It’s the old story. Boy meets girl, boy casts girl, boy sexually harasses girl, boy is hailed as a master of his craft and is lionized from coast to coast.
On October 20, HBO will premiere a film called The Girl, which reportedly chronicles the relationship between director Alfred Hitchcock and actress Tippi Hedren during filming of Hitchcock’s The Birds in 1963. Hitchcock has long been known for his tough, even callous treatment of his actors—particularly his legendary “blondes”—but The Girl and Hedren herself charge him with behavior far worse than previously understood (at least by me).
A scene in the film reportedly has Hitchcock (played by Toby Jones) coming on to Hedren (Sienna Miller), demanding she “make yourself available to me sexually.” When she resists, Hitchcock retaliates by essentially torturing her with the many live and prop birds used in filming The Birds, at one point having one hurled at her through broken glass of a telephone booth without warning.
“We are dealing with a brain here that was an unusual genius, and evil, and deviant, almost to the point of dangerous,” says Hedren, adding, “If this had happened today I would be a very rich woman.”
For us onlookers, sitting in judgment, it’s a tough but regularly-occurring conundrum: When an artist has done despicable things, are we still allowed to admire him for his art? Is it possible to separate the two and, if so, how?
The dilemma of appraising the flawed artist springs up in many different contexts, and it is essential to treat each case on its own, specific terms. Details matter.
A major consideration, to be sure, concerns the nature and severity of the indiscretions themselves. For instance, we can watch Mean Girls without caring one whit about Lindsay Lohan’s troubles with alcohol, or listen to Bruno Mars despite his brief history with cocaine. We understand the usual corrupting influences of show business and recognize we’re all human. Not to mention that the substance of their art is not thematically connected to the substances in their digestive tracts.
Far more problematic, say, is the case of Roman Polanski, the renowned film director who in 1977 was charged with drugging and sexually assaulting a 13-year-old girl. Following a plea bargain in which he would deny charges of rape but affirm “unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor,” Polanski fled the United States for legal immunity in France, where he remains to this day.
Polanski’s crime was hideous—unforgivable to most. All the same, it was no more directly related to his work than pop stars’ drinking and drug habits are related to theirs. So it is still possible to view and appreciate (and award Oscars to) films such as The Pianist and Chinatown without becoming completely overwhelmed by the atrocities of their creator.
With Hitchcock, the circumstances are more complicated still and, for an admirer of his such as myself, more painful to consider. You see, it is part of the legend—in now-classic films such as Vertigo, Psycho and indeed The Birds—that the Hitch wrenched great performances from his leading ladies essentially by treating them like dirt on set. Accused of having quipped, “All actors are cattle,” he dryly clarified, “What I said was all actors should be treated like cattle.”
In light of Hedren’s recollections, the legend is somehow not as charming as it once was. Can we really now watch The Birds in forced ignorance of the real-life torment to which Hedren was subjected by her boss as soon as the scene cut?
What is especially disturbing, now that details of the ordeal have been planted directly in front of our noses, is how, in a way, we knew about this the whole time and chose to overlook it—to convince ourselves Hitchcock’s behavior could not have been as inappropriate as it evidently was. As Hedren suggests, the ways in which men publicly humiliated women in the Mad Men days of the early 1960s, like other mass sins we might cite, was simply accepted as normal in its time, but was no less painful for those upon whom it was inflicted.
But here is a tougher question: Setting aside the charges of outright physical abuse, how far do we permit our artists to go in the interests of creating great art? What do we make of the prospect that Hedren’s performance in The Birds or Kim Novak’s in Vertigo (a film recently voted the greatest of all time) are so affecting as a direct consequence of the ways Hitchcock mistreated them during filming? Are we altruistic enough to say we’d rather not have the films at all, for the sake of their stars’ well-being? To what extent do the ends justify the means?
It is a shame, in a way, that Hitchcock died in 1980 and cannot be made to answer for these alleged acts. All the same, it seems as fitting as ever that, when asked what he might want inscribed on his headstone when the time came, he volunteered, “This is what we do with naughty boys.”