Monday, January 5, 2015

Hitchcock and his leading ladies

Pauline Kael's strengths as a movie critic may have sprung from her weaknesses as a human being, as I noted in my review of Brian Kellow's biography of Kael (Dec. 19). Much the same thing could be said about director Alfred Hitchcock. What made him a great director were the very qualities that made him much less than a stellar human being.

Much has been written about Hitchcock's relationships with the actresses who starred in his films, but Donald Spoto makes those relationships the focus of his 2008 book Spellbound by Beauty: Alfred Hitchcock and His Leading Ladies. Hitchcock was particularly smitten by Ingrid Bergman, Grace Kelly, Vera Miles and Tippi Hedren. The latter was a 31-year-model when the director noticed her on television and then, through a third party, signed her to a long-term contract without informing her what the contract was for or with whom. Hedren, with no acting experience, expected a series of  bit parts for her $500 a week. Instead she became an underpaid star. He physically and sexually abused her through two films, The Birds and Marnie, before she was able to free herself from his domination.

Other directors of his generation infamously used the casting couch method to put actresses in their films. The obese Hitchcock, who by his own admission had sex just once in life, had other approaches to bringing his fantasies to life. He tried to control the lives of his favorite stars, dictating what they wore, where they went and with whom they associated. Perhaps not coincidentally, Vertigo, believed by many to be his greatest film, is also the movie that reveals the most about its director. In it, James Stewart plays a man obsessed with a certain woman who compels another woman, also played by Kim Novak, to transform herself into that ideal.

Spoto goes film by film through all of Hitchcock's movies, although naturally he gives less attention to those starring women the director didn't particularly like.

Alfred Hitchcock was something of a mess, both physically and psychologically. His fears, passions, obsessions and insecurities dominated his life and made him an unhappy man, loved by few. Yet somehow he translated all these qualities into his films, loved by many.

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