Spellbound by Beauty

   spellbound-by                                                                                                               Donald Spoto’s new biography of Alfred Hitchcock, “Spellbound by Beauty” is his third and final book on the subject of the director. Spoto’s first book “The Art of Alfred Hitchcock” published in 1976 focused on Hitchcock’s films. In 1983, after his death Spoto came out with a more in-depth biography, “The Dark Side of Genius” that focused on not only his work but his odd personal life as well. This time around, Spoto zooms in on Hitchcock and his strange working relationships and obsessions with the actresses in his films.

    The dark side of Alfred Hitchcock gets a lot darker here, as Spoto reveals a man who is consumed with self-dislikes that translated into strange, sexually repressed love-hate relationships with his leading ladies. Spoto shows us a man with a proclivity for telling dirty and embarrassing stories to his leading ladies, sometimes even attempting to force himself, sexually, though unsuccessfully on them.  He also, depending on his attraction or lack of attraction to them, could be bored and totally ignore them especially if they were pushed upon him by a producer, such as Anne Baxter was in “I Confess” by Jack Warner.

.  Toward the end of his career, he seems to have become even more unhinged and obsessed. While many of the stories are unsettling, the most painful is Hitchcock’s obsession, and there is no other word for it, with Tippi Hedren who he signed to a seven-year contract and literarily tortured during the filming of “The Birds.” Hedren spent a week being pecked on by hundreds of real birds until she just could not take it anymore. Additionally, she was subject to constant sexual harassment from Sir Alfred. One of Hitchcock’s close associates Peggy Robertson told Hedren after his death that he never got over his crush on her.         

    To his credit, Spoto spends a good portion of the book not only on Hitchcock but also on telling us the leading ladies stories as well. He includes the most famous of Hitchcock heroines such as Grace Kelly, and Ingrid Bergman as well as the almost forgotten like Nova Pilbeam.  Many of the women have since told of their experiences working with Sir Alfred and from what is said, he seemed to enjoy forcing these schoolboy inflictions of dirty jokes and embarrassing stories on many of them including Grace Kelly who responded to him that she heard worst at boarding school. Madeline Carroll in “The 39 Steps” endured being left handcuffed to Robert Donat long after the cameras stopped rolling as a taste of Hitchcock’s sadistic humor. 

    normal_a12072753902On the other hand, he had a friendship that lasted long after the film ended with Ingrid Bergman who, like Kelly, appeared in three of his works. While he seemed to have a schoolboy crush on Bergman he also respected her and avoided his usual  pranks or crude behavior that he reserved for some of the less powerful actresses who did not have the strength or influence to fight back. Anne Baxter says that the director made her feel unattractive and forced her to dye her hair to a more acceptable blonde color more fitting the Hitchcock heroine.

    The book also enlightens those of us not already aware of Hitchcock’s cinematic obsessions that continually play out in his films, like sex, strangulation, voyeurism, murder, and bondage.  The victims or the ones in jeopardy are usually the women. He appeared to enjoy “torturing” actresses more than the actors, though in general Hitchcock seemed to see all actors as an annoyance, always being more concerned with the camera than the actors.  Hitchcock comes across as egotistical, sexually repressed, crude, unhappy, uncaring and childlike in behavior. Spoto does not justify or condone the filmmaker in anyway.  

    One must also remember this was time before the term sexual harassment was ever heard, or could be considered a legal offense. Actresses like Tippi Hedren, whose career Hitchcock threaten to ruin if she did not have sex with him had no legal recourse. No one would have listened. At most, she would have been told, “that’s the way it is, deal with it.” By the way, she did not sleep with him and he did forestall her career rarely letting her work while under contract.

    For a fan of Hitchcock, as I am, this read was unsettling.  I admire Alfred Hitchcock for his movies and his talent yet realizing the man was a strange troubled figure with, as they say today, many issues.


2 comments on “Spellbound by Beauty

  1. David R. Crosby says:

    Mr. Greco’s excellent review of Donald Spoto’s “Spellbound by Beauty” will go a long way toward attracting people not only to Spoto’s Hitchcock books but also to Hitchcock’s films.

    Hitchcock, yes, could ignore actors or humiliate them, brutalize them, sexually harrass them. It is time we understood the cruelty Sir Alfred visited upon so many. And now that we have so much more information about his treatment of Tippi Hedren, we must thank Spoto for revealing an artist in three dimensions. The truth is often very ugly. And the miracle is that Miss Hedren gave one of the finest performances in any one of Hitchcock’s more than fifty films— no, make that the finest performance— in Marnie despite continual sexual baiting, unwelcome attentions, suffocating requirements and at last open threats of ruin that were actually carried out. What a woman of strength she was and we must thank her for such a portrayal of depth and insight.

    It is important, I think, not to take a position of moral judgment. We simply cannot learn about the world when we judge everything and make ourselves superior. Spoto is attempting to show us the workings of a great artist, a man as deeply flawed as any. What a sad and troubled man he must have been. Yes, he loved to besort himself before home movie cameras, running about and acting silly, always aware, however, of his enormous heft. But frivolous fun-making does nothing to indicate his inner sense of loneliness and the assuredness of ultimate romantic rejections. He was a man of great romantic appetites and dreams but a man without the physical apparatus for fulfillment. Thus the films of passion and farflung imagination, of symbols of the ideal and of a world existing at a level below reality and above desire.

    Somehow I believe Spoto has overemphasized the truly dark and vicious nature that bloomed as Hitchcock aged. I do not mean that he has overemphasized what happened with Tippi Hedren or with other actors. He has done a welcome justice to these cruelties. But somehow in his book Spoto has the Master somewhat more a monster than he could have been in every situation. How is it, for example, that despite what Spoto insists is vulgarity and offensiveness— and what must actually have been a certain offhand charm— actress after actress gave unusually sophisticated and deeply felt performances? A controversial book, really, but well worth reading for fans of the practitioner of “pure cinema,” the use of the subjective camera. And the result of that style being what one critic said was films that comprise a “symphony of glances.”


    • John Greco says:

      “Somehow I believe Spoto has overemphasized the truly dark and vicious nature that bloomed as Hitchcock aged. I do not mean that he has overemphasized what happened with Tippi Hedren or with other actors. He has done a welcome justice to these cruelties. But somehow in his book Spoto has the Master somewhat more a monster than he could have been in every situation.”

      David, the above is an excellent point you bring up. Spoto may have been “pushing” the dark side of Hitchcock a bit much. That said, I always find it fascinating to read about an artist I admire even to the point of hearing about their “dark moments” if for no other reason than it is all part of their genetic makeup. Hitchcock’s repressed sexuality, his at times childish behavior are all pieces of the puzzle that make Hitchcock the artist that he is.
      Thanks for your insightful comments here!!!


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