The Girl (HBO, October 20, 9 p.m.), about the making of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, is an intriguing behind-the-scenes look at a classic, a portrait of a brilliant but disturbed director who put leading ladies through hell, and a drama about the Faustian bargain that some actors strike with Hollywood. Its emotional bandwidth ranges from “creepy” to “I don’t know if I can watch this.” At one point, Hitchcock (Toby Jones) punishes The Birds’ star Tippi Hedren (Sienna Miller) for rejecting his advances by trapping her in a phone booth on a soundstage for five days while fake and real birds bombarded her, shattering the glass, attacking her body, and scarring her face. It’s essentially a rape scene, and it’s longer than the one in Irreversible. It’s hard to say what’s more upsetting: Hedren cowering on the soundstage floor, fending off dive-bombing seagulls with her scratched-up arms, or the reaction shots of the crew observing the filming. They were there five days, but nobody intervened until the last day, when Hedren was nearly catatonic from shock and fear. And throughout, Hitchcock just sat there staring impassively.
There’s plenty of this sort of thing in The Girl. This movie, directed by Julian Jarrold, pictures Hitchcock as a sad little fat man who just happened to be a genius filmmaker. According to screenwriter Gwyneth Hughes, whose adaptation draws heavily on the work of Hitchcock biographer Donald Spoto, Hitchcock never quite overcame his childhood fear of criminal assault, his pathological fear of jails and cops, or his (sadly accurate) adult realization that he would never be anywhere near as beautiful as the actors and actresses he photographed so glamorously; he channeled his insecurities into his controlling visual style, which predetermined nearly everything that eventually appeared onscreen, from camera moves and cuts to the color of performers’ blouses and hats.
The movie pictures Hedren as just a nice young woman who wanted to be a star, was delighted to win a part in a new movie by the Master of Suspense, and endured steadily escalating abuse throughout the shooting of The Birds and its follow-up, Marnie. The Girl is a sumptuously photographed parable of workplace sexual harassment. Hitch, who later confesses that he’s never had sex with anyone except his wife and collaborator, Alma (Imelda Staunton), projects his fantasies of sexual mastery onto Hedren, who at first politely pretends she doesn’t know what he’s getting at. He begins their relationship with innuendo and works his way up to dirty limericks, then unwanted kissing and groping, then sustained physical attack (the phone booth scene), ending with the explicit linkage of ongoing employment and sexual availability.
Hedren kept working with him because … why? Because she wanted the money or the fame. Because she didn’t want to get blackballed by one of the most powerful men in Hollywood. Because that’s what women did back then, for fear of being written off as a killjoy, a bad sport, or worse, “frigid” — a term Hitchcock keeps applying to the character of Marnie, over Hedren’s objections. In a way, this film’s Hitchcock is replaying the story of Vertigo via central casting, trying to turn every blonde he works with into his greatest unrequited-love object, Grace Kelly, who stopped being a movie princess and became princess of Monaco.
The Girl is serious, lovingly detailed, and occasionally artful: I love the repeated shots of Hedren on set as seen over Hitch’s shoulder, mimicking the perspective of a viewer watching a finished film on a big screen, and the judicious visual shout-outs to other Hitchcock movies. But there’s ultimately not enough imagination, enough art, in The Girl to justify its having been made. As pathetic and gross as Hitchcock might have been, his films rank among the twentieth century’s great works of popular art. The movie rarely admits this to the degree that it should, maybe because admitting it would compel the film to acknowledge that Hitchcock’s personal offensiveness and artistic complexity came from the same place. I think that if one is going to tear the lid off Hitchcock’s image as a wry provocateur and expose its revolting interior, one should at least try to invest the story with as much imaginative sympathy as Hitchcock himself brought to Notorious and Vertigo, two of the greatest, most unsparing films ever made about men’s desire to control women and the social conditioning that inspires some women to succumb.
The Girl very rarely gets anywhere close to that level of creativity; it plays more like a lavishly funded Lifetime movie, and its climactic moment of “empowerment” — Hedren standing up to Hitch and walking away, after making two feature films with him and accepting all the money he helped put in her pocket — rings strangely hollow. It’s as if the movie is trying to superimpose a 21st-century feminist consciousness on events from five decades earlier and tack an inspirational ending on a story that is, for the most part, horrible and depressing. I wish Kathryn Bigelow or Michelle MacLaren or some other dynamic female filmmaker who understands Hitchcock as an artist had directed this movie; it might have pulled our sympathies this way and that, as the best Hitchcock movies do. For now, I guess, we’ll have to make do with The Girl’s scenery and costumes, Toby Young’s melting frown, and the promise of Hitchcock, starring Anthony Hopkins as Hitch, Helen Mirren as Alma, and Scarlett Johannson as Psycho star Janet Leigh. Or maybe just any of the halfway decent Hitchcock biographies.