- The Trouble with Hitchcock: did his onscreen mistreatment of women extend to real life?
- Many films had femmes fatale and icy blondes, constantly thrown in danger’s path
- Now #MeToo movement’s unblinking spotlight gazes into the director’s past
- Like his best movie characters, the Master finds himself a man accused
- But is he innocent or guilty? Hearing the case for and against
Note: this is one of 150-odd Hitchcock articles coming over the next few months. Any dead links are to those not yet published. Subscribe to the email list to be notified when new ones appear.
Hitch continues to be rediscovered, reinvented and made relevant for each new generation, but latterly it hasn’t always been for the right reasons. Now he’s been pushed into the limelight by the long, long overdue #MeToo movement. An appropriate battle cry for it would be the much-paraphrased Victor Hugo quote, “No army can withstand the force of an idea whose time has come.” Nor it seems, can the reputation of perhaps the greatest director of all time. Or can it?
While Hitch was an extremely talented and hardworking man, fully deserving of the innumerable accolades afforded him, he has also been repeatedly accused of being a deeply flawed individual. His alleged harassment and abuse of Tippi Hedren, star of The Birds and Marnie, is truly shocking and only serves to reiterate the sad truth that in Hollywood, as in everywhere else, there really is nothing new under the sun. The latter film co-starred Sean Connery who, of course, is a self-confessed and unrepentant misogynist and physical abuser of women:
I saw the bruises Sean Connery left on his wife’s face by Michael Thornton, biographer of Jessie Matthews
It’s all too easy to knock past art and social mores when looking down the other end of the telescope of history. However, it’s been said on many occasions that as brilliant as he was, Hitch was often extremely limited in his depictions of the opposite sex, or as one observer writing in The Guardian put it:
“There’s the vamp, the tramp, the snitch, the witch, the slink, the double-crosser and, best of all, the demon mommy. Don’t worry, they all get punished in the end.”
Which was balanced by a partial rebuttal from another Guardian writer, taking as its cue Hitch’s most famously female-subjugating masterpiece:
Renowned cultural theorist and lifelong Hitch fan Camille Paglia made a strong case against over-simplified analysis of insalubrious aspects of his reputation in her 2012 essay “Women & Magic in Hitchcock”. It was featured in two collections and most recently referenced in the foreword for her reprinted monograph on The Birds:
“I wrote: ‘Misogyny is a hopelessly reductive and simplistic term for the passionately conflicted attitude of major male artists towards women.’ What Hitchcock records in his films is ‘the agonized complexity of men’s relationship to women.’ There is a psychological turbulence going on in sexuality that cannot be fully understood by political paradigms.”
- The Birds (1998/2020) – Camille Paglia
- 39 Steps to the Genius of Hitchcock (2012) – ed. James Bell | info
- Provocations: Collected Essays on Art, Feminism, Politics, Sex, and Education (2019) – Camille Paglia
Of course, none of the above necessarily translates to Hitch being a real life abuser, though one wonders at the self-confessed discretion he exercised on numerous occasions to make his female characters such one-dimensional, recurrent victims. It’s especially perplexing when you consider that throughout his career he adapted various female-penned books and plays, as well as working with many talented female scriptwriters, including his own wife, Alma Reville, and Joan Harrison. In their many other works those same women writers created sympathetic, multi-faceted and, most of all, realistic female roles. On the other hand, many advocates point out how the majority of Hitch’s films did, nonetheless, feature female characters who were central to the storyline. This was against the trend of many successful films both then and now, with their male-led, action-orientated plots. It’s his female-centric tendency, along with him largely focusing on populist thrillers, that many hold up as the main reasons for Hitch being consistently overlooked by the Academy for the Best Director Oscar.
There are countless writings concerning Hitch’s attitude towards women using his films themselves as primary evidence. But they all fall short by being based on a reading of only a limited number of said works. A compelling case can be made for or against by using a select few examples. I hope one day someone will tackle Hitch’s entire oeuvre in this context on a case-by-case basis, to form an overarching perspective. Of course, it would require commencing with his first, The Pleasure Garden, continuing on with all his British films, in their original or best-possible versions, before going on to the widely available American films. Cherry picking from Hitch’s catalogue to establish any and every theory concerning his modus operandi is incredibly commonplace. Ultimately it’s just more lazy scholarship, many past examples of which I’ve highlighted throughout this series of articles.
The Revenge of Alfred Hitchcock’s Muse – New York Times, 5.10.12
Hedren first revealed her allegations to author Donald Spoto, who published them in his 1983 biography. Ever since, she’s reiterated them in numerous interviews and her 2016 autobiography.
“I’ve never gone into detail on this, and I never will, I’ll simply say that he suddenly grabbed me and put his hands on me. It was sexual, it was perverse, and it was ugly, and I couldn’t have been more shocked and repulsed. The harder I fought him, the more aggressive he became. Then he started adding threats, as if he could do anything to me that was worse than what he was trying to do at that moment.”
- The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of AH (1983) – Donald Spoto
- Tippi: A Memoir (2016) – Hedren
Two arguments are commonly levelled against Hedren’s allegations, one being that no one else who ever worked with Hitch reported similar experiences or corroborated her version of events. Wrong: numerous cast and crew who worked on both of her films have done so including Rod Taylor, her co-star in The Birds; and Diane Baker, third-billed in Marnie and also propositioned by Hitch. Like Hedren, Baker is still with us and has spoken very emotionally about the issue on several occasions.
Hitch was also alleged to have employed the exact same modus operandi by Brigitte Auber, who played Danielle Foussard in To Catch a Thief. When being interviewed for Patrick McGilligan’s biography, she said “He jumped me” then tried to kiss her on the mouth in a car outside his hotel. She was only able to dissuade Hitch by claiming she had a boyfriend to whom she wished to remain faithful but their friendship was spoiled and she could never look at him the same way again.
Going back years earlier, Hitch’s long-time collaborator Joan Harrison was frequently the butt of his sense of ‘humour’. In her recent biography of the pioneering screenwriter and producer, Christine Lane writes of an occasion the director sought to embarrass his employee: “The director picked up a copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses, which he kept handy on his desk for just this occasion, and turned to an earmarked section—the vulgar toilet scene.” As he recited the passage matter-of-factly, Joan couldn’t help but lose her composure, even though she must have known she was playing into his hands… His orchestration served no apparent purpose but to provoke a one-sided emotional striptease, intended for his erotic gratification.” Simple high jinks or a boss abusing his power over an underling?
- AH: A Life in Darkness and Light (2003, Kindle) – Patrick McGilligan
- Phantom Lady: Hollywood Producer Joan Harrison, the Forgotten Woman Behind Hitchcock (2020) – Christina Lane
Madeleine Carroll, star of The 39 Steps and Secret Agent, also spoke disparagingly of Hitch’s working methods to film historian Brian McFarlane. For one scene, most likely this one, in order to provoke the requisite look of disgust, Hitch turned his back on her with the camera rolling then, suddenly turning around again, “exposed himself” to her.
Hitch’s mild tormenting of Anny Ondra, star of Blackmail, during a sound test is rightly hilarious but was he going too far when during filming and on camera, he tried to “tickle” her and “peek under her skirt”? It would appear to be sheer wish fulfilment; after all, Charles Bennett, Hitch’s good friend and screenwriter of his six British talkies from Blackmail to Young and Innocent, and Foreign Correspondent, spoke of how much both men “wanted her.”
Of course, Hitch’s bawdy sense of humour is legendary and, when appropriate, is part of what makes him so endlessly appealing. But many of his famous so-called pranks so take on an entirely different complexion when one remembers they were inflicted on people who were working for a very powerful boss, and who depended on him for their livelihoods. Sound familiar?
The second argument often set against Hedren is why did she wait so long (the early 1980s, soon after Hitch’s death) to go on the record with her claims? Please. The reasons for any victims’ belated reporting of abuse are complex and varied but often for the same very good reasons. If this puzzles you, I strongly suggest doing some (open-minded) research into the well known phenomenon and remember: if you don’t understand the problem, you’re part of the problem. Whatever your own viewpoint, in this instance the arguments continue to to rage both for and against.
Distinctly on the flip side, many experts, friends and colleagues of Hitch have rallied to his defence, especially via author Tony Lee Moral’s Save Hitchcock blog. It’s an impressive collection of well-researched articles and personal testimonies that are, in their own way, also quite compelling.
The Girl (2012), a highly acclaimed BBC/HBO TV movie, spotlighted the complicated dynamic between the director and his star during the making of The Birds, though of course many contest its version of events. It’s not to be confused with the near-simultaneously released Hitchcock (2012), which gives an acknowledged fanciful account of the making of Psycho. Honestly, you wait nearly 100 years for a Hitch biopic, then two come along at once. The Girl was based on a further 2008 book by Spoto and though the film gives the final word to Hedren, it does ultimately portray Hitch quite sympathetically.
Did Hitch actually behave with impropriety towards Hedren or several other female actors he worked with? The alleged events happened a long time ago and unless new, irrefutable evidence comes to light, the jury looks like remaining permanently out. In an ironic twist, in the final act Hitch himself seems destined to be forever relegated to playing his own most enduring role: that of a wronged man accused of a heinous crime and unable to prove his innocence. Or otherwise.
- Alfred Hitchcock Collectors’ Guide: Setting the Scene
- Alfred Hitchcock Collectors’ Guide: Miscellaneous British Films
- Free the Hitchcock 9! Releasing the BFI-Restored Silents on Home Video
- Bootlegs Galore: The Great Alfred Hitchcock Rip-off
- Alfred Hitchcock: Dial © for Copyright: British Law
- Hitchcock/Truffaut: The Men Who Knew So Much
- Alma Reville: The Power Behind Hitchcock’s Throne
- Alfred Hitchcock Collectors’ Guide: The British Years in Print
- Alfred Hitchcock: The Dark Side or the Wrong Man?
- Alfred Hitchcock Collectors’ Guide: Miscellaneous Releases
- Beware of Pirates! How to Avoid Bootleg Blu-rays and DVDs
- Charlie Chaplin Collectors’ Guide, Part 2: The Bad, the Ugly and the Good
For more detailed specifications of official releases mentioned, check out the ever-useful DVDCompare. This article is regularly updated, so please leave a comment if you have any questions or suggestions.