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.
On 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.