This Halloween will probably see many of us revisiting some classic horror films, and it’s more than likely that one of those films will be “The Birds” (1963), a horror film from Hollywood’s ultimate master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock. And, while “The Birds” is an effective horror (a small coastal town becomes under attack from birds for no apparent reason), what is perhaps more horrific is the story behind the scenes regarding Hitchcock’s abusive treatment towards the star of the film, Tippi Hedren.
There’s no denying the fact that Hitchcock is an important figure in shaping the cinematic landscape, his films manage to combine film as an art form and as entertainment. He helped to shape the careers of many Hollywood icons such as Cary Grant and Grace Kelly, but Old Hitch had a very dark side and one that Hedren witnessed first hand.
Tippi Hedren was born on 19th January 1930, her actual name is Nathalie Kay Hedren but was given the nickname ‘Tippi’ by her father. She never intended to become an actress, and instead focused on becoming a model. In fact, she had a highly successful modelling career during the 1950s and early 1960s, appearing on several covers of well-known publications such as Life, The Saturday Evening Post, McCall’s and Glamour. Tippi ventured into TV commercials, and it was via a commercial for a diet drink called Sego, that she drew the attention of a certain British director.
From their initial meetings, Hitch acted like a gentleman towards her. He saw potential in Tippi as an actress even if she didn’t. However, even in the early days of their ‘relationship’, it was obvious that Hitch only regarded Tippi as a ‘star product’ and not as an individual with very human emotions and feelings. He would later comment on how he “was not primarily concerned with how she looked in person. Most important was her appearance on the screen, and I liked that immediately. She has a touch of that high-style, a lady-like quality which was once well-represented in films by actresses like Irene Dunne, Grace Kelly, Claudette Colbert, and others but which is now quite rare.”
“Hitch’s behaviour towards her became more intense. He began to inform other crew and cast members to limit their socialising with her, and became very obsessed with anyone else touching her.”
Things began to get serious quite quickly. Tippi found herself being put through extensive colour screen tests that lasted two days and cost $25,000, where she performed doing scenes from Hitchcock’s previous films, such as “Rebecca”, “Notorious” and “To Catch a Thief” with actor Martin Balsam. Hitchcock went so far to ask costume designer Edith Head to design clothes for Hedren’s private life and he personally advised her about what wine to drink and what food to eat.
Her dedication paid off, and one day during a lunch with the director and his long-suffering wife Alma, Tippi was informed that she would be the leading actress of Hitch’s next project, an adaptation of Daphne du Maurier‘s short story, “The Birds”. Tippi was stunned by the news, and would later go on to express her shock, stating that “It never occurred to me that I would be given a leading role in a major motion picture. I had great big tears in my eyes.”
For the first few months of production, things seemed to go okay on set for Tippi. The work expected from her was intense, and she was only granted one afternoon off a week, but Tippi took to it in her stride. As the shoot continued, Hitch’s behaviour towards her became more intense. He began to inform other crew and cast members to limit their socialising with her, and became very obsessed with anyone else touching her. In an interview, Tippi recalled how Hitch would follow her around the set, and claims that he once threw himself on top of her and tried to kiss her while they were travelling in his limousine.
“Tippi demanded to be released from her contract, but Hitch refused to let her go. From then on, he would only speak to her through intermediaries. He never uttered her name, referring to her only as “the girl”.”
Her experience on set would only get worse when she had to film the infamous attic scene, where her character Melanie is attacked by frenzied birds towards the end of the film. Tippi was originally told that the birds would be mechanical, however, she quickly discovered that live birds were being used in the scene. She had to endure five solid days of having dozens of live gulls, ravens, and crows at her (their beaks clamped shut with elastic bands) flung at her by prop men (the men wore thick leather gloves to avoid being pecked by the birds).
The final straw came when one of the birds gouged her cheek (narrowly missing her eye), in a fit of exhaustion, Tippi collapsed in tears. Her physician ordered a week’s rest which Hitchcock protested. The doctor’s reply was short and to the point, “Are you trying to kill her?”
Tippi wasn’t exactly in a position to refuse to star in Hitch’s next project, the psychological thriller “Marnie” (1964), as she was tied into a contract with Hitch. After enduring the harsh treatment on the set of “The Birds” Tippi demanded to be released from her contract, but Hitch refused to let her go. From then on, he would only speak to her through intermediaries. He never uttered her name, referring to her only as “the girl”.
Hitch’s behaviour towards Tippi got even more controlling. According to Tippi, Hitch wasn’t even hiding the fact that he was obsessed with her, and has stated that “Everyone—I mean everyone—knew he was obsessed with me. He always wanted a glass of wine or champagne, with me alone, at the end of the day. He was really isolating me from everyone.”
What is perhaps most disturbing about “Marnie” is that the film includes a scene in which Hedren’s character is raped by her new husband. Hedren believes that the scene of a man forcing himself on his unattainable, beautiful bride was Hitchcock’s personal fantasy about her. He would even confess having a recurring dream where she came up to him and said, “Hitch, I love you—I’ll always love you”. Tippi quickly informed him that this dream would never become a reality.
“With the #MeToo and #TimesUp movement allowing women to speak up about their mistreatment and sexual abuse by the hands of male predators, Hedren’s story was revisited and given finally given the attention that it deserves.”
When Hedren then told him that “Marnie” would be their last film together, Hitchcock responded he would destroy her career: ‘”You can’t. You have your daughter [the actress Melanie Griffith] to support, and your parents are getting older…’ I’ll ruin your career'” Tippi responded to him with the statement ‘Do what you have to do’. Hitch was true to his word, he did ruin her career and kept her under contract, but paid her to do completely nothing. Hedren felt so humiliated she called the director a “fat pig” in front of people on the set. This was something that hurt Hitch deeply, and he would later go on to tell his biographer, John Russell Taylor: “She did what no one is permitted to do. She referred to my weight”.
With the #MeToo and #TimesUp movement allowing women to speak up about their mistreatment and sexual abuse by the hands of male predators, Hedren’s story was revisited and given finally given the attention that it deserves. Sadly, Hedren never quite got the justice that she deserved, and like so many women in Hollywood, her career was ruined by rejecting the sexual advances of a domineering male figure in a position of power.
Tippi’s career may have been ruined by Hitchcock, but her life wasn’t. She started her own non-profit organization, the Roar Foundation, in 1983 to support The Shambala Preserve, an 80-acre wildlife habitat that enables her to continue her work in the care and preservation of lions and tigers.
Many years later when asked about the situation with Alfred Hitchcock, Tippi replied back with the following, “He ruined my career, but he didn’t ruin my life. That time of my life was over. I still admire the man for who he was. I’ve been able to separate the two. The man who was the artist. I mean, what he gave to the motion picture industry can never be taken away from him and I certainly wouldn’t want to try. But on the other side, there is that dark side that was really awful.”