Last week I finally caught Julian Jarrold‘s The Girl on HBO. It seemed all right — not terrible, not difficult to watch — but I was bored for the most part, such that I couldn’t push out a review for this column. It may be at least a somewhat accurate portrayal of Alfred Hitchcock‘s cruel and creepy obsession with Tippi Hedren, the cool, brittle-mannered actress he chose to star in The Birds and Marnie. But The Girl is a tired tale about icky, tedious behavior.
It’s a modest, low-budgety, visually perfunctory thing that contains a skillful, well-tuned performance by Toby Jones (I got the idea that he might turn out to be a better Hitchcock than Anthony Hopkins in Hitchcock) and a pretty good one by Sienna Miller, but it doesn’t build or snap open or go anywhere.
The story of an older, powerful, not very attractive man trying to persuade a beautiful young actress to sprinkle a little sexual sugar into his erotically starved existence…yes, fine, but there’s not enough there. Unrequited sexual obsession will never be interesting to anyone. Desperation can only turn up the need or the volume.
I didn’t feel sympathy for Jones’ Hitch, but I didn’t want to watch him behave in this sad manner. I’ve known Hitchcock all my life and while I’m not for a second disputing what went on with Tippi, I’d rather just put the icky Hitch in a cardboard box and take it out to the garage and put it on a high shelf.
I wouldn’t dispute the legend that Hitchcock was a bit of a twisted pretzel. Two Donald Spoto books about him, “The Dark Side of Genius” and “Spellbound By Beauty”, persuaded everyone that Hitch, by whatever pathetic process, allowed his feelings of erotic frustration to manifest into a bizarre obsession with Hedren, which led to acute pain and discomfort for both of them.
In the ’50s and ’60s Hitch was mesmerized by actresses who exuded that cool, blonde, quietly slutty ice-queen quality (Grace Kelly, Kim Novak, Eva Marie Saint, Vera Miles, Hedren) and did what he could to mold these actresses into versions of this sexual ideal. And then he made Vertigo, a now-legendary 1958 drama about a man who falls in love with a classy erotic dream girl, watches her die and then re-molds a woman (Novak) he meets on the street into a version of the dead girl. Two years later he made Psycho, a classic 1960 horror film, in which a cool and brittle slut queen (played by Janet Leigh, who is first seen in a white bra and a slip in a crummy hotel room, having just fucked John Gavin on her lunch hour) is murdered in the shower. Hitch made films about his own interior realm, and his imagination was nothing if not perverse.
And then, from ’61 to ’64, Hitch completely devoted himself to making Hedren into the ultimate ice queen in The Birds and Marnie. Sadly, clumsily, he tried to take his professional relationship with her beyond a matter of craft and into the intimate, and he failed miserably. And now we’re obliged to ponder this sordid saga on HBO.
Please, Jones keeps saying to Miller. I’m not a dashing attractive fellow but I’m doing so much for you. Ecch, she keeps responding. No, really…please, he says again. I really am doing quite a lot for you. Can’t you do a little something for me? And she makes no attempt to hide her disgust. Hitch was a wealthy man after Psycho — why didn’t he just arrange for some ice-blonde hookers to drop by his Universal office after dinner hour? Because Hitch was hot for icy upscale class — real breeding, cultivation, refinement — and hookers don’t know how to do that.
I didn’t care at all for a scene in which Hitch is shooting that scene in The Birds in which Hedren climbs down a ladder on a Bodega Bay pier and starts up a small motor boat. The bay in The Birds is completely placid and lake-like, but in The Girl the scene is clearly being shot on a turbulent ocean cove, complete with high winds and whitecaps. Second-rate replications are what low-rent filmmaking is partly about.