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You don't even have to dig into Hollywood history to know that Alfred Hitchcock was probably not entirely kind to his leading ladies. Just look at Vertigo, in which James Stewart plays a man who becomes fixated on a blonde woman (the hair color preferred by many of Hitchcock's leading ladies) so intently that it leads to both her and his demise. Film critics have spent decades interpreting Hitchcock's movies and the way he treated his actresses, but none has made it as explicit as The Girl, which depicts Tippi Hedren's experiences of working with Hitchcock on The Birds and Marnie as about as terrifying as checking into the Bates Motel. The Girl, which airs on HBO October 20, premiered this weekend at the Hamptons International Film Festival, which is where I caught it.
There's another movie coming down the pipe about the famous director, titled simply Hitchcock, but The Girl is so much more about Hedren that I imagine the similarities won't really matter. Sienna Miller, very good in her first substantial role in years, plays Hedren as a fresh-faced Minnesota girl who's plucked from a minor modeling career to Hollywood stardom when Hitchcock spots her on TV and casts her in The Birds. The chameleonic Toby Jones plays the man everyone calls "Hitch," and with a prosthetic jowls and a fat suit he fits that iconic profile almost eerily well. The Hitchcock of this film is not a Hollywood icon or an auteurist genius, but an old man given immense power over a beautiful young woman, driven as much by sexual obsession as a desire to actually make a film; with a plummy voice and a cold stare, Jones hits every creepy note perfectly, while also crafting Hitchcock as the kind of layered villain the director himself might have created.
The character of Tippi is a little less rich-- it's clear that this film comes from Hedren's own stories, and Gwyneth Hughes's script takes pains to depict "the girl" as plucky and resourceful, even at the expense of creating a consistent character. Hedren's strength in the face of everything Hitchcock threw at her-- including spending 5 days being attacked by real birds for a single scene in The Birds-- is clearly why he was drawn to her, and the fact that Hedren pulled off these performances under the circumstances is remarkable. But aside from the fact that she's our heroine, we don't get a good sense of how Tippi comes by this strength, or what it means to her when she finally stands up to the man who's psychologically torturing her-- but also making her a star.
Julian Jarrold brings a serviceable, straightforward style to the story, though you might miss Hitchcock's knack for depicting psychological deterioration, especially in the scenes where Hitchcock approaches Tippi in darkened rooms, or when she retreats in shock after long days on The Birds. The handful of nods to iconic Hitchcock shots-- a straight-on shot of a shower head a la Psycho, a winding staircase a la Vertigo-- only further highlight how someone like Hitchcock would mold his material, but Jarrold simply depicts it. But the film is stuffed with enough insider details to thrill Hitchcock fanatics anyway, from Imelda Staunton's performance as his fed-up wife Alma to the primitive green screen used to shoot the memorable opening scene of Marnie. It's tempting sometimes to follow those details instead of the cipher who is Tippi, but that's not the movie The Girl is.
The Girl's strong performances and inside Hollywood stories practically guarantee Emmy and Golden Globe consideration next year, and it's sadly Toby Jones's lot to once again play an iconic historical figure at the same time as a more established Hollywood star-- Philip Seymour Hoffman pre-empted his performance as Truman Capote in Infamous, and Anthony Hopkins will be stepping into Hitch's fat suit in this fall's Hitchcock. But in telling a story of degradation and power in Hollywood, The Girl has plenty of its own strength, and ought to make for fascinating viewing for anyone who always suspected there was a savage man behind all those classic horror films.