There were two dramatised features about the working methods of director Alfred Hitchcock in 2012. Hitchcock starred a pretty decent Anthony Hopkins as the corpulent director. But today it’s The Girl, a more obviously made-for-TV affair. It’s an HBO/BBC collaboration, with actors who bump it up the pecking order – Toby Jones as a dead-eyed Hitchcock, Imelda Staunton as his enabling, collaborative wife Alma and Sienna Miller as Tippi Hedren, the star of The Birds and Marnie. The story of The Girl is the story of a director who finds a new star, grooms her and, Vertigo-style, becomes hopelessly, almost pathologically obsessed with her.
It’s Alma who first calls Hedren “the girl”, having noticed a cool blonde in a TV advert and encouraged Hitchcock to get her in for a screen test. Soon, Hedren has been hitched to “Hitch”, as he insists she call him, and he is shaping her for stardom – changing her hair, clothes and make-up, encouraging her to pitch her voice lower, and reworking her into another version of the cool blonde Hitchcock imperilled in one movie or another going back through Vera Miles, Janet Leigh and Kim Novak, through Grace Kelly, Doris Day and Ingrid Bergman (a rare, non-blonde, but still icy cool) all the way to the 1930s and Madeleine Carroll, star of Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps and Secret Agent.
The difference between Hedren and all of those woman was that, being a model rather than an actor and so new to the business, she didn’t have their protective aura of stardom around her. The thesis of The Girl is that Hitchcock, emboldened by Hedren’s powerlessness, took advantage, first professionally – subjecting the actress to cruel treatment on the making of The Birds – and then personally, bombarding her with love tokens before finally begging for sexual contact.
As the pair of them move from the making of The Birds, in which avians amok stand in for eros unleashed, to Marnie, Hedren begins to twig that its plot (frigid bitch gets her comeuppance) is really the story of her and Hitch. She responds in the only way she can, with frosty politeness and unimpeachable professionalism. The ice maiden squared. Given that that’s exactly what got Hitch going…
Much has been written about Hitchcock and blondes, and much of it by Donald Spoto, on several of whose books this film is based. He gets a script consultant credit. There’s also a “thanks” credit to Tippi Hedren herself, who talked extensively to screenwriter Gwyneth Hughes, and can be heard on a 2017 podcast insisting that The Girl tells the story as it happened. Plenty of people disagree with her version of events, but The Girl can’t be faulted by attempting to please everyone.
For all the fascinating story around the story of The Girl, it’s oddly nowhere near as gripping as it should be. That’s partly because there are too many people in it we are presumed to know but don’t – Penelope Wilton has been hired in to play Peggy Robertson, one of Hitch’s long-term aides, and because it’s Wilton we assume Peggy is important. She was but this drama doesn’t really explain why. Carl Beukes plays another aide, young and handsome Jim Brown, the man Hitchcock would dearly like to be, rather than the fat, impotent “two balloons tied together” he’s become, as he drunkenly laments to Brown one night.
Then there’s Imelda Staunton as Alma, another fascinating semi-sketch of a character. What was her compact with Hitch? To what extent was she his pimp? There is an unhealthy, co-dependency here, something Staunton and Toby Jones manage to work up brilliantly, though again it’s an avenue under-explored, or perhaps the real story this film should be telling.
Sienna Miller is treated by director Julian Jarrold in much the same way as Hitchcock treated Hedren. No, he doesn’t throw live birds at her in the attack scenes of The Birds (though those scenes are a lot more convincing than anything Hitchcock managed), but he does present her as a ripple-free glacial surface without going much further.
Toby Jones is as good at playing Hitchcock as Anthony Hopkins as the unsettling, deadpan Master of Suspense, and his gift to this drama is to make clear that beneath Hitch’s mock sinister exterior there was a real sinister interior. Inside every fat man etc.
The Girl – Watch it/buy it at Amazon
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© Steve Morrissey 2022