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The dark side of the genius: Hitchcock was disturbingly obsessed with Tippi Hedren

When the 31- year- old Tippi Hedren, having only a small modeling career, received a call from an agent who told her that Alfred Hitchcock was interested in hiring her after seeing her in a diet drink commercial, she promptly signed a seven-year contract.

On their first meeting, the young actress and the eccentric director immediately bonded and talked about almost everything except her role. Hitchcock later recounted:

“I was not primarily concerned about how she looked in person. More important was her appearance on the screen, and I liked that immediately. She had a touch of that high-style, the lady-like quality which was once well-represented in films by actresses like Irene Dunne, Grace Kelly or Claudette Colbert, which is quite rare nowadays”.

Tippi Hedren at Universal Studios
Tippi Hedren at Universal Studios

For weeks Hedren was convinced she was to play in the director’s TV series  Alfred Hitchcock Presents. However, Hitch was quite mysterious about that, and without any explanation put Hedren through an extensive and super-expensive color screen test which lasted two days and cost $25,000. Hedren did scenes from the director’s previous films such as Notorious, Rebecca, and To Catch a Thief, along with the actor Martin Balsam.

Studio publicity photo of Alfred Hitchcock.
Studio publicity photo of Alfred Hitchcock.

The friendship between Hedren and Hitch progressed quickly, so Hitch assigned the costume designer Edith Head to design the clothes for his apprentice’s private life, and often, he advised her on fancy food and wine. The director also insisted that for publicity purposes Hedren’s name should be printed only in single quotes as ‘Tippi.’

Tippi was a brilliant apprentice and Hitch was quite impressed with her. According to the production designer, Robert F. Boyle,“Hitch always liked women who behaved like well-bred ladies. Tippi generated that quality“.

Still from "The Harrad Experiment" released in a press kit promoting the movie by Cinerama Releasing Corporation
Still from “The Harrad Experiment” released in a press kit promoting the movie by Cinerama Releasing Corporation

Wearing her new flair, designer clothes and drinking fancy wine Tippi was clueless about the plans the director had for her until she received an invitation for lunch at Hitch’s favorite restaurant, Chasen’s, accompanied by his wife and the head of Universal Lew Wasserman.  There, the director presented Tippi with a peculiar gift: a golden pin of three flying birds adorned by three tiny seed pearls, asking her to play the title role in his upcoming film The Birds (slow clap for the classiness of this act).

“I was so stunned. It had never occurred to me that I would be given a leading role in a major motion picture. I had big tears in my eyes.”- Hedren later recalled.

Besides being her “social life coach”, Hitchcock became Tippi’s drama coach for her screen debut The Birds. Having the most prominent director at the time as drama coach had its perks, as she was included in the numerous production meetings such as script, photography conferences, and music meetings.

“In three years I have learned what it would normally have taken me 15 years to learn.”- Tippi recalled.

Tippi was a fast learner and didn’t take long for her to perform as a high skilled actor.

Tippi Hedren in Hitchcock's "The Birds" teaser.
Tippi Hedren in Hitchcock’s “The Birds” teaser.

During the first year of principal photography, despite the exhausting schedule and only one afternoon off a week, Tipi found the shooting “wonderful.” Hitchcock had as well been impressed with his protege and told a reporter that she is remarkable and “already reaching the lows and highs of terror“.

Unfortunately, all went down the hill and their friendship took an unpleasant turn, during the filming of the final bird attack scene in the second-floor bedroom, which Hedren recalls as” the worst week of her life”.

Before filming the scene Tippi asked the director about the character’s motivations to go upstairs, but instead of elaborating or giving her a piece of advice like he used to, Hitchcock response was “Because I said so”.

Hitchcock at work
Hitchcock at work

In spite being assured that the crew is using mechanical birds, Hedren endured five days of filming in a room filled with dozens alive ravens, gulls and crows, held by prop men who was protected by thick leather gloves. (not cool, Hitch, not cool).

Although the birds’ beaks were shut with elastic bands, one of them gouged Tippi’s cheek and almost missed her eye. Exhausted and terrorized, Hedren was close to a nervous breakdown, thus she sat down and began to cry.

After this incident, Hedren was ordered a week rest by a physician who asked Hitchcock if he was trying to kill her.

Shortly after this ordeal, while promoting The Birds, Hitchcock was full of praise for his protégé, comparing her to Grace Kelly:

Theatrical poster for the film The Birds (1963)
Theatre poster for the film The Birds (1963)

” Tippi has a faster tempo, city glibness, more humor [than Grace Kelly]. She displayed jaunty assuredness, pertness, an attractive throw of the head. And she memorized and read lines extraordinarily well, being much sharper in expression”.

Hedren’s performance was praised in Varietys review: “Aside from the birds, the film belongs to Hedren, who makes an auspicious screen bow. She virtually has to carry the picture alone for the first forty-five-minute stretch, prior to the advent of the first wave of organized attackers from the sky. Miss Hedren has a star quality and Hitchcock has provided her a potent vehicle to launch her career”.

During the filming of The Birds and before their relationship had shaken up, Hitchcock offered Tippi the leading role of his next film, a romantic drama and psychological thriller Marnie (1964).  At first, she felt fortunate to play Marnie Edgar, but soon after she had realized that she was an object of a weird obsession, she was adamant that Marnie would be her last collaboration with Hitch.

Hedren with Alfred Hitchcock in a teaser for The Birds.
Hedren with Alfred Hitchcock in a teaser for The Birds.

A decade after the end of their collaboration, Hedren admitted the reason:”He was too possessive and too demanding. I cannot be possessed by anyone. But, then, that’s my own hang-up”.

The truth behind their ill-fated relationship was unveiled in 1983’s book The Dark Side of the Genious by the author Donald Spoto.

According to the book, during the filming of The Birds, Hitchcock assigned two crew members to literally stalk Hedren and keep track on her activities, or more precisely “when she left the set, where she went, who she visited, how she spent her free time”.

Rod Taylor, Hedren’s co-star in The Birds, witnessed that the director was becoming concerningly obsessed with the actress:

“Hitch was becoming very domineering and covetous of ‘Tippi,’ and that was very difficult for her. No one was permitted to come physically near her during the production. ‘Don’t touch the girl after I call “Cut!”‘ he was saying to me repeatedly”.

Birds invade the Brenner house
Birds invade the Brenner house

After a period of terror, exhaustion, humiliation and constant fights on set, Hedren told Hitchcock that Marnie would be their last film together and requested to break her 7-year contract. Hedren later recalled:

I said I wanted to get out of my contract. He said: ‘You can’t. You have your daughter to support and your parents are getting older’. I said: ‘Nobody would want me to be in this situation, I want to get out’.  And he said: ‘I’ll ruin your career’. I said: ‘Do what you have to do’. And he did ruin my career. He kept me under contract, paid me to do nothing for two years”.

Hedren felt so disgraced that she called the director “a fat pig” in front the crew on the set.

She did what no one is permitted to do. She referred to my weight”. Hitchcock commented to his biographer, John Russell Taylor.

Hedren in a trailer for The Birds
Hedren in a trailer for The Birds

For the rest of the movie, Hedren and Hitchcock communicated only through a third party.

The challenging relationship between Hedren and the director of suspense was also exposed in the 2012’s movie adaptation of Soto’s book The Girl, starring Sienna Miller as Tippi Hedren and Toby Jones as Alfred Hitchcock.