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The Death of the Author: The Impact of Off-Screen Behaviour on On-Screen Antics…

The rather convolutedly-titled Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho will be arriving soon, the director’s Vertigo was recently named by Sight & Sound as the best film of all time and the British Film Institute is running a season of the director’s films. (There’s even a nice blu ray box set being released in October.) However, this focus on Alfred Hitchcock has, naturally, brought some focus on to the less pleasant aspects of his character. October, for example, will also see HBO airing The Girl, a documentary exploring his relationship with Tippi Hedren. She has some choice words on his character.

“I think he was an extremely sad character,” she said during a panel discussion of HBO’s upcoming The Girl, which recounts her troubled relationship with the director. “We are dealing with a brain here that was an unusual genius, and evil, and deviant, almost to the point of dangerous, because of the effect that he could have on people that were totally unsuspecting.”

Of course, such accusations and allegations are by no means new, but it does raise an interesting question about those masters of cinema. Even for those of us who resist the supermarket tabloid gossip about engagements and break-ups and cute-sounding-couple-nicknames, is it ever possible to divorce filmmaking from the person either in front or behind the camera?

It is easy to shrug off such accusations, to question the timing and accuse Hedren of trying to generate media attention. Some commentators have already done this:

Hedren choosing to come forward with these claims and accusations now is unseemly, her timing makes it appear as fodder to help promote an HBO production. Hitchcock, of course, isn’t able to defend himself, and while Hedren talks of joyous times they spent on set together, that isn’t what’s going to create headlines.

I don’t necessarily think that her claims are as unfair or as unreasonable as that – I don’t believe that Hitchcock should be immune to personal criticism because he is dead. I don’t like to “speak ill of the dead”, but I also think that these are accusations and observations that do merit discussion. This isn’t cheap tabloid gossip about the stars of the day getting married, or having affairs, or nonsense like that.

After all, Hitchcock’s attitudes towards women, and the way he treated them, have been the subject of much discussion and debate. There’s an old story about the director entertaining guests at a dinner part by demonstrating how to strangle a woman with one hand. His on-set antics with his actresses were legendary – and not in a good way. He used to leave the “mother” prop from Psycho in Janet Leigh’s dressing room, just to see what reaction it would get. So it’s understandable that Hitchcock’s attitude towards his starlets – and his conduct off-camera towards them is fair game.

It’s worth noting that this is quite different from the mundane celebrity gossip about who happens to be sleeping with, cheating on or marrying somebody else famous. That’s people’s personal lives, and I’ve always felt that that sort of behaviour is nobody’s business but their own. I am, for example, extremely wary of Universal’s attempts to generate headlines for Snow White and the Huntsman using Kristen Stewart’s affair (despite the fact that they’d been planning on that course of action for a while). After all, those personal issues are hardly illegal, and certainly have a minimal impact on the films in question.

Hitchcock’s off-screen antics are undoubtedly linked to the films he was producing. He wasn’t, after all, torturing poor Tippi Hedren with birds for the hell of it. He got some of those performances through the application of excessive psychological pressure. Hedren alleges that when she refused Hitchcock’s advances, he effectively killed her career by refusing to use her (or let other studios use her) for the duration of her contract. Those are morally reprehensible actions, if true. (They are also illegal, even if they never would have been prosecuted during the sixties.)

So, does this taint Hitchcock’s films by association? Or is it possible to divorce the filmmaker from his work entirely? Truth be told, I’m not quite sure. After all, if we accept that Hitchcock’s actions were completely morally unjustifiable, are the films he produced affected in the same way? Are they effectively fruit of some metaphorical poisonous tree? Is purchasing them some sort of vote of confidence in an individual who has a very dubious person record?

To be honest, I’ve asked myself this question quite a bit with regards to Roman Polanski. The director’s criminal actions are infamous, and I’m surprised that he can convince actors to work with him. I was actually quite pleased that he might face extradition to stand trial for his crimes, and was flabbergasted by the celebrities rushing to his defence. Whoopi Goldberg’s “it wasn’t rape-rape” is perhaps the most offensively ridiculous attempts to justify something that pretty much falls under quite a few definitions of the word “rape.”

And yet, despite that, I can still watch Polanski’s films. I still think Carnage was really quite good. Chinatown remains a cinematic classic. However, every time his name appears on screen, I do wonder about whether I’m somehow lending my support to an individual who is clearly morally reprehensible. Does the fact that I enjoy his work diminish my arguments that Polanski needs to face justice? Is it hypocritical for me to enjoy his films, despite the fact they wouldn’t be made if he hadn’t fled his conviction? Does it undermine my concerns about the actors choosing to work with him? Is their position any different than mine?

We tend to avoid cinema that has a distinctly immoral taint. While many will laud the innovations made by Birth of a Nation, it’s racist overtones are explicit enough to effectively take it out of circulation. While we may debate the technical merits of the work of Leni Riefenstahl, its association with Nazism means that very few people will ever actually see that much of her work. Of course, the immoral elements are firmly invested in those films. You can’t divorce those elements from the frames on-screen.

The issues surrounding a filmmaker with a troubled past are a bit more complicated – at least they are for me. It is, for example, too easy to be a little too arbitrary. Mel Gibson was reportedly fired from The Hangover, Part II because of his anti-Semitic comments, but The Hangover featured a cameo from convicted rapist Mike Tyson. It’s very tough sometimes to distinguish between the people making the film and the film itself, to draw a clear line demarking one element from the other.

For what it’s worth, I don’t think the reputation of Hitchcock as a filmmaker is under any great threat from these allegations. I suspect that they will go down as footnotes, and perhaps even be discussed as pieces of trivia connected to his work, but I doubt that these allegations and suggestions will do any real severe damage to his legacy. After all, Hedren’s comments are not the first to be levelled at Hitchcock. I don’t know if they will lodge in the public imagination but – if they do – I suspect that the public consciousness will firmly compartmentalise those observations and insinuations.

However, it’s a more personal question as to how it affect my own perception of the director. Can I watch The Birds knowing the suffering that Hitchcock inflicted on-set on his young actress? Or is the film something that exists completely apart from the process? The truth is that I am not sure. I am not sure that anybody is.

2 Responses

  1. I have a feeling that Mike Tyson would’ve have been offered that role if his rape trial had been that same year. Time distances people from atrocities. In a few years, Mel Gibson will make a comeback (he’s trying already) and an audience will accept him with open arms. People always love stories of retribution and second chances.

    It took Polanski a few years to recover from his conviction (yes, he was actually convicted in a trial and was allowed to be free until the sentencing, at which time he fled the country) and actually start making decent movies again–of course, not in the U.S. Celebrities who work with him apparently are willing to overlook the fact that he drugged and forcibly had sex with a 13-year-old girl against her will (as well as committing other heinous acts on her) simply because he’s good at his craft. It’s one thing as an audience member to look at his work objectively, but it’s another to show up on the set with him every day and treat him like he’s a wonderful human being. Whoopi Goldberg’s comments were simply asinine, as she should be the first person to defend an innocent 13-year-old girl.

    • I thinkt hat’s what surprised me about Goldberg. She generally comes across as a fairly decent human being, completely divorced from her career and choices. You have a point about Tyson. Although part of me wonders if you’re right about Gibson. If he didn’t constantly self-sabotage, would we have already forgiven him for the drunken anti-Semitic rant, or even the situation with his girlfriend? You’re entirely correct that Gibson’s crew-ups seem almost perpetual, so there’s no chance for a clean break.

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