Alfred Hitchcock was a larger-than-life figure who trafficked on his image. His famous silhouette was iconic and his visage and rotund form were familiar to smarter-than-thou audiences who eagerly awaited his regular cameos.
And when he died, I’m sure Alfred Hitchcock’s spirit — go with me here — was able to float around in some other plane of existence confident that he had been both unique and, more importantly, unreproducible. Nature generated just one Alfred Hitchcock and the only man gifted enough at cinematic sleight of hand to create another was… Alfred Hitchcock.
We live in a glorious age of movie magic. You can put Brad Pitt’s face on a baby. You can erase wrinkles and make Jeff Bridges young again. You can create armies of zombies, with their flesh rotting off. And if you bury a reputable actor under enough latex, you can finally recreate Alfred Hitchcock in a way that calls attention to prosthetic craft without insulting the intelligence of the audience.
And with that, the floodgates have opened this fall, with a pair of biopics intending not to tell Hitch’s life story, but merely to capture the auteur in one particular moment of his career, directing one of his most famous movies and dealing with one of his most famous blondes. Most remarkably of all, neither of them stars Andy Serkis in a mo-cap suit.
It’s fairly easy to sense the objectives for each project, merely by looking at their titles and the profile of their stars. I haven’t seen it, but all indications are that “Hitchcock,” featuring Anthony Hopkins under pounds of makeup, will be straight-up hagiography. And I have seen it and I can verify that HBO’s “The Girl,” featuring Toby Jones under pounds of makeup, is straight-up iconoclasm.
It’s great that technical proficiency has allowed us the leeway to make these Hitchcock biopics, but as fictional chaos theory expert Dr. Ian Malcolm would be sure to remind us, just because you *can* do something doesn’t mean you *should*. The Season of Hitchcock kicks off on Saturday (October 20) night with “The Girl,” a rather superficial portrait of the artist as an icky man that makes its point within 10 minutes and then runs on fumes for an extra 90.
Because of stars Jones and Sienna Miller, there are reasons to watch “The Girl,” but the one-dimensional approach defeats any chance that any serious film fan will revise their opinions on much of anything.
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Written by Gwyneth Hughes and directed by Julian Jarrold, “The Girl” begins — and this is a mistake, because it throws the film out of focus entirely — with Hitchcock prepping work on “The Birds.” After spotting model Tippi Hedren in a commercial, he’s instantly intrigued by her aura of icy Scandinavian glamor and he invites her in for an interview. Fascinated by… more of the same, Hitch offers her the lead role in his movie and, in no time, he’s obsessed. And for this version of Alfred Hitchcock, there are no steps between first impressions, total obsession and unfiltered nastiness. There’s really no pause between Hitch leeringly inquiring if Tippi is a natural blonde, insinuatingly reciting lewd limericks and propositioning her repeatedly.
Hughes’ disappointingly thin script leaves out anything resembling motivation or backstory to explain why Hitchcock treats Hedren like he does. Should we assume he’s always behaved this way with his leading lady? Should we assume there’s something special about Tippi? I don’t know and I don’t know. Yes, this Tippi looks like Sienna Miller, so you get the basic carnal attraction, but anything more is inexplicable. The film treats her as Hitchcock treated so many of his own blondes, as an angular, gorgeous enigma to whom things happen. The movie slightly has her point-of-view at heart, or at least it definitely empathizes with her, but despite going how with her after Hitch’s increasingly unseemly instances of abuse, it offers no insight. Why does Hitch do what he does? Because it’s what he does. And why does Hedren remain in Hitch’s sphere for both “The Birds” and then “Marnie”? Because it’s what’s best for her career and she has Minnesota pluck, or something. Both points are made within 15 minutes, which leaves a lot of screentime for repetitious torment.
I have no horse in this race, no dog in this hunt. If Alfred Hitchcock was a disgusting, psychologically abusive sadist, it won’t cause me to lose respect for his films and in losing personal admiration for the man, I won’t really lose much. But this depiction is so monstrous and cartoonish that I was left more skeptical of his real behavior than I began. Whatever Hitchcock was, however horrible, I’m sure he was more interesting than this, whether he was a good man or a bad man. Make Hitchcock a villain. I won’t be offended. Just make him a nuanced villain.
I think there’s a version of this story that actually could sell this sort of superficial understanding of its main characters. In fact, it’s an easy to pitch version of the story. “The Birds” is, itself, a story of nature out of balance. Why do the birds attack Bodega Bay and its inhabitants? Because it’s what they do. “The Birds” very rapidly goes from a love story in which you don’t much care for either of the characters to become a completely primal story of woman versus incomprehensible force-of-nature. That just isn’t the approach to the story that Hughes has taken. In her script, it’s easier to compare Hedren to the avian stars of Hitchcock’s latest opus. Just as he, as a filmmaker, is attempting to tame unruly nature to get stunt birds to do what he wants them to do, he’s equally unable to tame Hedren, but… So what? And why?
There’s a sameness to almost every scene between Hitchcock and Hedren: She looks to him for approval, reenforcement and direction. He looks to her for romance or sex. Neither gets what they came for. She freaks out. He looks sad and disconsolate. Because of this sameness, the lack of even a single alternative character to alter the monotony is damning. Imelda Staunton gives tantalizing hints of a worthy third point to the triangle as Hitch’s wife Alma, but I sense I’m going to have to wait to see what Helen Mirren does with the character in “Hitchcock” before coming back and reading that depth onto “The Girl.” “Downton Abbey” veteran Penelope Wilton is stuck in the background giving disapproving clucks, but offering nothing else. And I really couldn’t tell you a single other character featured in this movie or actor depicting them. It’s a very thin universe.
And yet, as a two-hander, at least one can appreciate aspects of the lead performances.
Jones may be building an interesting career niche as “Less famous actor to play a famous person who may actually give the more interesting performance, not that anybody would notice.” I don’t think that Jones’ Truman Capote film, “Infamous,” is as good as Philip Seymour Hoffman’s “Capote,” but I think there’s much virtue to his performance, not that you’d ever know. I’d similarly expect Hopkins to gobble up more than his share of the Hitchcock attention, as befits an Oscar winner in a feature film versus a respected character actor in an HBO production. I can’t compare the performances, because I haven’t seen “Hitchcock.” What I can say is that Jones’ grasp on Hitchcock’s voice and cadences seems eerily spot-on without resorting to mimicry and while he doesn’t look exactly like Hitchcock, I’d always prefer an inch less makeup if it gives the actor room to operate. It’s what Jones is being asked to do that doesn’t always seem motivated, not the beats of the actor’s performance. He’s very good and could have been even better in a better movie.
The same is probably even more true of Miller, who has always gotten a bum rap as an actress because of her side career as tabloid fodder. Through too much of the film, Miller is asked to take the nebulousness of the title seriously and she’s just playing The Girl and not Tippi Hedren. At TCA press tour this summer, Hedren appeared to promote this project and she was entirely compelling in recounting some of these same stories in a way that Miller rarely gets to be when reenacting them. It’s not just that “The Girl” has no clue how good an actress Tippi Hedren was and is. It seems to know nothing at all about what makes her tick. So Miller’s just playing *somebody* who happens to be being stalked by Alfred Hitchcock, which I guess she captures decently.
Miller’s at her best when she has something to directly refer back to, so when she’s getting to reenact scenes from “The Birds” or “Marnie,” she plays Hedren playing her characters very well.
Interestingly, that’s also where Jarrold is at his best as a director. Working with cinematographer John Pardue, Jarrold very nicely captures the color scheme and lighting of Hitchcock’s ’60s films. There are frames here that could be swapped into sequences from “The Birds” without any noticeable shift in aesthetic. But with a script that builds neither character nor suspense, Jarrold can’t build his film to much of anything either. As I keep saying, “The Girl” tips its hand on Hitchcock’s nature too early and there’s nothing to learn or discover from there.
Trailers for “Hitchcock” seem to point to, “Oh look at the eccentric genius” hero-worship, which might mean that if you squish it together with “The Girl,” you get something resembling a look at a real person. “The Girl” is all “Oh look at the eccentric pervert,” which may be true, but isn’t all that interesting as a single note played out for 90 minutes.
This has, unfortunately, become what HBO telefilms do these days. Either the network goes with “Mildred Pierce” or “The Pacific”-style epics, or you get interesting stories that are under-served in their brevity. “The Girl” shows exactly enough to make you wish it showed more.
“The Girl” premieres on Saturday, October 20 at 9 p.m. on HBO.