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Hitchcock, Chaplin, Lions and Sexism: Tippi Hedren at the Viennale

Photo by Alexi PelekanosTippi Hedren

When I meet Tippi Hedren in Vienna, we’re with a handful of other journalists for nearly an hour-long roundtable interview. There are less than ten of us, but after a series of interruptions, digressions, poking, and prodding, the pack feels more like an encroaching swarm. But Hedren is no stranger to this kind of journalistic interrogation. The recent Viennale programmed a tribute to her and invited Hedren from her home on the Shambala Preserve in California for her first visit to the capital of Austria. The animal rights activist also worked with both Alfred Hitchcock and Charlie Chaplin, so Hedren’s presence at this year’s Vienna International Film Festival drew crowds for both screenings of Marnie and The Birds, as well as autograph hopefuls after each Q&A. Throughout all the hoopla, including the swarming reporters, Hedren maintains the composure of someone with a lifetime of hoopla behind her.

After the interview, when the tape recorders switch off and the journalists scatter, one reporter flees to the door before turning around. “Thank you Ms. Hedren, for being so adorable,” he hollers before disappearing. “Well, that’s something I haven’t been called in a while,” Hedren laughs. It’s an elegant response, I think, reflecting back on my question ten minutes earlier about the progression in film, from the time she was a star in the ’60s, to the experiences of young actresses, like her granddaughter, Dakota Johnson, today. I don’t want to seem hung up on what I believe was intended as a compliment. But, after a lengthy discussion with Hedren on her political work as an animal rights activist and a career in film that was spoiled by Hitchcock’s patronizing demands and sexual ultimatums, I find the reporter’s departing choice of adjective pretty distasteful.

Later that night, after the Gala screening of Marnie, Hedren’s second and last Hitchcock collaboration, she appears for a moderated Q&A and regales the audience with stories about being discovered by Hitchcock after appearing in a diet drink commercial, working with Marlon Brando in Chaplin’s 1967 Countess of Hong Kong, and making Roar with hundreds of apex predators in 1981. When she talks about Marnie, she notes that it wasn’t “well-received at the time because people didn’t understand my character’s experience.”

I consider how modern day psychology lends to an analysis of Hedren’s Marnie character for audiences today. We presume to understand the character’s experience better now that there’s a vocabulary to define and discuss it. But with the resonance of the afternoon’s “adorable” offense still ringing in my ears, I wonder how we’ve adapted our vocabulary over the last fifty years to confront Hedren’s real-life experience. We pry her for stories about how the great Hollywood auteur objectified her in a sort of obsessive off-screen sexual conquest, and I can’t help but feel we are somehow participating in a related objectification of Hedren today — massaging the juicy details of her story for public consumption, and with a twist of the blade, thanking her for sharing, and in certain instances, for being “adorable,” as if as an archive of ’60s sexism, she’s reason to commemorate it.

“I felt like a strong woman on set,” Hedren says. “The Birds being my first film, I was fascinated by it. The whole crew around Hitch was brilliant; they really knew what they were doing, and it was an amazing time.” She explains how the studio system had great advantages for actors in spite of working conditions that favored directors and producers. She had little, if any at all, creative control during shooting, but she was enamored by the acting, singing, and dancing classes offered by the studios. Hedren hadn’t practiced the craft in her previous commercial work, nor as a model, “so it was sort of a fairytale,” she explains. “Hitch and his wife were my drama coaches and there were some really wonderful times,” she reminiscences. “Discussing the scripts, the dinner parties, to be plucked out of nowhere and to be given the gift of these two now rather famous films…but then he screwed up.”

My initial impression is that Hedren paints an inconsistent picture of her attitude toward Hitch. In one moment, she regards him as “one of greats,” and in the next, he’s denounced as deplorable. During other recollections, a more sinister humor colors her attitude. “Apparently, when Hitch heard that I was going to be working with Charlie in the Countess of Hong Kong, he almost had a heart attack. Pity,” she smirks. I realize that her narratives aren’t in conflict; they’re just polarized between her two perceptions of the same person.

“You separate the artist from the man?” I ask.

“Absolutely,” she says.

Though disillusioned by his progressively repugnant behavior toward her, Hedren still regards him as one of the true few great filmmakers. “All the Hitchcock films are wonderful, going way back,” she says. “I really like Rebecca because of the character. He had such an incredible capacity to frighten us, and how interesting that we all like to be scared.” Hedren even admires Marnie, in spite of the off-screen ordeal, which escalated quickly once it begun. Up until that point, Hitch had treated her “professionally” during their first collaboration on The Birds. “All the memories of my life come flooding back,” she says of watching both films today, “which is kind of glorious.” Of having to fend off his advances during Marnie, she says that “I had no fear of him. I think he was more afraid of me. I walked away with my head high, but I had to walk away from the entire business.”

Hedren explains that when Marnie wrapped, Hitchcock kept her under contract and continued to pay her $600/week even though she wouldn’t work with him again. “I didn’t want to have anything to do with him ever again,” she says. But because she was contractually chained to him, Hedren wasn’t accessible to other filmmakers. Three years later, Universal let her out of the contract with Hitchcock after she refused a commercial, and it was then that she shot The Countess of Hong Kong with Charlie Chaplin. In retrospect, Hedren considers the three deadlocked years as a big window of lost opportunity. Once she resurfaced as a free agent, she couldn’t recover the momentum she’d gained as Hitchcock’s star. But the cost of being Hitchcock’s star wasn’t a price Hedren was willing to pay for Hollywood stardom. Would she have done anything differently? “Not if it was presented to me in the same way,” she says.

Hedren doesn’t paint herself as a martyr, but it does seem important for her to have shared her story and to continue sharing it. When the interview questions become too tennis ball machine rapid, she holds up one tiger-print manicured hand and says for the first time, “let me finish so I can explain the story.” At 85-years-old, I actually don’t think she quite minds what anyone calls her, as long as she’s contributing to how she’s represented and how her experience is understood.

“There’s a lot of things written that actors do not say, or even think, yet it becomes gospel once someone writes it down, and it somehow becomes real, even though it’s bullshit,” Hedren says. She’s most eager to set the record straight about the Google images of her lounging with enormous lions in her home and with her family. “They misrepresent my position,” she says. “It’s a problem when we chose to shoot a movie in the wild, and chose the great cats. We became involved with a number of different trainers. For a month, they would come over and we’d take different pictures with the animals — there’s one where the lion is with me in the living room, one where he’s jumping in the pool with my daughter, Melanie. During the film, I learned how the United States allowed lions and tigers to be bred and sold as pets, which is of course, absurd. I guess the government saw it as a big business.”

In 1969 and 1970, Hedren made two films in Africa with apex predators, “because all the scientists told us then that if we didn’t do something to save the animals, they’d all be dead by year 2000.” But after seven major accidents, one with her daughter, Melanie Griffith, and another nearly fatal “scalping” calamity, “I said no more contact with the animals,” Hedren sighs.

Today, she lives on the Shambala Preserve where the animals roam freely within their own compounds, but not with humans. And no, she isn’t scarred by memories of Hitch lobbing live sparrows at her for days on end during shooting of The Birds. Well, at least she hasn’t held it against the sparrows — many live peacefully on Shambala alongside her. She doesn’t even hold it against the filmmaker, who ended up with a great movie. But everything she’s held against Hitchcock personally though, “he deserves.”

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