She asked to be let out of her contract, he told her he would ruin her career.
By Gabrielle Marceau
In 1961, Alfred Hitchcock spotted a blonde woman in a Sego Diet soda commercial. He tracked down the 31-year-old model and single mother and signed her to a seven-year exclusive contract, they had not yet met. "I was not primarily concerned with how she looked in person. Most important was her appearance on the screen.” he said. Once they were in the same room together, he announced to her that she would star as Melanie Daniels in his next film called The Birds.
In the film, a city girl with a bad reputation follows a beautiful man to a remote island through a ruse involving a pair of lovebirds. An early scene from The Birds gives us the indelible image of a stunning and confident Melanie balancing herself and a large birdcage on a dinky motorboat, her lime green suit a shock against the grey waters. But soon after her arrival on the island, birds inexplicably start to attack the residents and Melanie - who is not only a stranger to the town but also metropolitan and sexually assertive - is blamed.
Beyond commercials, Tippi Hedren had never acted. She trusted Hitchcock - after all, he was one of the most respected filmmakers in Hollywood, and she was inexperienced and an unknown. She studied diligently and followed directions as closely as she could, even when the directions extended from the film set and into her personal life. Hitchcock tasked costume designers with making clothes for her to wear off screen, he began telling her what to eat and drink, and training her on posture and manners (the parallels with his 1958 film, Vertigo, are unmistakable and disheartening). He insisted her name be written 'Tippi,' with single quotes, as if it were the name of a character, something quoted at, made up.
He pursued her relentlessly: asking her to dinner, gifting her flowers and candy. When she demurred, he hired men to spy on her, he had her handwriting analyzed, he drove past her house at night, he prevented crew members from talking to her, and he insisted they meet privately for champagne after they wrapped each day. He even attempted to bar Tippi's daughter Melanie from visiting her on set. Near the end of the shoot, while driving back to the hotel from the studio, he rolled onto her in the backseat of the car and kissed her as she struggled to fight him off. A few days later, she called him a fat pig in front of the crew, breaking the cardinal rule to never bring up his weight.
Hitchcock's sadism towards Hedren began to infiltrate the film they were making together. The climactic scene at the end of The Birds - in which Melanie is brutally attacked - took five days to shoot, five days of production assistants throwing live gulls, rooks, ravens and crows at Hedren. A bird that had been tied to her shoulder with elastic bands slashed her cheek, narrowly missing her eye. Hedren collapsed, but Hitchcock would not let her leave with the doctor. Among his filmography of horror, this scene is Hitchcock's most terrifying.
One of Hitchcock’s screenwriters confronted him about his treatment of Hedren. "Tippi felt rightly that she was not his property, but he'd say, 'You are, I have a contract.'" The contract tethered Hedren to Universal Studios, but more significantly to Hitchcock, who had arranged it so he had complete control over her career. The Hollywood studio system had been disintegrating for decades, and along with it, the practice of signing talent to long-term and exclusive contracts. Hitchcock was a hold out, and his clout at Universal Pictures and Hedren’s naivety enabled him to legally trap her.
During the filming of Marnie, their second film, Hedren remembers being summoned for a private meeting with Hitchcock: "He said, as if it was the most natural thing in the world, that from this time on, he expected me to make myself sexually available and accessible to him – however and whenever and wherever he wanted." She asked to be let out of her contract, he told her he would ruin her career.
Marnie, like The Birds, is an uneasy masterpiece, and the most disturbing film Hitchcock ever made. In the film, Hedren plays a con-artist who is plagued by a repressed sexual trauma which resurfaces when she sees the colour red. She is caught stealing from her employer by a wannabe suitor, and before the end of the film (in which she falls in love with him), he rapes her and blackmails her into marrying him.
I first saw the film in a undergraduate film theory class, and during the scene where Marnie is raped by her love interest, the audience of students laughed. Marnie makes the horror of how women are treated by the industry and by the lens uncomfortably, almost absurdly literal.
Marnie is my favourite Hitchcock film because it is the only one where his perverse desires overwhelm the exacting control he usually held over every detail of every frame. Marnie seems to fall apart, both narratively and morally, under the pressure of his erotic obsessions. The screen always allowed him to express his lust for the beautiful women who would have nothing to do with him in real life ("I was not primarily concerned with how she looked in person.") Hedren's performance - mad, haunted, magnificently defiant - was the last she would give the director who discovered her.
Even though Hedren had reached her limit, there was no legal recourse by which she could break her contract. Over the next few years, Hitchcock prevented her from working with other directors (notably, he turned away a request from Francois Truffault) but also didn’t cast her in any of his own productions. He had threatened to ruin her career, and in a sense, he did. After the end of her contract she continued to work, but her time away from the spotlight, and the bad blood between her and the powerful director, had effectively extinguished her chances of becoming a film star.
“Studios were the power," Hedren said decades later in an interview. "And I was at the end of that, and there was absolutely nothing I could do legally whatsoever. There were no laws about this kind of a situation. If this had happened today, I would be a very rich woman.” She isn't wrong; many victims of sexual assault in the workplace are paid well to keep quiet. But money is a cold comfort: it won't undo the violation, it won't fix your reputation with the men in power, and it won't restore the opportunities lost. The Hollywood studio system has changed: actors negotiate deals with studios on a picture-by-picture basis through teams of agents, managers and lawyers. It is less likely that you will find yourself in a binding contract with your abuser.
But in many ways, Hollywood hasn't changed. Women still find themselves trapped by bigger men, by non-disclosure acts, and by a sickening double standard. In the past two months we have seen a flood of accounts of sexual assault, harassment, and abuse at the hands of powerful Hollywood men. The reports which describe Harvey Weinstein (Hollywood heavyweight and heavy-set predator) cornering women in hotel rooms, literally blocking the exit with his body, tell a depressingly familiar story.
When the male artists we love do something unforgivable, do we stop watching? I have found men tend to answer quicker: an acquaintance said, in response to the allegations against Louis C.K., "at least now I'll be able to get tickets to his show."
Last year, my students watched Hitchcock's 1954 film, Rear Window, and were asked to examine its use of narrative form and narration (is it restrictive, subjective, omniscient, self-conscious?). I took the opportunity to intrude on the curriculum to tell them this story, Tippi's story. I did mean it as a corrective, as a stick in the spokes of the male genius wheel, but I also mentioned how much I love The Birds and Marnie, and how much I adore Vertigo and Rope.
I bring up this story not to discourage them from watching Hitchcock's films, or from liking them, but exactly because the story deepens our inquiry, makes the films more difficult and more complex. Criticism is not meant to be simple - it should happily wrestle with ambiguity - and it isn't supposed to be a recommendation. Thumbs up: see this movie. Thumbs down, the filmmaker is an alleged pervert. You can try to separate the art from the artist, but why would you when it makes the art much more interesting?
I will concede that it is easier with Hitchcock; he is dead, he cannot make anymore films or Netflix specials or Amazon series, he can no longer profit from repertoire screenings of Dial M for Murder or Psycho. I may not be able to separate the art from the artist, but I try to draw a line at contributing to their cut.
Although she did not become the major star she could have been, Hedren did continue to work, and she continued to live. She had several children and eventually grandchildren. Her daughter, Melanie Griffith, became a successful actor, as did Melanie’s own daughter, Dakota Johnson. She founded a wildcat sanctuary in California and built a house on the grounds where she lived with lions as pets. ‘‘We have 50 big cats roaming around — lions, tigers, leopards, cougars —and the amount of meat they get through every day is phenomenal. But I have no qualms about personally giving them that meat, even though there are hungry flocks of ravens circling overhead, just waiting for a taste! Birds I am fine with — spiders are an entirely different matter . . ."
She grew fond once again of the animals she had befriended and then been traumatized by on The Birds. She also forgave Hitchcock (who she still calls 'Hitch') and has spoken of all the things she learned from him and of his unmatched skill as a storyteller. But she was also relieved on April 29th, 1980 when she heard that Hitch had died of kidney failure.
I think of Kesha's new-ish song which she released after years of being trapped in a 6-album contract with the producer who was also her mentor and her alleged rapist. Her legal battle to be released from the contract was a painful reminder of the immutable bias the law has against victims of assault. "My instinct is to do the commercially reasonable thing," ruled judge Shirley Kornreich as Kesha sobbed openly in the back of the room.
Eventually, Kesha managed to move forward, and after singing nothing but covers for years, she released the incendiary, accusatory song Praying. In the song, she manages to let go of her anger for the man, but she also hopes for his sake, that he is somewhere begging for forgiveness from god. Because otherwise, he is going straight to hell.