Tippi Hedren talks Hitchcock, ‘The Birds’ and ‘Marnie’

Susan Whitall
The Detroit News

Of all the fair-haired actresses who appeared in Alfred Hitchcock movies — Grace Kelly, Eva Marie Saint, Kim Novak and Tippi Hedren among them — there’s some evidence that Hedren might have been the quintessential cool “Hitchcock blonde.”

In 1963’s “The Birds,” Hedren is glamorous and chic as San Francisco society girl Melanie Daniels, who has to fend off attacking birds in Bodega Bay, California, just as she’s encouraging skeptical attorney Mitch Brenner (played by Rod Taylor). Despite it being her first film, Hedren displays an intriguing blend of impudence and intelligence as she jousts with Taylor.

Hitchcock went so far as to say Hedren was better than Kelly, stating once that she had “a faster tempo, city glibness, more humor. She displayed jaunty assuredness ... and she memorized and read lines extraordinarily well.”

Actress Tippi Hedren attends the 2012 TCM Classic Film Festival Opening Night Premiere Of The 40th Anniversary Restoration Of "Cabaret" at Grauman's Chinese Theatre on April 12, 2012 in Hollywood, California. Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images/AFP

“It’s a great compliment, I’m honored,” Hedren said.

The actress, 85, is speaking by phone from Los Angeles. She’ll travel to Detroit for three days of appearances at the Redford Theatre, as it hosts special screenings of “The Birds” and “Marnie” Oct. 16-18.

Hitchcock chose the Minnesota-born New York model for stardom after he and wife Alma saw her in a diet drink commercial during the “Today Show” in 1961. Hitchcock liked her presence, although she’d never done any acting.

“I don’t know, maybe I’m a natural actress,” Hedren said. “Because I never wanted to be an actress, never studied acting, anything. And when he wanted to put me under contract, I said, ‘OK, am I going to go to acting classes or what?’ He didn’t even know what he was going to do with me. It was a really exciting time of my life, to be put under contract by a huge motion picture ... mogul, whatever you want to call him.”

That excitement turned sour for Hedren toward the end of filming “The Birds,” when Hitchcock made a play for her, she said. Hitchcock’s unwanted advances, which grew into an obsession, was depicted in the 2012 HBO film “The Girl,” in which Sienna Miller played Hedren and Toby Jones played Hitchcock.

“It was out of England — they contacted me and said, ‘We’d like to do your Hitchcock story.’ I said ‘Only if you let me be involved with the writing,’ ”

Hedren had first noticed Hitchcock staring at her in between shots. “I thought ‘Ohhh, I can see this coming,” Hedren recalled. “I wasn’t the first girl he tried to —um, I don’t know what the hell he wanted!” She laughed. “I don’t know, but I wasn’t interested. I wasn’t the first actress who left angry, in an unpleasant situation.”

It was a brave stance to take in the movie world of 1963, considering that Hitchcock had her under personal contract.

“This was at the end of the studio system, but I don’t care about those kinds of things. I have never been political as far as my life is concerned. The demands he made on me were so horrible, I walked out. I said ‘I’m leaving, I’m out of this contract.’ He said, Hedren imitates Hitchcock’s slow, stately diction: “’No … you aren’t. And I will ruin your career.’

The director kept paying her the $600 a week they’d contracted. But after her second Hitchcock film, the psychological thriller “Marnie,” when producers and directors would try to use her for films, Hitchcock flatly refused. Among the directors who wanted to work with her but was rebuffed, was Francois Truffaut, Hedren found out.

Tippi Hedren’s second and last Hitchcock film was “Marnie,” which was released in 1964, opposite Sean Connery.

Because of their deteriorating relationship, Hitchcock didn’t do any publicity for “Marnie,” Hedren says. “They wanted to enter me for an Academy Award for ‘Marnie,’ and he put the kibosh on that. Nice guy.”

“The Birds” was a difficult shoot, because Hitchcock had some trained birds actually attacking Hedren, and despite safety precautions, there were injuries.

In the scene where she takes refuge in a telephone booth, a seagull suspended from the ceiling by a wire was directed to slam into the glass booth. It was supposed to be safety glass, Hedren was told. It wasn’t.

“One of the birds crashed in with such force that it broke the glass and it shattered. They spent the afternoon with tweezers, picking shards of glass out of the left side of my face.”

“The Birds” is considered by many to be the last great Hitchcock movie. Reviews at the time were mixed, but the public liked it — it was one of the top-20 grossing films of the year.

Hedren was still in touch with her leading man, Taylor, up to his death in February.

“I saw him last fall, I went to his home and spent some time with him,” she said. “He was in a great deal of pain and he couldn’t walk. I felt so bad for him.”

Chemistry between the two was real, based upon friendship.

“He was a wonderful man, I liked him very much,” Hedren said. “We had a good camaraderie, it was perfect to do a film with somebody that you like, really enjoy and are comfortable with. His sense of humor was excellent.”

Was Taylor more fun than Sean Connery, with whom she starred in “Marnie”?

“Sean is such a different kind of person, a very elegant man, fun and gracious. I was very lucky to appear with them. And then Marlon Brando was very interesting, too!” Hedren appeared as Brando’s wife in the Charlie Chaplin-directed 1966 film “The Countess from Hong Kong.”

Connery’s accent may not bear close scrutiny, but decades later, many of us can suspend belief and accept Scotsman Connery is a Philadelphia blueblood, or that Australian-born Taylor is a scrappy San Francisco lawyer.

“They were very good actors,” Hedren said, laughing.

In “Marnie,” she plays a woman trying to escape a terrible childhood secret who acts out as a serial thief — stealing money from her employer, changing her appearance, moving to another city and then doing it all again. Connery, as company heir Mark Rutland, catches her in the act and tries to reform, and romance her.

One of the running motifs through the film is Marnie’s love of her horse, Forio — naturally, this being Hitchcock, this doesn’t end well. Hedren did her own riding in those scenes, she says. “I loved that horse, he was so beautiful,” she said. “Seventeen hands. Big beautiful guy.”

Hedren’s love of animals is well documented — she lives on the Shambala Preserve in California, which shelters 30 big cats.

“My office is here, and we look out on lions and tigers,” she said. “When they come here, this is their home for life. We’re not a way station.”

“I don’t even have words for that,” she said of the recent incident in which a well-known lion, Cecil, was killed by a Minnesota dentist, Walter Palmer. “I can’t even explain how angry I was, and sickened.”

Hedren is finishing up her autobiography, which will, of course, tell the whole story of her Hitchcock adventure, and more.

Did she ever give advice on the pitfalls of the business to her acting daughter (Melanie Griffith) or granddaughter (Dakota Johnson)?

“Melanie and Dakota and I never discuss the entertainment business. In fact I spent about three hours with Dakota before she went to New York two months ago. She came out to the preserve, we sat out in my garden and talked, and never mentioned any of the show business stuff.”



How to see

Tippi Hedren

Redford Theatre

Oct. 16-18

“The Birds” and “Marnie” will be screened at the Redford Theatre, 17360 Lahser in Detroit. Tippi Hedren will be at each screening, in addition to the VIP event. Call (313) 537-2560.

8 p.m. Oct. 16: Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” starring Tippi Hedren and Rod Taylor. Tickets: $7.

5-6:30 p.m. Oct 17: VIP event $50 ticket includes desserts with Tippi, an 8-by-10-inch autographed glossy; attendance at the Q&A career discussion; entrance into the 8 p.m. showing of “Marnie,” as well as entrance into either the Friday night or Sunday matinee showing of “The Birds.”

8 p.m. Oct 17: Alfred Hitchcock’s “Marnie” starring Tippi Hedren and Sean Connery. Tickets: $7

1 p.m. Oct 18: “The Birds.” Tickets: $7.