interview, her voice falls flat and she says simply: ‘I felt I had been betrayed. But when you are in a major motion picture and you are the star, you do it or…’

Focusing on her young daughter and her contractual obligations, Tippi steeled herself. For an entire
week she had birds thrown at her by the handlers and attached to her clothes by wires in scenes every bit as
terrifying as they appeared on film. On the last day of shooting, she broke down in hysterics and was
ordered by a doctor to rest.

For many actresses the experience would have soured their relationship with the director, but Hitchcock had another prize up his sleeve: the lead role in Marnie, a film about a complex female thief. ‘The role was intended for Grace Kelly, but she had married Prince Rainier by then and Monaco wouldn’t allow it. Every actress in Hollywood wanted that role. It was a real acting role and a huge responsibility.’

But learning lines and doing justice to the emotionally disturbed character of Marnie was not all Tippi had to contend
with. ‘It was during that film that I could no longer deal with Hitch. He was obsessed with me. I was a 30-year-old woman and he wanted to control my life, dictating how I should dress and eat. He had me followed, he had my handwriting analysed, he would stare at me all the time on set, even when he was talking to someone else.’

Everyone on set knew about Hitchcock’s fixation. He had a reputation for obsessing about his blonde leading ladies but according to his assistant Peggy Robertson, he never got over Tippi and his preoccupation with her went beyond anything he had ever experienced before. It even included listening into the actress’s private phone calls.

‘I felt helpless. It was very oppressive and I dreaded going into work. Today we’d call it sexual harassment and I’d be a rich woman, but then that was unheard of.’

Unable to take any more, Tippi rebuffed the director’s sexual advances and told him she ‘wanted out’. He said ‘your daughter needs taking care of and your parents are getting older’.

‘I told him that none of the people who loved me wanted me to do this and he responded by saying he would ruin
my career. And he did.’

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Hitchcock kept Tippi under contract for a further two years, paying her salary yet refusing to cast her in any films
or let her work with anyone else. ‘After Marnie, I was hot. That was my moment and he kept turning down offers for me. She was particularly devastated not to be allowed to act for François Truffaut – a director she greatly admired.

When the contract finally expired, Tippi continued to act – in a Chaplin film amongst others – but her career never reached again the dizzying heights of its early promise. Instead she has devoted her energy to animal rights campaigning. She is married to fourth husband Martin Dinnes, a vet, and has a reserve, Shambala, in California, that is home to 60 big cats… and a flock of ravens. While those ravens may be a world away from the birds that terrified her on set, she has no doubt being directed by Hitchcock formed her character.

‘People say I’m fearless. I have survived death threats from animal dealers and have to raise $1m a year to keep the reserve going. What I went through on those film sets has made me the way I am today and I’m very, very grateful.’ 

Tippi Hedren will be speaking at Hitchcock And Hollywood, at Fairfield Concert Hall, Croydon, on 17 March at 7.30pm. For tickets: 020-8688 9291.

Gentlemen prefer blondes? Hitchcock’s flaxen-haired leading ladies

Grace Kelly was the quintessential icy blonde, appearing in three Hitchcock films, with Cary Grant in To Catch A Thief (1955) and opposite James Stewart in 1954’s Rear Window. She also starred as an adulterous wife and victim-to-be in Dial M For Murder (1954). In a roundabout way, Hitchcock ended her film career while shooting To Catch
A Thief on the French Riviera, where she met, and went on to marry, Prince Rainier.
Ingrid Bergman was in three Hitchcock films: Spellbound (1945), Notorious (1946) and Under Capricorn (1949). In
Spellbound, she was an early prototype of the cool Hitchcock blonde: a brainy psychiatrist who falls for a confused
Gregory Peck. In Notorious she played a more passionate role as a woman juggling love, duty and uranium with Cary Grant.
Kim Novak appeared in Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), with James Stewart playing a detective obsessed with Novak’s
mysterious femme fatale. His character is thought to be based on the director himself.
Eva Marie Saint In North By Northwest (1959), she played an innocent girl who gets romantically tangled with
on-the-run ad man Cary Grant. The film ends with a famous chase across the face of Mount Rushmore,
Janet Leigh Played Marion Crane, a runaway secretary in Psycho (1960), possibly Hitchcock’s most famous film.
After the famous shower sequence in the Bates Motel, she became a household name.





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