Alfred Hitchcock made her a star in The Birds and then, Tippi Hedren tells our correspondent, he tried to destroy her
Appropriately, Tippi Hedren’s relationship with Alfred Hitchcock began with a mystery. It was 1961. She was a model and had moved to California with her daughter (the actress Melanie Griffith) from New York. She starred in a TV advert for Sego, a diet drink. One day – it was Friday, October 13 and she laughs wryly at the date; it was kind of unlucky in the end – a man from Universal Studios asked to see her photographs.
“He asked me to come back on the Monday,” Hedren, 78, recalls on the phone from Shambala Preserve, the wildlife reserve she founded in Acton, California in 1983. “I went back and I met executive after executive, none of whom would tell me what was going on. Finally my own agent told me: ‘Alfred Hitchcock wants you to sign a contract and go to see him.’ I burst into tears and ran up and down the hall. I was being handed an incredible situation on a silver platter. My life completely changed.” She was about to be transformed into the archetypal Hitchcock blonde, fetishised and deified.
Hedren had grown up in Minnesota and had wanted originally to be a skater. When younger, she was “so painfully shy” that she would walk to and from school, head down, biting her nails, “until one day when I thought, then and there, ‘I’m going to stop biting them’, and I did”.
She modelled for a local department store, her catwalk career bloomed, she travelled the world. She was bringing up Melanie by herself in the early Sixties when she met Hitchcock. The encounter was in the director’s elegant office at Paramount. “He had seen the Sego advert and I remember he looked very pleased with himself. We talked about food, travel, wine, anything but film. I thought I’d be appearing in his weekly TV shows. But it became obvious he was working on the script for The Birds.”
A gruelling, detailed, very serious screen test, presided over by Alma, Hitchcock’s wife, lasted three days. “It was fun,” says Hedren: she had no idea what obsession was taking root in Hitch’s head.
“After the test, I went for dinner at Chasen’s with Alma, Hitch and [the agent and studio executive] Lew Wasserman. Hitch gave me a beautifully packaged box. It was a gold and seed-pearl pin of three birds with their wings spread. ‘I want you to play the part of Melanie Daniels in The Birds,’ Hitch said. I was teary-eyed, Alma was in tears, Lou shed one tear. It was very dramatic. I had never done a film before. To take on a role as serious as this . . . I was going to be a star in a major motion picture with one of the most revered directors in the world.”
Hitch was both her director and her drama coach, she says. “He was thrilled that I hadn’t had any acting training; I didn’t have to unlearn anything. He planned everything so meticulously that a film felt finished before you had started shooting it. He knew how every scene should look, the point of every scene.”
At the start, filming The Birds was “wonderful”. Hedren says she “became quite fond of the birds. One was so nice Hitch couldn’t put him in the movie because he wasn’t aggressive. He’d come hopping up the steps of my dressing room, play with my make-up and sit on my shoulder.”
But near the end of filming, Hedren shot the final attack scene where Melanie is brutally attacked by the birds. “An assistant producer came in and couldn’t look at me. He told me they were going to use real birds, not mechanical ones. Those birds pecked – I’d seen what had happened to the trainers. They tied the birds to me with elastic bands. They hurled birds at me. One of the birds tied on my shoulder only just missed scraping its claw into my eye. I shouted, ‘Get these birds off me’ and I sat in the middle of the sound-stage and cried. At the end I was so exhausted I was out cold. I don’t remember anyone driving me home. I realised that Hitch had chosen an unknown actress because no famous actress in their right mind would have done this movie.”
Hitch had already told her, with some relish, about tying up Madeleine Carroll (the original Hitchcock blonde, star of The 39 Steps and Secret Agent) to a post and leaving her there all afternoon.
Afterwards Hitchcock didn’t mention the incident with the birds. “Not a word,” says Hedren. “Which is weird. He was extremely complicated. I think he was a misogynist – absolutely, no doubt about it. But I wasn’t a wimpy girl. New York had made me tough. I wasn’t frightened.
“Of course, he was brilliant, I had training from the best. He was a great story-teller, he would recite dirty limericks, he had books and books of them, and he held court. He wouldn’t go to an event unless he was the centre of attention.”
His attention was also firmly, too firmly, focused on Hedren. “It was the start of an obsession,” she says. “Women aren’t stupid. It was a very uncomfortable thing. I wasn’t interested in him like that. He’d want a glass of champagne after shooting. He watched me all the time. He wanted to have private lunches. He really wanted to control my life which is very difficult if you’re a grown woman with a daughter. It was very wearing and frightening.”
During the filming of Marnie the following year, Hedren told him she wanted their contract to end. “Well, you can’t,” she says Hitchcock told her. “You have a daughter to bring up. Your parents are getting older.” But no one in her family, Hedren says, would have wanted her to be as unhappy as she was. The last straw came in the “many demands” he made on her during the filming of Marnie. She won’t say what they were, “but I told him I wasn’t going to do any of the things he was asking. I told him I wanted out.”
“I’ll ruin your career,” Hitchcock said. “And he did,” Hedren says now. “He kept me under contract – $600 dollars a week. I didn’t make any movies. I was, as you’d say back then, ‘hot’ and later found out how many directors and producers wanted me. It was very frustrating.”
She laughs, and says she is watching three tigers running through the water at Shambala. I hear a meowing: she has six kittens named Marlon Brando, Antonio Banderas (the husband of Griffiths,her daughter), Melanie Griffiths, Rod Taylor, Sean Connery and John Saxon. “And I sleep with them every night.”
When she was finally released from her contract, Charlie Chaplin cast her in A Countess from Hong Kong (1967) with Marlon Brando. “Hitch almost had a heart attack when he found out,” she says. “In England, while I was filming it, Hitch asked me to have dinner with him and I said, ‘Oh Hitch, wouldn’t it be fabulous if you and Charlie were photographed together? Both of you are from England, from humble beginnings and look at what you’ve become.’ Hitch said, ‘Why would I ever want to do that?’”
Hitchcock died in 1980. Has she made her peace with him? “One of the teachings of Kabbalah [which she practises] is that if someone hurts you deeply, do not carry around all that hurt or it will eat you alive. I don’t hold grudges,” she says.
She and Kim Novak have spoken about being a Hitchcock blonde. “It’s a moniker that surprises me, but it’s lovely. Kim knew what I had gone through, though she had an OK time with him . . . She married a veterinarian and I was engaged to one. I’ve been married three times and that’s enough. Marriages are always complicated. Now I’m happily single. I’m waiting for someone to sweep me off my feet.”
Hitch was true to his word: her career never lived up to the promise of the films he made with her. Since then she has poured her money and love into the Shambala reserve. There are even flocks of ravens that swoop on the 600lb of meat put out for the animals daily. “Hitch succeeded in ruining my career but he didn’t ruin me,” Hedren says defiantly. But to have that fame and lose it? “Yes. That’s why I have to be very Kabbalah about it,” Hedren says sharply. “I didn’t tell anyone about what had happened for 20 years because I was embarrassed. If it happened today I would be rich.” Because she would have sued him for sexual harassment? “Absolutely.” She felt “relief” when Hitchcock died. “It was so terribly hurtful.”
A remake of The Birds, starring Naomi Watts in Hedren’s role, is slated for release next year. “Isn’t that silly?” Hedren laughs, “to take a major motion picture by one of the world’s greatest directors and do it over? They called me and I told them it was ridiculous. Can’t they get any fresh ideas of their own? It will be all special effects. I don’t want anything to do with it.”
But she has to work, she says, and she still acts. Her dream role would be in the mould of Katharine Hepburn at her waspish best. “I don’t mind getting older,” Hedren says, “but not being old. I don’t feel old. I don’t eat too much. I exercise. I take care of my skin but haven’t had surgery. Sure, I’ve thought about it but no.”
Frozen as an icon, just at the fag end of the Golden Age of Hollywood, surely Kabbalah can’t neutralise all Hedren’s frustration at that stalled career? “My concern was my peace of mind,” she insists. “I made peace with myself. You hear of actors and actresses becoming despondent if their career ends. I never was.”
Shambala is her achievement and legacy, she says. In 2003 she successfuly lobbied for a Bill “stopping the interstate trafficking of exotic felines for personal possession”. Now she is campaigning for a federal ban on the breeding of those species for the same.
“Back in 2003 someone threatened to put explosives under my car and release diseases into Shambala. So this time I am going to ask Donatella [Versace, ‘she’s a friend of Melanie’s’] to make me a bullet-proof vest. All my ancestors lived to their late nineties. I’m planning on being around for a long time.” It’s that survivor instinct Hitch probably saw in her when casting the much pecked-upon Melanie Daniels; the same instinct he tried – unsuccessfully – to extinguish.
THIS PIECE ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON THE TIMES OF LONDON