Fans of Alfred Hitchcock were in for a treat when they packed the Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood for a screening of his 1963 horror classic “The Birds.” The movie was being shown in honor of its 50th anniversary, and among the evening’s guests were two of its stars: Tippi Hedren who played the confident socialite Melanie Daniels, and Veronica Cartwright who had one of her earliest roles as Cathy Brenner. Much of the Q&A which preceded the movie, however, was directed at Hedren who talked about how she got cast in “The Birds” and of the overall effect Hitchcock ended up having on her career.
There has been this misconception about “The Birds” where many assumed it was filmed in black and white and not color. A lot of this had to do with people first watching the movie on their black and white television sets at home, and this understandably made the experience of watching it a bit different for them. Hedren reflected on what people have told her regarding this issue.
“I’ve had people say oh, I am so delighted that they colorized ‘The Birds,’ and I said uh no, we filmed it in color.’ And they said no, no, no, I saw it in black and white. Soon the argument kept growing, and I finally said no, you saw it on a black-and-white TV! And they went, yes’ Case closed” Hedren jokingly said.
Even today “The Birds” continues to pack movie houses all over the country and Hedren admitted she remains astonished at how it has a life of its own. She still does publicity for the film and talked of how it can still draw a crowd after so many years. Some of the other screenings she spoke of actually happened not long before this one.
“It took a little while for me to realize that this movie really has something that’s unique and powerful,” Hedren said. “We had a screening at a theater in Detroit, Michigan that sold out, and it didn’t have many seats in it. In Texas I was at a theater that was built in the 30s in El Paso, a beautiful, beautiful theater with 2500 seats, and there was a film festival there. Just before the screening of ‘The Birds,’ the director of the festival came to the stage and said ‘ladies and gentlemen, this theater has been sold out four times: once for ‘Gone with the Wind,’ ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ ‘E.T.’ and tonight ‘The Birds.’”
“The Birds” actually marked Hedren’s film debut as an actress, and she previously had a very successful career as a model which later led her to do commercials. Hitchcock saw Hedren in a diet soda commercial, and this led him to cast her in the movie. This opportunity came at a crucial time for Hedren as she had just moved back to Los Angeles with her daughter Melanie Griffith and was experiencing some problems.
“I rented a very expensive home in Westwood thinking I would continue my career as a fashion model and doing commercials, and it wasn’t working and I’m thinking okay, what do I do now? I don’t know how to type,” Hedren said. “Shortly after that on Friday the 13th of October 1961, I received a phone call from Universal asking if I was the girl in the diet soda commercial, and I said yes. So I was put through a four or five-day suspense thriller of who is the producer who was interested in me. Finally, I was asked to go to MCA, a big organization or agency, and it was there that the agent said, ‘Alfred Hitchcock wants to sign you to a contract. If you agree with the terms and sign it, we will promote you.’ So we went over to his office, and he (Hitchcock) opened the door and stood looking very pleased with himself. It literally changed my life.”
One audience member asked Hedren about the very strange birthday gift Hitchcock gave her daughter Melanie. Many have heard this story over and over, and it has always sounded tremendously creepy. The question, however, gave Hedren the opportunity to set the record straight about what really happened.
“My daughter was presented with a box when Hitchcock took us to lunch, and it was a wooden box and Melanie opened it and it was an incredible doll of me in the green suit that I wore in ‘The Birds,’” Hedren said. “The face was so perfect that it scared her to the point where she kind of freaked out. Everybody made it sound like it was Hitchcock playing a dirty trick or doing something really nasty to Melanie and that wasn’t it. It was supposed be a very, very beautiful gift and it just went awry. She was so affected by it that it was put away somewhere, and I unfortunately don’t even know what happened to it.”
But the one thing which has cast a heavy shadow over the legacy of “The Birds” is the fact Hitchcock sabotaged Hedren’s career after she starred in “Marnie.” During that time, Hitchcock became deeply obsessed with her, but she kept refusing his advances which led to him exerting a control over her no director should have over anyone. Hedren explained what happened between her and Hitchcock very calmly and without a hint of regret.
“As you know, I became the object of his obsession,” Hedren said. “It started later in the filming of ‘The Birds,’ and then by the end of filming ‘Marnie’ it was to the point where I couldn’t stand it anymore. I was tired of being followed around all the time. It all came about when I was asked to go to New York to be on ‘The Tonight Show’ to accept an award, and I asked for two days off. There was a demand put on me if I chose to take those two days off, and I was so offended with it and I said I have to get out of this contract and I have to get out of it now. As soon as ‘Marnie’ is over, I am done. And he (Hitchcock) said, ‘Well you can’t. You have your little girl to support, your parents are getting older…’ And I said anybody who loves me doesn’t want me to be in a situation which I’m unhappy. I want to get out!’ And he said, ‘I’ll ruin your career,’ and he did.”
“He didn’t let me out of the contract,” Hedren continued. “He kept paying me my $600 a week, and I wouldn’t hear for a very long time after that that many directors had asked to have me in their films, and it was so easy for him. All he had to say was she isn’t available, and it was that easy and it was done. It was hurtful, but at the same time I walked away with my head held high. He ruined my career but he didn’t ruin my life.”
The audience at Grauman’s Chinese applauded her last sentence, and it was clear to everyone she never lost her pride or self-respect in spite of what Hitchcock did. While her career was never the same after “Marnie,” she still managed to keep working in both film and television.
While we may have come out of the evening very upset at the cruel way Hitchcock treated Tippi Hedren, we could not deny “The Birds” still remains a very effective and unnerving horror movie a half a century after its release. The fact it holds up so well speaks volumes of not just Hitchcock’s brilliant direction, but also of Hedren’s beautifully confident performance. She remains such a sublime presence to watch in this classic film, and she deserves as much credit as Hitchcock does for its enduring success.