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HBO's 'The Girl' chronicles real-life Hitchcock horror show

| Sunday, Oct. 14, 2012, 8:56 p.m.

When Alfred Hitchcock cast unknown actress Tippi Hedren as the star of his horror film “The Birds,” she couldn't believe her good fortune. As work on the film proceeded, however, she discovered a different kind of horror movie playing out off camera as her powerful director became sexually obsessed with her and began making wildly inappropriate demands.

“The Girl,” an HBO-BBC co-production premiering Saturday, Oct. 20, recounts how Hedren (Sienna Miller) did everything she could think of to cope with Hitchcock's (Toby Jones) erratic behavior, often in full view of the director's wife, Alma (Imelda Staunton). Initially there were no red flags, recalls the real-life Hedren, sitting in a Beverly Hills hotel suite during a recent press tour for TV critics.

“It started very slowly, by staring,” she says. “On the set, I'd be talking to people, and I'd look over, and he might have a bunch of people he was talking to as well, but he'd be staring at me.”

Hitchcock became more overt in his unwanted attentions when production approached the halfway point on “The Birds,” but Hedren's options were limited because many contemporary union rules protecting performers were not in place back then.

“This was in the early '60s. There was nothing like that,” she explains. “(Behavior like this) was common in the movie industry. I was 31. This wasn't my first rodeo, dealing with people. It wasn't every day, otherwise I don't think the relationship would have lasted as long as it did. It just finally built up to the point where I just said, ‘OK, that's it. I'm done.' ”

Among the most harrowing ordeals Hedren was forced to endure on “The Birds” was a five-day shoot filming an attic scene in which her character, Melanie Daniels, is savagely attacked by large, angry birds. The actress had been told that mechanical birds would be used for this scene, but when she reported for work, she found herself trapped in a closed-off space with live birds. In one of the most unsettling scenes in “The Girl,” Hedren is put through take after grueling take, the crew watching with mounting concern for her safety as the birds attack her over and over. Hitchcock, however, looks on impassively, his face chillingly inscrutable. Was the director punishing his leading lady for not being more personally accommodating?

At the time, Hedren says, that thought didn't really cross her mind, because she was focused on getting whatever shots her director needed for the film. And looking back today?

“Honestly, we are dealing with such a devious mind here, with Alfred Hitchcock, that there is no way I can answer that question realistically,” she replies, her lips tightening.

Jones, who spent long hours studying footage of the iconic director to capture his walk and famous speech patterns, says viewers are free to reach their own decisions about what is going on in Hitchcock's mind as he watches Hedren's distress.

“There's lots of things going on (in that scene), but in my opinion, it's mainly fascination with Tippi's resilience and wondering what the source of that resilience is and how far it will sustain her, and there's also guilt about that fascination,” the actor says. “That's also the drama of the character, but Hitchcock is gripped also by whether the actress is going to be broken.

“I think it has something to do with the fact that this was at that moment in his life when he was at his most powerful,” he adds. “He had just released ‘Psycho,' which was so hugely successful. I know many people will look at this film and go, ‘Oh, he's a monster,' but if I've done my job properly, they'll see that all of that is true, but he is also pathetic. There's just a pathetic smallness to his meanness, and a self-loathing going on as well.”

After “The Birds,” as Hitchcock and Hedren began work on “Marnie,” the director shifted strategies, pleading for Hedren's love in drunken phone calls during which he'd share his fantasy of leaving Alma so that he and Hedren could be together. Hedren says she never said or did anything to encourage those fantasies, and she was utterly baffled by Alma's tolerance of this behavior.

“The whole relationship between Alma and Hitch has been an enigma to everyone,” Hedren says. “What was it? It became very clear to me when she came to me one day and said, ‘Tippi, I am so sorry you have to go through this,' and I said, ‘But you could stop it.' She just glazed over and kind of walked away. It was ... interesting. And a sad situation, really.”

Finally, while working on “Marnie,” Hitchcock crossed an irrevocable line with Hedren.

“He made demands of me that I could not acquiesce to or even consider in my wildest imagination,” she says. “It was insulting, and I said right then, ‘I want to get out of the contract, and as soon as this film is over, I'm out.' ”

Hitchcock made good on his threat to destroy her career, refusing to allow her to work with any other directors and discouraging a push to get her an Oscar nod for “Marnie” (she had won a Golden Globe Award as most promising newcomer in “The Birds”).

Today, however, Hedren says she is able to look back on both her films with Hitchcock without rancor.

“I enjoy watching them both very much,” she says, smiling. “You know what he did? He ruined my career, but he didn't ruin my life. I would never let that happen. Nobody's going to do that to me.”

John Crook is a staff writer for Zap2it.

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