The Scariest Part Of Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘The Birds’ Happened Off Screen

Sir Alfred Joseph Hitchcock was an iconic British horror director whose influence on the horror genre is second only to a small handful of even bigger icons like Stephen King and Wes Craven. Hitchcock is considered “the master of suspense” and pioneered filmmaking techniques that are still widely used. He directed over 50 films and won 6 Academy Awards (he was nominated for 46) in his career. When he died in 1980, Alfred Hitchcock left behind a legacy of a horror master.

His signature style was turning the audience into voyeurs and using camera movements to mimic the POV of either the audience or the killer. Throughout the writing and filming of his movies, Hitchcock introduced elements of surprise to unnerve viewers like killing off his lead actress, Janet Leigh, halfway through Psycho. He was also known for his morbid and dry sense of humor which he sometimes showcased in his work, especially on his mystery TV series Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

Unfortunately, he didn’t just make creepy movies and TV shows, Hitchcock was creepy in real life too.

Two of Hitchcock’s most famous masterpieces, The Birds (1963) and Marnie (1964) stared Tippi Hedren. Hitchcock hired the young model from Minnesota after seeing her in a diet drink ad. The Birds was Hedren’s first role. Unbeknownst to Hedren, Hitchcock cast her because of his personal sexual interest in her. When she didn’t return his feelings, he became a nightmare to work for. Tippi says that Alfred Hitchcock sexually harassed her on the set of both The Birds and Marnie, a fact which other cast and crew confirm. His interest in her went so far that he had a secret door installed from his trailer to Hedren’s and also had the crew create a mask of Hedren’s face for his “personal use”.

In 1983, author Donald Spoto published a book about Hitchcock, The Dark Side of Genius for which he interviewed Tippi Hedren. Spoto reported that Hitchcock had members of his crew spy on Hedren, that the director told her what to eat and who she could socialize with, and that he forbade the cast and crew from talking to or touching “The Girl” as he called her. The book also details an incident in which Hitchcock and Hedren were alone in the back of his limo and he grabbed and “violently” kissed her while she resisted.

Hedren says his actions got worse the longer they worked together. Once during a meeting, Hedren recalls, “He stared at me and simply said, as if it was the most natural thing in the world, that from this time on, he expected me to make myself sexually available and accessible to him — however and whenever and wherever he wanted.” Sometimes, just before filming a scene, he would lean in and whisper an obscene request to her.

Tippi kept quiet about the abuse at the time and for years afterwards because Hitchcock was so famous and had discovered (and groomed) her. In her memoir she wrote, “Which one of us was more valuable to the studio, him or me?” She thought her career would be over if she said anything, something which Hitchcock also threatened her with. When she told him that after Marnie was completed, she didn’t want to work with him again, he threatened her:

“Hitchcock told her he would destroy her career. “I said I wanted to get out of my contract. He said: ‘You can’t. You have your daughter to support, and your parents are getting older’. I said: ‘Nobody would want me to be in this situation, I want to get out’. And he said: ‘I’ll ruin your career’. I said: ‘Do what you have to do’. And he did ruin my career. He kept me under contract, paid me to do nothing for close on two years”

Diane Baker, another actor who worked on Marnie said of Hitchcock and Hedren: “Nothing could have been more horrible for me than to arrive on that movie set and to see her being treated the way she was.”

Because of his resentment towards Hedren, or just due to general negligence as the director of a movie set, Hitchcock traumatized Hedren with her scenes:

“While filming the attack scene in the attic—which took a week to film—she was placed in a caged room while two men wearing elbow-length protective gloves threw live birds at her. Toward the end of the week, to stop the birds’ flying away from her too soon, one leg of each bird was attached by nylon thread to elastic bands sewn inside her clothes.”

After a bird cut Hedren near her eye, she had a panic attack and after being checked out by a doctor, the doctor insisted that Hedren needed a week off from filming or her health would suffer.

In Marnie, Hitchcock went even further to terrorize Hedren and act the sexual fantasies he couldn’t in real life:

“The film is, to put it simply, sick, and it’s so because Hitchcock was sick. He suffered all his life from furious sexual desire, suffered from the lack of its gratification, suffered from the inability to transform fantasy into reality, and then went ahead and did so virtually, by way of his art.”

Marnie is a movie about sexual violence. It stars Tippi as Marian Holland, as a beautiful blonde woman who steals from her employers. She meets a rich man named Mark Rutland (Sean Connery) who pursues her romantically, but also abuses her, raping her during a thunderstorm after he realizes storms trigger Marnie’s flashbacks to a childhood trauma. The person who adapted the script for Marnie, Evan Hunter, felt this was confusing an unrealistic. When Hunter wrote a script without the rape scene and told Hitchcock rape would turn audiences against the male lead, Hitchcock fired Hunter and replaced him. According to Hunter, he explained to Hitchcock that “if Mark loved Marnie, he would comfort her, not rape her. Hitchcock reportedly replied: “Evan, when he sticks it in her, I want that camera right on her face!” Hedren’s performance in Marnie is considered one of the all time greatest performances by an an actor.

It’s not a huge shocker that Hitchcock was a misogynist, he’s famously a bit misanthropic in general, famously saying “actors should be treated like cattle”, and publicly made anti-woman comments throughout his career, a career built on the foundation of creating art about violence against women. When Vera Miles dared to not be available to star in Vertigo he told a journalist, “I was offering her a big part, the chance to become a beautiful sophisticated blonde, a real actress. We’d have spent a heap of dollars on it, and she has the bad taste to get pregnant. I hate pregnant women, because then they have children.”

The popular concept of the male gaze was actually introduced in a 1975 essay about Hitchcock. Laura Mulvey argued that Hitchcock’s films represent life as viewed by men like Hitchcock only, with men as the subjects of the film and women as objects. This means that, by design, we give male characters in Hitchcock’s film context, nuance, and backstories, while the women are simply there to be looked at and serve as plot devices. On the other end of the spectrum, the female gaze casts women as full human beings, focuses on the character’s internal emotional development over “action”, and sometimes turns the camera back on itself, showcasing “the gaze” to the audience so we can all be aware of how the characters are being viewed.

While it’s been half a century since Tippi made The Birds and Marnie and things haven’t changed much in Hollywood, she’s still hopeful things will get better. She told Variety: “The more that people are aware that this is happening, maybe the more that parents will start teaching their children that this is an inappropriate way to behave. Then it will stop happening.”

In 2012 HBO made a movie about Hitchcock and Hedren based on Donald Spoto’s 2009 book Spellbound by Beauty: Alfred Hitchcock and His Leading Ladies called The Girl. Spoto’s story is basically that Hitchcock saw this unknown model and became obsessed with grooming Hedren into his ideal woman. Hedren says the film accurately portray’s her experiences with Hitchcock.

Tippi Hedren’s legacy is much more positive. In the years since filming The Birds she has become an animal and human rights activist and was influential in creating Vietnamese-Americans nail salons. Tippi had personally flown her manicurist to the woman’s refugee camp in order to teach the women there skills they could use to make money and support themselves. Tippi is also the mother of Melanie Griffith and the grandmother of Dakota Johnson. She is proud of her career and for speaking up for herself, saying, “I had to be extremely strong to fight off Mr. Hitchcock.”

About the author

Chrissy Stockton