Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Working for Hitchcock really was for The Birds

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The title of the movie is The Girl, but the focus of the story is really the guy.

And in The Girl, the guy is a creepy, nasty, noxious, pathetic and despicable little man.

The fellow portrayed in the film is legendary movie director Alfred Hitchcock, whose moviemaking genius spawned such suspense classics as Psycho, Rear Window, Vertigo, Torn Curtain and The Birds. It's during pre-production of the last on this list that The Girl begins, with Hitchcock seeking a young female performer to star in his avian-attack horror story.

Hitchcock -- performed brilliantly here by English actor Toby Jones -- believed that the birds were actually the stars of The Birds, so it didn't really matter who played the female lead. At the suggestion of his wife, Alma (Imelda Staunton), who spotted an attractive blond in a TV commercial, Hitchcock offered a screen test to model turned actress Tippi Hedren (Sienna Miller).

Despite her complete lack of movie experience, Hitchcock gave her the role of Melanie Daniels, a stranger who arrives in the sleepy seaside town that's about to fall victim to a furious feathered invasion. At first, the director acted as a friendly and supportive mentor to his young star, teaching her about the craft of acting and schooling her on some of life's finer things. But as filming on The Birds got underway, Hitchcock began to develop a sexual attraction that soon became an obsession.

Hedren, a single mother in her early 30s, did not welcome her boss's increasingly aggressive advances, and the relationship turned ugly. How Hitchcock chose to respond to being rejected is best demonstrated by The Girl's recreation of filming of The Birds' most notorious scene, in which Hedren's character is attacked by birds in the attic of a house.

As shown here, Hedren was told that shooting the scene would take one day and would involve stuffed birds that "flew" at her on wires rigged inside the soundstage. When she arrived at the studio, however, Hitchcock informed her that the scene had been altered to include real birds, which were thrown at her by stagehands as she fought to protect herself inside a screened-in set.

Shooting lasted five days, and Hedren suffered numerous injuries that actually forced Hitchcock to shoot for a week without his star.

It's a terrifying and very revealing sequence, but it isn't anywhere near the beginning of the end of the Hitchcock/Hedren relationship. In fact, the director offered the actress the starring role in his next film, Marnie, after Grace Kelly opted not to take the part.

Hitchcock's obsession deepened, and his mistreatment of Hedren became even more dark and twisted. In the end, when it finally became clear even to him that she would never return his "love," Hitchcock basically halted Hedren's acting career by keeping her locked into a contract that forbade her to work for anyone else.

When HBO showcased The Girl for TV critics last summer during the U.S. networks' semi-annual press tour in Los Angeles, Hedren, now 82, agreed to sit on an interview panel with Jones and Miller. When asked to reflect on her Hitchcock-movie ordeal, she offered this rather emphatic observation:

"I can look at myself in the mirror, and I can be proud. I feel strong. And I lived through it beautifully. He ruined my career, but he didn't ruin my life." Twitter: @BradOswald


The Girl

Starring Toby Jones and Sienna Miller

Tonight at 10

HBO Canada

4 stars out of 5

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 20, 2012 G6

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