The Master of Suspense...
Alfred Hitchcock is a widely successful film director best known for films such as Psycho, Rear Window, Vertigo, and The Birds, all of which shocked audiences and secured the adoration and worship of many prominent filmmakers to this day. With his odd personality, his dry and distinguished voice, his film quirks, such as making a cameo in every one of his films, and 53 directorial credits to his name, Alfred Hitchcock is the pinnacle of cinematic legends.
Alfred Hitchcock, 1976
While his knack for keeping people on the edge of their seats is unmatched, in the last decade he has come under contention with films like The Girl and Hitchcock. Released in 2012, these films share the truths of women like Tippi Hedren, Vera Miles, and Janet Leigh, bringing into question Hitchcock’s treatment of women on sets as well as the lengths he would go to capture truly terrifying footage. This controversy begs the question:
Is it okay for a film director to inflict trauma upon his/her actors in order to evoke performances that lead to revolutionary cinematic feats?
Or, is there no situation where this proposition is acceptable, regardless of the success and impact it may garner on the art of cinema?
To begin, for most of his films, Alfred Hitchcock would begin his casting process in search of his “leading lady." Casting women like Grace Kelly, Tippi Hedren, Kim Novak, Julie Andrews, and Janet Leigh, there was no shortage of beautiful women on his sets. Of these ladies, leading the slander against Hitchcock is Tippi Hedren, the star of The Birds and Marnie.
In The Girl, the story insinuates that Hitchcock became obsessed with Hedren. She recounts feeling uncomfortable by his gaze, creating a completely one-sided (unwanted by Hedren) sexual tension between actor and director. In one instance, she says that Hitchcock attempted to kiss her. Following her refusal to accept Hitchcock’s advance, she returned to work the next day to film a bird attack scene in The Birds. While cameras were rolling, she was horrified to find out that Hitchcock was using real birds, in what she describes as his act of revenge for her refusing his kiss. In several scenes Hedren was attacked by real birds, to the extent that she left the set bleeding, traumatized, and in tears.
Hitchcock and Tippi Hedren, Award Ceremony
A similar story is recounted in Hitchcock. While shooting the infamous shower scene, Janet Leigh’s performance was not meeting Hitchcock’s expectations of true terror. Out of frustration, Htichcock grabbed the prop knife and began aggressively fake-stabbing Leigh, barely missing her body. The anger and violent mimicry terrified Leigh, providing Psycho with an unforgettably horrifying performance, but also leaving Leigh with a lasting fear of showers.
Hitchcock and Janet Leigh, On set of Psycho
On the flip side, although her co-star Vera Miles found Hitchcock’s behavior abhorrent, Janet Leigh was not put off by Hitchcock’s odd gaze and seeming obsession with his actresses. And, Leigh is not the only one. Although most of his female actors report Hitchcock as being somewhat odd in his behavior and potentially sexually motivated in some of his film direction, these women take the stance that he was a strange, chubby, little man who posed no real threat to them.
Grace Kelly and Kim Novak, for example, were two of his most stunning stars, and both were eager to work with Hitchcock again and report great admiration for the director and his work. Additionally, actors like Barbara Harris and Bruce Dern report that on the set of Family Plot, a story of comedy and suspense as well as Hitchcock’s last film, Hitchcock was lighthearted and a pleasure to work with. With these contradictory accounts, there is a theory behind why Hitchcock behaved the way he did on varying sets, and a reason for the discrepancies between different actors and actresses he worked with.
Hitchcock and Grace Kelly
The theory is, Hitchcock was essentially a method-director. The same way an actor would morph themselves into a character off screen in order to maintain authenticity in their performances on screen, Hitchcock may have been acting as a catalyst for the kind of performance and overall feelings he wanted to portray on screen.
Thus, in films like Marnie that are stories heavily rooted in themes of sexual tension, Hitchcock made his actress uncomfortable in ways that brought that sexual tension to the screen. Or when his actresses couldn’t produce the same terror of a woman actually being stabbed in a motel shower, or being attacked by birds, he found ways to evoke true, deep fear, bringing that out and subsequently capturing it with his camera.
In contrast, when Hitchcock dipped his toes in the comedy genre, his set was reported to be lighthearted and happy, making the performances of his actors mirror that aura.
All that being said, I am not here to discount anyone’s story. Despite the fact that Hitchcock may have treated Janet Leigh the same as Tippi Hedren, and Hedren feels taken advantage of while Leigh speaks kindly of the director, they are both fully entitled to however their experiences made them feel. With that, despite Hitchcock being one of my favorite directors of all time, I personally don’t think that it was his right to torment his actors in order to get a brilliant performance. I don’t think it is any film director’s right. And I am not the only one.
Actresses who worked with Hitchcock.
In a Hollywood Reporter Roundtable including Angelina Jolie, Joe Wright, Denis Villeneuve, Patty Jenkins, Greta Gerwig, and Guillermo Del Toro, this generalized scenario came into question. The directors were asked,"What is a director’s responsibility ethically?" and “Sometimes people have to do unpleasant things to get a performance. Is that acceptable?” to which Patty Jenkins responded:
“It depends what kind because there are very clear lines. To push an actor to do work they’re capable of, yes. To inflict trauma, absolutely not. Absolutely not.”
The resounding opinion among all of the directors was the same. Their rationale came down to one simple conclusion: the ethical responsibility of a film director is to be a good human being. Recounting their experiences on sets, each director noted that when you treat your actors like humans, rather than puppets to play around with, the work becomes much more enjoyable and the performances are that much more rich.
In this day and age, with allegations of abuse and harassment casting a shadow over Hollywood, the proposition of ethical standards is finally being brought into the conversation. In an industry rooted in powerful performances and money, in a country even more deeply rooted in financial success, at what point do we draw the line in how we treat people in order to find that success? Do you push an actor too far, knowing that it could evoke an Oscar-worthy performance? Or do you respect an actor’s boundaries and risk not achieving your cinematic vision?
For some people, it may be a simple and indisputable response. For others it may be harder to discern. So, let’s discuss ethics.
What do you think is a filmmaker’s ethical responsibility?
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