Saturday October 20, 2012

Alfred Hitchcock liked his blonds cool and distant. "Blonds make the best victims," he said. "They’re like virgin snow that shows up the bloody footprints."

A former fashion model from Minnesota with no acting experience, Tippi Hedren fit the bill. Their peculiar dynamic is the subject of "The Girl," premiering tonight at 9 on HBO, a film based on the biography by Donald Spoto, "Spellbound by Beauty: Alfred Hitchcock and His Leading Ladies."

They were close at first: Hitch saw the actress as his muse, something he could shape for the camera; Hedren saw the director as a genius (just off the success of "Psycho" in 1960), to whom she owed a sudden film career. His unwanted sexual advances came later.

Hitchcock and Hedren’s love-hate relationship was about control and manipulation, a sad man’s deepening obsession and a young woman’s firm resistance, all somehow in the service of a collaborative art form. Considering what Hitchcock put his star through, we’ll never know how much on screen was angst and how much was acting.

Shot in Cape Town, South Africa, to look like 1960 California, HBO Films’ "The Girl," directed by Julian Jarrold, impeccably re-creates the film technology of the time. It also delivers a psychologically astute reading of one of Hollywood’s more bizarre entanglements.

Hitch always fell for his leading ladies. His wife, Alma, was accustomed to it, whether "the girl," as he called them, was Ingrid Bergman or Janet Leigh or the next blonde. But even his wife knew the obsession with Hedren was different.

Sienna Miller is lovely as Hedren, a fresh-faced beauty with a reserve that made her seem sculpted from marble. The task of casting an actor to look like Hitch was much tougher. Toby Jones ("The Hunger Games") underwent hours of makeup and prosthetics during each day of shooting, not to mention donning a fat suit to approach the look of the director, who called himself "a walrus dressed as a man." Ultimately Jones seems lighter, in demeanor as well as proportions, than Hitch, although he does replicate the legendary profile.

"Alfie and Tippi," as the director liked to imagine, danced a complicated dance. He invited her to the house for cocktails with his wife (played by Imelda Staunton), and taught her how to act. She let him control her wardrobe, her dressing room and pledged to be "putty in your hands" through the difficult filming of "The Birds."

The abuse -- emotional, sexual and physical -- that Hedren en dured at the hands of Hitch is documented in the screenplay by Gwyneth Hughes, informed by thorough research and interviews with many who were present on the set.

Not least abusive was the director’s premeditated decision to use real birds to attack the actress, despite promises to the contrary, in take after take as she was bloodied and battered.

Alfred Hitchcock and Tippi Hedren had a mutually beneficial professional relationship, the proof of which lives on celluloid. From "The Birds" through "Marnie," their collaboration remains the definition of suspenseful filmmaking. The behind the scenes story of their bitter, destructive personal relationship takes nothing away from the art they produced. In fact,"The Girl" may make movie lovers want to screen "The Birds" and "Marnie" again, perhaps seeing Hedren’s performances in a new light.

The truth may lead viewers to wonder whether a certain madness is a prerequisite for great creativity. At the least, it reminds us of the pathetic little man inside the gifted film genius.