Happy birthday, Tippi Hedren (Nathalie Kay hedren, b. 1930).
A Minnesota native, of German and Scandinavian ancestry, Hedren first made a name for herself as a highly successful New York fashion model in her early twenties, appearing on the covers of magazines like Life, McCall’s and the Saturday Evening Post. Style and glamour were always central to her screen presence, and the first directors she worked with made use of that presence in the traditional Hollywood manner after it had ceased to be fashionable to do so. This is why we call her “the Last Movie Star”. Obviously, there will never cease to be movie stars, but Hedren was one of the very last to be groomed to be a classic studio era movie star, whose job was as much about being photographed in cool clothes as it was about delivering a believable performance. Though she had never acted, Alfred Hitchcock hired her as the lead in The Birds (1953) as a heroine in the tradition of Grace Kelly, Kim Novak, and Janet Leigh, his most recent “icy cool blondes”.
The Birds (1963)
For better or worse, so indelible was the impression Hedren made in her first movie that she came to be almost exclusively associated with it, much as Fay Wray is associated with King Kong. Hedren fending off attacking birds is even a popular Halloween costume among more industrious revelers. It is impossible to think of the movie without her; she makes an impression as great or greater than the special effects she is competing with, it is totally her movie (we scarcely even remember poor Rod Taylor, her co-star). It is her nightmare ordeal. Later, of course, we learned that she gave such a good performance because her fear was real — Hitchcock manipulated and tortured her greatly to get the effects that he wanted, and she endured a great deal of discomfort, both physical and psychological, in the making of the film. It was like a trial by fire, a test of some sort. When she passed this test, there was to be another.
When I first saw Marnie as a teenager I was intensely bored by it, and thought it was a real come-down from The Birds, representing Hitchcock’s decline. I have come to deeply appreciate it over the years, as one of his psychological studies in the tradition of Spellbound, To Catch a Thief, or Vertigo. It also reminds me of Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, with its uncomfortable, almost unbearably misogynist and stalkery energy, as revealing about Hitchcock’s own pathology as the character’s. As we later learned, Hitchcock tipped his hand for the first time with his star during this film, becoming so controlling and possessive that she broke a lucrative film contract, essentially spoiling her career just to get away from him.
Another aspect of the film that I have come to find interesting (as opposed to “bad” as I first felt) was that it is extremely old-fashioned in its technique. Everything about it is out-of-date for 1964, when things were opening up in cinema and becoming much more realistic. Hence, there can be an initial tendency to perceive Hedren as “bad” in the film. In time, I have to recognize the performance as “artificial” and “stylized” in the Hollywood manner. The film gets much better when you picture it in black and white, with Ingrid Bergman in the role doing just what Hedren is doing. (It’s ironic to specify BxW since Marnie features some of Hitchcock’s most effective and creative use of color, but you know what I mean. Picture it being made in the ’40s)
This movie made me realize how much was lost. Though her role turns out to be tiny, she is one of the best things about Charlie Chaplin’s last movie, one of the few spots where we perk up and are entertained. Chaplin and Hedren are simpatico. They click in a way that the stars Marlon Brando (a method actor) and Sophia Loren (from Italian neo-realism) do not, although Loren is at least doing her best. Hedren is perfectly cast as the sophisticated wife in a dead marriage. Much more work like this from her would have been appreciated, even if she’d gone immediately into soap opera. Unfortunately, the movie was a famous flop and didn’t do Hedren any favors. From this point on, surely casting people were writing her off as a creature of paleolithic, out-of-touch directors. Where could her style fit in the age of Bonnie and Clyde?
It’s often thought that she didn’t do anything after this, but it’s not the case. I am intrigued by the next film she did, which seems very much in the Hitchcock tradition:
Tiger by the Tail (1970)
Hedren co-stars with the ubiquitous Christopher George in this thriller about a Vietnam vet who drafts his socialite girlfriend to find the real killer of his brother. How gallant of him! The cast also features Dean Jagger, Glenda Farrell, Charo and Alan Hale, Jr! I’m dying to see this. It’s just the sort of thing one can often find on Youtube, but it’s not there at present. We shall keep an eye out.
The Harrad Experiment (1973)
Perhaps to counter her public reputation as an ice queen, in 1973 she did The Harrad Experiment, in which she established herself, onscreen and off, as a swinging seventies sex lady. The film, based on a bestselling novel, is about a free-love school where the students are encouraged to explore each others bodies without hang-ups! For real! Hedren is of course the headmistress, with James Whitmore as her skeevy old husband. Don Johnson is also in the film, and it is through this connection that he came to be the lover of Hedren’s daughter Melanie Griffith, then still a teenager. But this wasn’t the outer boundary of Hedren’s grooviness. For as we shall see, she also loved animals.
In the early 70s, Hedren did two films in Africa, Satan’s Harvest (1970) and Mister Kingstreet’s War (1973). Along the way, she fell in love with lions, in much the same way Marnie was in love with horses. She loved them, shall we say, a little too much. Environmentalism was in its first full bloom. Lion Love had burst into the scene with Born Free (1966). In 1974, Hedren and her second husband Noel Marshall hit on the idea of a movie that showed humans in close proximity to lots and lots of big cats. Marshall had been executive producer on The Exorcist, as well as Hedren’s films Mister Kingstreet’s War and The Harrad Experiment. He understood High Concept.
But Roar! was taking things too far. It has gradually become notorious in the annals of Hollywood film. The film starred Hedren and her actual children (including Melanie Griffith) and put them all in the nightmarish ordeal of being surrounded by dozens of actual lions, tigers, panthers, leopards, etc. The film suffered many setbacks and took years to make because several crew and cast members sustained horrible injuries from bites, and gashes from those sharp claws. The film wasn’t released for years in America, and it is definitely a rare film you wish you could unsee. There is very little plot — just a woman and several children accidentally trapped in a house with dozens of real, live deadly animals for two hours. Marshall had been an agent and an executive producer. This was his first film as director. There’s almost no character development. It’s just essentially a $17 million home movie of people running away from lions. What is deliciously ironic to me about this is that Hedren made such a big deal of her travails on The Birds.…then went and created a far more terrifying, torturous experience for herself using lions instead of birds. Liberation means causing my OWN misery, thank you very much! Meanwhile, there was much irrational insistence on her part that big cats were really gentle creatures. She and Marshall lived with the animals on their property for years, and Hedren went on to form a conservation foundation. Which is quite laudable, but Roar! really inspires no other emotion, in me, at least, except “Put down these dangerous beasts and take them far, far away from all humans”. It really was a hair away from unintentionally turning into the feline equivalent of Herzog’s Grizzly Man. Marshall and Hedren divorced in 1982. Gee, I wonder if anything was causing stress in their marriage?
Okay, one last mind-boggling but true fact in connection with this: Ted Cassidy, the giant who played Lurch on The Addams Family co-wrote the screenplays for The Harrad Experiment and Roar! If only he had acted in Roar!, equipped with a whip and a chair and a pith helmet, I would have enjoyed the film much more.
Since the mid 1980s, helped no doubt by the screen successes of her daughter Melanie Griffith, Hedren’s career went into high gear as a supporting player. She worked constantly in episodic television. She was often cast intelligently and cleverly to reference the first phase of her career, sometimes for camp purposes, sometimes to simply channel her association with the horror genre, sometimes merely because she was glamorous and telegraphs “rich WASP lady”. She was on Tales from the Darkside (1984), the reboot of Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1985), the Hitchcockian thriller Pacific Heights (1990), Murder She Wrote (1993), a sequel to The Birds (1994), Citizen Ruth (1996), I Woke Up Early the Day I Died (1998), I Heart Huckabees (2004) and dozens of other credits, down to the present day. Long live the last movie star!