Hitchcock and His Leading Ladies: Who Had the Power?

Last month, HBO premiered The Girla movie about Alfred Hitchcock’s production of The Birds. Last week, the movie Hitchcock, about the production of Psycho, hit theaters with Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren, and Scarlett Johansson in starring roles. Both films focus on Hitchcock’s relationships with his leading ladies, so we decided to take a look at a book devoted to that very subject, Donald Spoto’s “Spellbound by Beauty: Alfred Hitchcock and His Leading Ladies.”

Spoto is the author of multiple Hitchcock books, and “Spellbound by Beauty” focuses on the director’s tense working relationships with his female stars, and as the New York Times pointed out in 2008, “there is another love-hate affair on display here: the one between this biographer and his subject.” The book is packed with stories of bad conduct, from Hitchcock’s mean jokes to his inexcusable treatment of performers. He tormented Janet Leigh by surprising her with shriveled heads in her makeup chair (they were the scary props he was using for Mrs. Bates’ corpse in Psycho). His treatment of Tippi Hedren on The Birds, seriously risking her health (and eyeballs), is legendary.

But not every woman who crossed his path was victimized or manipulated, and some gave as good as they got: Carole Lombard came back with dirtier jokes than the ones Hitch tried to use to scandalize her.  And Ingrid Bergman not only stood up to him, but contributed to his process. She disagreed with her director’s approach to certain scenes, and wasn’t shy about letting him know, right there on set.  According to Spoto’s book, during the shooting of Notorious, she told Hitchcock that he had her character reacting far too quickly, and showed him how it should be played. To everyone’s shock, Hitchcock agreed and shot the scene her way.

"Spellbound by Beauty: Alfred Hitchcock and His Leading Ladies" by Donald Spoto; Illustration by Nathan Gelgud, 2012.