Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds was a vast logistical undertaking, the most formidable production of his career, exacerbated by the fact that he had cast an acting novice in the lead role. Having been led by Hitchcock step by painstaking step through the entire script, Tippi Hedren navigated the filming well, and produced a remarkably accomplished debut performance in a film that migrates from romantic comedy to shrieking horror. But in the infamous scene in which Melanie Daniels is savaged by birds in an attic, Hedren experienced genuine trauma. Before filming had begun, she had been assured that no live birds would be involved in the action; the most terrifying thing she’d have to contend with were a few mechanical ravens. But as the day approached, it became obvious to Hitchcock and his team that it would be impossible to capture the realism and intensity they were after without the use of real animals.
As Hedren remembers, she found out about the change of plan on the morning of the shoot. “It was brutal and ugly and relentless,” she says of the five days she spent on the floor of the set while birds were thrown at her head. The crew members who have spoken about it over the years attest that they all, Hitchcock included, felt bad about the situation. In 1980, Hedren said it was “very hard for Hitch at this time, too. He wouldn’t come out of his oﬃce until we were absolutely ready to shoot because he couldn’t stand to watch it.” However, she now suggests that the episode was part of Hitchcock’s effort to dominate her.
In the publicity for the film, Hitchcock boasted about the way he had invented ‘Tippi,’ insisting—without explanation—that her name from now on be held between inverted commas. Hedren was introduced to journalists with a brief biography and details of the exacting tutelage that Hitchcock had provided, including the twenty-five thousand dollars that had been spent on her screen tests, conducted with the exactitude of a real Hitchcock shoot. Even when Hedren spoke to America’s teenage girls through the pages of Seventeen magazine, Hitchcock was with her to explain to the interviewer Edwin Miller how seriously he took building a character and, in this case, the actress cast to play her.
The minute attentions paid to her acting and the creation of her public persona elicited no complaints from Hedren: “He was not only my director, he was my drama coach, which was fabulous.” The problem was that the ‘Tippi’ project strayed beyond the film set; Hitchcock inserted himself into Hedren’s life in ways she could not accept. He left food he wanted her to eat outside her front door, sent her a peculiar Valentine’s message, and peppered her with requests for her to join him for dinners, lunches, and drinks. When alone, he told her dirty stories and jokes, likely the same ones he told Grace Kelly and Ingrid Bergman, though Hedren wasn’t anywhere near as amused as those two women appeared to have been. Worst of all, she alleges that one afternoon Hitchcock “threw himself on top of me and tried to kiss me” in the back of a limo directly outside their hotel. “It was an awful, awful moment I’ll always wish I could erase from my memory.” Hedren says the incident was never mentioned by either of them for the rest of the production.
The situation worsened during the filming of Hitchcock’s next movie, Marnie, in which Hedren took the title role, originally intended for Grace Kelly. Hitchcock’s unwelcome attentions continued, though some cast and crew members felt he had an old man’s hopeless crush on an ingenue, nothing more. Things came to a head when Hitchcock forbade Hedren from traveling to New York to receive a Photoplay award from Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show, which infuriated Hedren, and which she interpreted as part of his broader strategy of controlling and possessing her. In the aftermath of this, an ugly encounter occurred between the two that abruptly ended their professional and personal relationship. Hitchcock spoke very rarely about what went on, and when he did his comments were elliptical and evasive. The most he revealed was that Hedren had crossed a red line and “referred to my weight.”
Hedren’s version of events alleges that Hitchcock sexually assaulted her. The first inklings of this story landed in the public consciousness in the early 1980s, in Donald Spoto’s biography of Hitchcock, a book derided by some of Hitchcock’s most faithful collaborators as fanciful and malicious. A further account was published by Spoto in 2009, on which the movie The Girl (2012) was based, enlarging the image of Hitchcock as a sadistic misogynist who deliberately humiliated Hedren to satisfy his lust and assuage his feelings of inadequacy. Then, in 2016, Hedren published her story in her own words. “I’ve never gone into detail about this and I never will,” she writes of what occurred in Hitchcock’s office. “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 more repulsed.”
Hedren’s book was met with fierce criticism from those who maintain that Hitchcock adored women and prided himself on behaving like a gentleman in their presence. Doubts and questions—of a type very familiar to us from recent controversies—were raised. Why had her story shifted over the years? If Hitchcock had been guilty of sexual assaults, why hadn’t she reported them to the police? How could she have previously spoken glowingly of a man she now claimed had abused her? Factual inaccuracies in Hedren’s account were also highlighted. Hedren contends that Hitchcock was intent on ruining her career as punishment for rejecting him, and she alleges that François Truffaut had wanted to cast her in Fahrenheit 451 but was dissuaded from doing so by Hitchcock. Truffaut’s daughter, Laura, has said this is untrue. John Russell Taylor spoke for many skeptics when he accused Hedren of desperate attention-seeking: “How else is she going to stay in the eye of the public than by coming up with increasingly sensational stories about Hitchcock?”
Hedren’s memoir was published a year before the torrent of allegations against Harvey Weinstein and numerous other powerful media figures catalyzed #MeToo. The sharpened focus provided by that phenomenon impels even those unconvinced by Hedren’s allegations to take heed of the ways in which Hitchcock was known to have behaved around at least some women during his years in the film industry. Brigitte Auber, who played Danielle in To Catch a Thief, valued the friendship she struck up with Hitchcock, somebody she looked to as a kindly mentor. One evening in Paris, after the two had met for dinner, they sat in a car outside the apartment where Auber lived with her boyfriend. Hitchcock lunged at her, kissing her on the lips, though she immediately pulled back, stunned, much as Hedren claims to have done during the filming of The Birds. He was instantly contrite and embarrassed, and attempted to revive their friendship in the coming years, though Auber was unable to see him in the same light ever again. “It was an enormous disappointment for me,” she told biographer Patrick McGilligan. “I had never imagined such a thing. The quality of our relationship was entirely different.” McGilligan rejects the darker characterizations of Hitchcock, yet he acknowledges that the director was “capable of questionable behavior” and claims that Hitchcock “had at least two friendships with actresses” turn sour in the mid-1950s in similar fashion, but only Auber was prepared to speak publicly about her experiences. McGilligan also describes Hitchcock’s penchant for groping women and for “thrusting his tongue inside [a woman’s] mouth.”
Despite the protestations of Hitchcock’s ardent defenders, it’s difficult to see why Hedren would have fabricated the entire story, and taken the trouble to keep it alive more than half a century later. Hitchcock spent decades publicizing the pleasure he took in possessing and molding beautiful young women; the fact that many of those women had nothing but good things to say about him—and several of them continue to talk fondly of him to this day—does nothing to mitigate the experiences of others who felt preyed on. Hitchcock alone bears responsibility for his acts of predation, though his behavior was thoroughly facilitated and normalized by the culture within which he lived and worked, one we are only beginning to fully reckon with. Socially awkward, self-absorbed, and sexually frustrated, Hitchcock made passes at and assaults on young women because he failed to control his urges, but also because in the environment he inhabited, men of his standing were afforded license to behave in that way.
In Hitchcock’s case, this latitude enabled his pursuit of a fantasy version of himself—the suave, sexually successful alpha male with women in his thrall—in denial of the obnoxiousness or the absurdity of his conduct. Those who were around him in his dotage at Universal were aware of unusual arrangements he had with at least one of his young secretaries, who would disappear into the boss’s office for lengthy spells. One Hitchcock biographer alleges that the woman was shaken by “ugly, intimate demands” of an unspecified nature and left Hitchcock’s employ in distress. Others offer a different perspective. One former colleague, the screenwriter David Freeman, remembers asking her what she was up to behind the closed door; “I’m being erotic for Mr. Hitchcock,” she replied. Precisely what occurred, and what degree of coercion was involved, is probably impossible to prove at this remove. Money may have changed hands, either as a token of affection or as an inducement for silence. When the woman concerned arrived for work in a flashy new car, colleagues drew their own conclusions about how she had managed to pay for it. At least one of her contemporaries believed that she appeared unfazed by the whole thing, and maybe thought it worth the effort considering the remuneration she received.
Perhaps. But even if this more benign version of events is accurate, that for a time this was a known part of Hitchcock’s office routine evinces the huge allowances that were made for his behavior. In the sixties and seventies, he was a living institution at Universal, its third-largest shareholder, and widely regarded as “a god of cinema.” Indulging a peccadillo in the privacy of his oak-paneled office was considered no more than the old boy deserved. “It was a different era,” said David Freeman, a much younger man who wrote Hitchcock’s final script in 1979. “People would keep their mouths shut about it. Certainly the people on the staff. Peggy Robertson ran that company and she knew what was going on and she knew also that no one would benefit from the world knowing this.”
Robertson was indefatigably loyal to Hitchcock the man and the entity, and would hear no criticism of his treatment of women. But from personal experience she knew that powerful men in the movie business had license to indulge themselves… Decades after the event, she recalled starting her career on a film directed by Gabriel Pascal and being horrendously embarrassed by Pascal’s insistence that she sit next to him in restaurants while he fed her. The crew found this highly entertaining, Robertson remembered, but she hated it every second of it—and, as the most junior member of the production, felt powerless to push back.
A longtime friend of Hitchcock’s, Marcella Rabwin, described him as “absolutely charming. He was so sweet. He was so nice. He did everything right.” Yet she also knew he was indulged in various ways because he was considered brilliant: “He was sarcastic and he was cruel and he was many of those things, and we all overlooked it.” Rabwin had experience of other such brilliant and domineering men, having been assistant to David O. Selznick, the “woman’s film” impresario who launched Hitchcock’s career in Hollywood, and who also thrived on controlling and changing actresses. “Every relationship my father had was a Pygmalion relationship,” said Selznick’s son, Daniel, but none more so than with the actress he eventually married, Jennifer Jones. Daniel thinks the filming of the Selznick movie Duel in the Sun was the “apotheosis of David’s fantasy of Jennifer. At one point during the filming, he had her go to some place outside of Tucson and crawl across sharp pebbles so that her knees got completely bloodied. In a hundred and ten degree heat. And she was prepared to do whatever was required.” As the last few years of revelations and reckonings have taught us, this dynamic is not only part of Hollywood’s distant past but its present, too.
Adapted from THE TWELVE LIVES OF ALFRED HITCHCOCK: An Anatomy of the Master of Suspense. Copyright (c) 2021 by Edward White. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.