Tippi Hedren interview: 'Hitchcock put me in a mental prison'
A new BBC film tells the story of director Alfred Hitchcock's crazed obsession with one of his ice-cool blonde leading ladies, Tippi Hedren. But she wouldn’t be broken, she tells John Hiscock.
The two films Alfred Hitchcock made after Psycho – The Birds and Marnie – cemented his reputation as the master of suspense and made a star out of Tippi Hedren, who had never acted until the director spotted her in a television commercial and put her under contract.
But she says that the price she had to pay for her stardom was a steep and painful one. Hitchcock developed an almost-crazed obsession with her, and when she rejected his advances, he made her life a living hell both on and off the movie sets, the former model says. He bombarded her with crude sexual overtures and ruthlessly tried to control every aspect of her life.
“I had to get out of there,” she recalls. “I was dealing with one of the most powerful men in motion pictures and it was difficult, embarrassing and insulting. He said, 'If you leave, I’ll ruin your career.’ And he did.”
Her story, as told in a book about Hitchcock by Donald Spoto, is now the subject of a TV film made by the BBC and HBO, called The Girl, which controversially portrays Hitchcock, who was knighted in 1980, as the monster she describes. His admirers say the picture is distorted; but Hedren is unrepentant.
Now 82, she spends her days running Shambala, an 80-acre game reserve she founded on the edge of the Mojave desert. Three times married and divorced, the mother of the actress Melanie Griffith is still elegant and self-assured, talking matter-of-factly and seemingly without rancour, of the mental and physical torture the famed director inflicted on her.
She was one of a long line of ice-cool blondes – including Joan Fontaine, Madeleine Carroll, Grace Kelly and Kim Novak – with whom Hitchcock became fixated during his 40-year career.
“To be the object of someone’s obsession is horrible,” she said. “It was a form of stalking. He had my handwriting analysed, he had me followed, and it was as if I was being engulfed by him.”
He was particularly fond of reciting dirty limericks and crude jokes on set. “Some of them were terribly filthy and I didn’t want them in my head,” she said.
The 90-minute television drama, The Girl, to be shown on BBC Two on Boxing Day, stars Sienna Miller as Hedren and Toby Jones as Hitchcock, with Imelda Staunton as Hitchcock’s wife, Alma, and Penelope Wilton as his loyal assistant, Peggy Robertson.
“Alma was an enigma to everyone,” Hedren recalls. “Nobody could understand what their relationship was. At one point she came up to me and said, 'Tippi, I’m so sorry you have to go through this.’ I looked at her and said, 'But you could stop it,’ and she just kind of glazed over and walked away.
“But it was nothing new in Hollywood in those days. There were no laws against it then, but if it had happened now I’d be a very rich woman because of sexual harassment laws.” She laughs.
Hedren invited Sienna Miller to visit her. “I wanted to make sure she understood where I was coming from,” she says. “He was so insistent and obsessive, but I was an extremely strong young woman. There was no way he was going to get the better of me.
“I talked to Sienna about my upbringing and the moral education given to me by my parents and my church. I kept saying to her, 'Make sure you make me look strong in this movie because otherwise it would not be true.”
One of her worst weeks working with Hitchcock was on the set of The Birds, for a scene in which she was supposed to go into an attic where she would be attacked by birds. She was told these would be the same mechanical birds that had been used in every other scene.
“But everybody had lied to me, and on the Monday morning, as we were going to start the scene, the assistant director came in and looked at the floor and the walls and the ceiling, then blurted out: “The mechanical birds don’t work, so we have to use real ones,” and then he ran out.
“When I got to the set I found out there had never been any intention to use mechanical birds because a cage had been built around the door where I was supposed to come in, and there were boxes of ravens, gulls and pigeons that bird trainers wearing gauntlets up to their shoulders hurled at me, one after the other, for a week.
“There were breaks, but Hitchcock didn’t stay around. He went off into his office and as the days went by it just got worse.”
Pecked, bloodied and exhausted, Hedren finally collapsed, crying hysterically. She had to be carried off the set and put in the care of a doctor, who ordered her to rest for a week.
“Hitchcock said, 'She can’t rest for a week, we have nobody else to film,’” she recalls. “And the doctor said, 'What are you trying to do? Kill her?’”
Hedren endured Hitchcock’s behaviour until filming wrapped on Marnie and she was nominated for the Photoplay award as the most promising actress of the year.
Hitchcock refused to let her go to New York to accept the award, and her repressed anger and resentment finally exploded. She demanded to be released from her contract and from then on, he only spoke to her through intermediaries. He never uttered her name, referring to her only as “the girl”.
“For two more years he kept me under contract, paying me $600 a week,” she said. “Because of The Birds and Marnie I was, as the expression goes, 'hot’ in Hollywood, and producers and directors wanted me for their films. But they had to go through him to get to me and all he said was, 'She isn’t available.’ It was so easy for him. There was talk of me receiving an Academy Award nomination but he stopped that before it even got started.”
When she could finally work again, Charlie Chaplin cast her with Sophia Loren and Marlon Brando in the ill-fated A Countess from Hong Kong, but soon after that the roles tapered off and she concentrated her energies on Shambala, which currently houses some 70 animals including African and mountain lions, Siberian and Bengal tigers and leopards.
“I got over Hitchcock a long time ago because I wasn’t going to allow my life to be ruined because of it,” she said. “It was like I was in a mental prison, but now it has no effect on me. I did what I had to do to deal with it.”