The Girl, premiering tonight on HBO, is, as you’ll have heard, a docudrama about the making of The Birds (1963) and, evidently towards the end, a bit as well about the making of Marnie (1964), the second and last film Tippi Hedren would make with Alfred Hitchcock.
The Girl is also, according to Matt Zoller Seitz, writing for Vulture, “a portrait of a brilliant but disturbed director who put leading ladies through hell, and a drama about the Faustian bargain that some actors strike with Hollywood. Its emotional bandwidth ranges from ‘creepy’ to ‘I don’t know if I can watch this.’… According to screenwriter Gwyneth Hughes, whose adaptation draws heavily on the work of Hitchcock biographer Donald Spoto, Hitchcock never quite overcame his childhood fear of criminal assault, his pathological fear of jails and cops, or his (sadly accurate) adult realization that he would never be anywhere near as beautiful as the actors and actresses he photographed so glamorously; he channeled his insecurities into his controlling visual style, which predetermined nearly everything that eventually appeared onscreen, from camera moves and cuts to the color of performers’ blouses and hats. The movie pictures Hedren as just a nice young woman who wanted to be a star, was delighted to win a part in a new movie by the Master of Suspense, and endured steadily escalating abuse throughout the shooting of The Birds and its follow-up, Marnie…. The Girl is serious, lovingly detailed, and occasionally artful: I love the repeated shots of Hedren on set as seen over Hitch’s shoulder, mimicking the perspective of a viewer watching a finished film on a big screen, and the judicious visual shout-outs to other Hitchcock movies. But there’s ultimately not enough imagination, enough art, in The Girl to justify its having been made.”
Daniel Goldberg, writing for Slant, disagrees, and awards The Girl with 3 out of 4 stars: “Dozens of self-aware filmmakers who view Hitchcock as a key influence have tried to extricate themselves from the Freudian psychosexual web that the director has come to symbolize. They aim to subvert his voyeuristic ‘male gaze’ with experimental editing, or to confront the audience’s complicity in on-screen violence by holding the camera steady on its painfully grotesque aftermath. Yet more often than not, such films are from a male perspective, and their underlying aesthetic pleasures betray that fact in spite of everything. The Girl certainly tries some of these techniques on for size, and it’s no coincidence that the film begins with a close-up of two female eyes looking back into the camera, confronting the power of its gaze. But ultimately the movie takes a much clearer course of action to prevent audience complicity. By portraying Hedren’s psychological abuse with factual detail and psychological accuracy, with generally invisible camerawork and a pragmatic style, director Julian Jarrold ensures that the film avoids sensationalized thrills.”
For the New Yorker‘s Richard Brody, The Girl is “an exemplary work of a distinctive genre, a pisser of a docudrama—it contrasts intimate behavior with grand history with an exhilaratingly blithe casualness and displays the private lives of the great with a cavalier simplicity. In short, it’s a fairly mediocre film that tosses out a pile of incidents with a superficial briskness. But: What incidents! What characters! And even—what impersonations!… Toby Jones does a chilling Hitchcock imitation, though his accent sounds a tiny bit too Cockney and his tone is missing just that bit of plummy innocence, just that lag of calculating diffidence—of instinctive dramatic timing—behind the wicked humor; he sounds too overtly villainous. Sienna Miller’s version of Hedren is even tougher to pull off—it’s almost impossible to play an actor as anything but parody, but there’s one thing that she gets right, and it’s a great deal: the cold gaze that Hitchcock’s camera captures.”
“Do I wander around feeling like a cursed actor?” asks Toby Jones. It’s a rhetorical question—the answer, by the way, is, “I don’t”—raised in Alison Willmore‘s interview with him for Indiewire. Alison’s just asked him about a replay of sorts of an unfortunate coincidence. Around five years ago, Jones played Truman Capote in Infamous, the story of the writer’s pursuit of the story that would become In Cold Blood. Almost simultaneously, Philip Seymour Hoffman turned in an Oscar-winning performance in the same role in the same story, albeit in a movie with a nail-on-the-head title, Capote. So here’s The Girl, and it’ll be followed in less than two weeks with Anthony Hopkin’s performance as the Master of Suspense in—that’s right, Hitchcock—premiering November 1 as the opening night film at the AFI Fest.
Jones to Alison: “In the case of Capote, that was a really strange situation—I still haven’t quite understood how two films could come together that were about exactly the same thing. Whereas I think the Hitchcock thing is that there’s a Hitchcock centenary going on. Hitchcock is in people’s heads—certainly in England, where this project originated, there was the reissuing of a lot of Hitchcock’s films, which are in cinemas at the moment. So one can understand how that happened… And they are dealing with different aspects of his life.”
Well, sort of. Hitchcock is about the making of Psycho (1960), and as for its girl, Janet Leigh (played by Scarlett Johansson), the historical Hitchcock didn’t pursue her as viciously as he pursued Hedren or, for that matter, fall for her as hard as he fell for Grace Kelly, but the dynamic is quite similar nonetheless. And by the way, we’ll also soon enjoy the opportunity of comparing two actresses’ takes on Alma Hitchcock’s role in that dynamic, Imelda Staunton’s in The Girl and Helen Mirren’s in Hitchcock.
Will Harris talks with Jones, too, at the AV Club. More on The Girl: Elizabeth Blair (NPR), Roger Catlin (Salon), Jeff Shannon (The Demanders), Alessandra Stanley (New York Times), and Drew Taylor (Playlist, C+). Meantime, let me recommend Carrie Frye‘s piece for the Awl in which she argues that Hedren’s thing with big feral cats is all about the angry birds Hitchcock threw at her.
Also: Andrew Goldman interviews Hedren for the NYT and, on an indirectly related note, Richard Rushfield talks with Kim Novak for the Telegraph. And a bonus viewing tip: Anne Thompson‘s got Dick Cavett’s 1972 interview with the real Alfred Hitchcock.
Updates, 10/24: “The Girl has been thoroughly dismissed by most critics of TV movies,” notes David Thomson in the New Republic. “It has been lamented that Toby Jones can offer no more than a creepy impersonation of Hitch. It is said that Sienna Miller misses the unique but repressed persona of Hedren. So let me make two points: The Girl… is remarkable, disturbing and something Hitch would have understood. In addition, it insists quietly on a nagging question: why do we like Vertigo so much?”
“Marnie, in particular, is one of the greatest of all films,” writes Richard Brody, who’s argued before that it beats Vertigo, “not least for its embodiment of Hitchcock’s frustrated obsession and Hedren’s frozen anguish. Yet, reconsidering it in the light of Hedren’s revelations and their dramatization in The Girl, the movie’s greatness—and its personal significance for Hitchcock—become all the more apparent.”
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