Hitchcock’s girl

Tippi Hedren photographed at home in California

There is quite a procedure surrounding meeting Tippi Hedren at Shambala, her Californian home, because it is in a gated community. But not in the conventional Beverly Hills sense. The “gates” are 15ft security fences and the “community” is Hedren’s own safari-style sanctuary, a reserve for more than 50 big cats formerly used in the entertainment industry, or previously owned by people who think an apex predator might make a lovely pet. It includes lions, one of Michael Jackson’s tigers and a couple of leopards.

Hedren has several domestic cats too. These are kept at a safe distance from their larger cousins, and all appear to be named after sexy film stars. “Where’s Johnny Depp?” coos Hedren as we arrive, referring to a grey tabby who whisks past on to the netted roof of the conservatory.

Hedren, tiny, blonde, booted in knee-length leather and, at 82, still beautiful, once had the world at her feet. She was christened Nathalie: the nickname came from her Swedish father and derives from tupsa – meaning adorable. Hollywood certainly adored her. Cool and ice-blonde, she stepped into the public domain as if she had always been there: a fully-fledged star after just one film; a working woman – and single mother to boot – whose poise had caused Alfred Hitchcock to summon her after a single sighting in a television ad for a diet drink.

Johnny Depp is eventually coaxed down and put firmly indoors. “He probably won’t try that again,” says Hedren. “Antonio Banderas got into the lion’s enclosure. That was the end of him.” I thought for a moment she was talking about her son-in-law. Banderas, the actor, is married to the actress Melanie Griffith, Hedren’s only child. When the call came from Hitchcock, Melanie was a toddler and Hedren a successful model, who had spent the 1950s making pots of money under the care of Eileen Ford at the famous Ford Modeling agency in New York.

Hedren with her daughter, actress Melanie Griffith

“I had a very successful career going on as a fashion model,” she says. “And of course with the advent of television came the commercials.” These commercials paid well, and it was easy work for Hedren, then married to the actor/producer Peter Griffith, three years younger than her. The union was short-lived. In 1961, they divorced and Hedren decided to head back to the west with Melanie. She was 31 and had no fears about upping sticks. Fear is not an emotion Hedren experiences often, I learn.

“I thought I could continue my career as it had been in New York, so I rented a very expensive home. I thought everything would be just fine, and it wasn’t. So I thought, well, I don’t type, what shall I do?”

Fortunately, TV commercials have a long shelf-life, and Hedren was in a particularly good one, for Sego, a diet drink. In it, she had to sashay past an array of admiring men. “I wasn’t just holding up a product, you know,” she says, drolly. On Friday 13 October 1961, after the ad had been running on TV, the phone rang. It was a man from Universal Studios. “He said ‘Are you the woman in the Sego advert? There is a producer here who is interested to meet you.’” Who was the producer? The man would not say. “I did not know all weekend who this person was,” says Hedren. “I was giving a cocktail party, and my agent was there, and he knew and he wouldn’t tell me.”

She thinks this is hilariously funny, even 50 years on, her face creasing up with laughter. She looks the spitting image of her daughter. (“No,” she corrects me firmly. “I do not look like Melanie. Melanie looks like me.”)

When she discovered the mystery producer was Hitchcock, she was thrilled, thinking that perhaps he might want her to work on one of his television projects. “A contract would mean a salary for me to take care of my daughter. And from one of the most famous directors in the entire industry. What could possibly be wrong with that?”

Hedren posing between scenes of 'The Birds'

Hitchcock honoured her with a personal welcome to Universal. “He opened the door and stood there with his hands over his belly. We had tea. We talked about everything; food, travel, wine, all sorts of things, everything other than making a motion picture.” Did she want to appear willing to please? “Sure. Of course, I wanted to come over as pliable. There would be no point in saying I wanted to be under contract and then being negative. It was very exciting.”

There were screen tests and wardrobe fittings. Finally, four months later, Hedren was invited to lunch with Hitchcock, his wife, Alma, and Lew Wassermann, head of Universal. The venue was Chasen’s, the starriest restaurant in Hollywood. The table was Hitchcock’s.

“Hitch placed a beautifully wrapped parcel from this wonderful gift shop, Gump’s of San Francisco, on my plate. I opened it and it was this beautiful gold and seed-pearl pin of three birds in flight. And he said, ‘We want you to play Melanie Daniels in The Birds.’ I was so stunned. It never occurred to me that I would be given a leading role in a major motion picture. I had great big tears in my eyes,” says Hedren.

“I looked over at Mrs Hitchcock and she was tearing up, and even Lew Wasserman was affected. I looked over at Hitch, and he was sitting there looking very pleased with himself.”

Hedren is wearing the actual pin. One of the pearls has been lost, but I can understand why she has not replaced it. One wouldn’t want to tamper with it. It is the symbol both of her springboard to fame, and her eventual prison. From then on, she was at the mercy of her Svengali.

“Well, she has nothing to unlearn,” Hitchcock was said to have commented, when explaining why he had cast a novice in the lead role for his eagerly awaited, latest film. Here was his Eliza Doolittle, a woman he could mould as he desired. At least, he thought so.

The story of how Hitchcock became mesmerised and obsessed with Hedren, and her rejection of him, has merited a drama, to be screened later this year on the BBC (and in the US, on HBO). Toby Jones plays Hitchcock and Sienna Miller, Hedren.

Sienna Miller as Tippi Hedren in 'The Girl'

Hedren isn’t remotely interested in how beautiful Miller is in the film (which she is). What she cares about is that Sienna plays her “strong”. “And not shy,” she says. “Because I was not, not at all.” There was nothing coy about Hedren. Vulnerable, inexperienced, a single mother she may have been. But she had a formidable presence.

Hitchcock, however, was just as determined. Indeed, by the time of The Birds, he was lauded and untouchable. Both physically and creatively he had become one of Hollywood’s colossal personalities. “On set he always held court,” recalls Hedren. “We would hear the announcement ‘Alfred Hitchcock has arrived.’ He was always the most important entity. Wherever he went.” And what he wanted was what he got. Always.

Tippi Hedren in 'The Birds'

It started at the end of The Birds. To depict the notorious final sequence, when Melanie is attacked by dozens of birds on her own in an upstairs bedroom, Hedren was reassured that mechanical birds would be used. Yet Hitchcock had always planned otherwise. She arrived on set to discover cages of live birds were being put in position for the terrifying denouement. The reality was as horrific as the film. “I just kind of did it,” says Hedren, with her eyes shut. “It was hardly even acting. They put bands around my waist and these bands had elastics pulled in different places through my dress. And the bird trainers tied the elastics to the feet of the birds, so they were all around me. One was even tied to my shoulder. At one point, it jumped up and almost clawed my eye.”

The torment went on for five days. “At the end, I was so exhausted I just sat in the middle of the stage, sobbing.” In the BBC film, Hedren is shown with clothes ripped, skin bleeding from pecks, hysterical, while Hitchcock impassively looks on, almost as if he is willing his film to break her.

Why did she go back to make another Hitchcock movie, the darkly suggestive Marnie, where Hedren plays a compulsive thief alongside Sean Connery?

“Because I was under contract,” she says. Was Hitchcock pleased that he had created a star? “Apparently.” Did he ever praise your performance? “Not particularly.” All the same, he was not slow in dressing her up and presenting her at Cannes, on his arm. Hedren was the toast of the film world. Hitchcock, always keen to appear in his own fictions, presented himself as the director who had invented her. There is a photograph of them both standing at the Palais in Cannes, Hitchcock looking like the cat who got the cream.

Hedren with Alfred Hitchcock arriving for the Cannes Film Festival in 1963

“The French Foreign Legion were all lined up with their swords in an arch for me,” Hedren remembers. “I was wearing the most beautiful Edith Head gown; white satin, with a coat down to the floor, also white satin. Alexandre de Paris did my hair. It was awesome, how they put me together.”

A star was indeed born, but Hedren was an experienced woman in her thirties. “I wasn’t a little girl,” she says. So when Hitchcock sought to draw her on to his casting couch, she rejected him. In the BBC drama, Hitchcock is shown pawing Hedren, begging her to touch him, kiss him, attesting that he wants to share his life with her and will give up everything for her. Was it actually like that? “Pretty much so. It was horrifying. A horrible situation in which to be.” She shudders. “There were women who would have gone along with it, but I wasn’t one of those. The demands were ... brutal.” Could she have made a fuss? Of course not. “Nobody had heard of suing for sexual harassment. Although, if that happened today, I would be a very rich woman.”

Having created a star who had the temerity to reject him, Hitchcock made sure she paid for it. Hedren was informed she had received a best newcomer award, and was invited to accept it live on The Tonight Show in New York. It would have been a prestigious moment of national acclaim for her. Hitchcock refused to let her leave Marnie’s LA set.

“That was when things came to a horrible, horrible fight,” says Hedren. “He made these demands on me, and no way could I acquiesce to them.”

A promotional poster for the film 'Marnie'

After Marnie had finished shooting, she’d had enough. “I said I wanted to get out of my contract. He said: ‘You can’t. You have your daughter to support, and your parents are getting older.’ I said: ‘Nobody would want me to be in this situation, I want to get out.’ And he said: ‘I’ll ruin your career.’ I said: ‘Do what you have to do,’” says Hedren. “And he did ruin my career. He kept me under contract, paid me to do nothing for close on two years.”

Directors, including François Truffaut, came knocking. They were all sent away. Hitchcock informed them that Hedren, the hottest actress in Hollywood, was “not available” for work. When she was finally let go by Hitchcock, she was no longer the woman of the moment. Her moment had come; she was unable to exploit it, and it had gone. Was this hard to bear? “I came to terms with it the moment I said it,” she says. It seems that stardom wasn’t all that important to her. “I had none of those feelings,” says Hedren, batting away images of satin gowns and Alexandre de Paris with a sort of steely magnificence.

“All I wanted to do was to get out of the horrible situation. I didn’t hear about things like Truffaut asking for me until years later. Yes, I felt like I had been cheated. It was like, ‘he giveth and he taketh away.’” She shrugs. Was she ever tempted to relent? “Not for one minute,” she says. “I would have been unable to live with myself.”

The actress at her safari-style sanctuary, Shambala

He never importuned her again, and she never discussed it with anyone. The story only came out years later, after Hitchcock’s biographer Donald Spoto asked her about it. She has no regrets. “I saved myself. I know that,” she says. “I feel good about that. I wish I had gone on to do all those other films. But I couldn’t. I replaced the films with other things.”

She married her agent Noel Marshall. She made some low-budget movies. She spent 11 years working on her own personal saga, Roar. Directed by Marshall and starring herself, Marshall and Melanie, Roar was the story of a family who lived alongside more than 100 leopards, lions and tigers. It cost $17m, made $2m when it was eventually released, and was once described as “the most expensive home movie ever made”. Afterwards, Hedren transformed the Roar set into Shambala, the sanctuary where she now lives.

Her movie career stalled. So what? She sailed around the South China Sea giving food and clothes to refugees from Vietnam – the Boat People – and sending them to “safe havens”. For those who arrived in America, she did more. She taught Vietnamese women how to do manicures, and sent them to beauty school. Forty years on, the nail bar business in New York and Los Angeles is now dominated by the Vietnamese community. Last year, Hedren went to Washington, DC to receive a humanitarian award for her efforts. “I’m regarded as the patron saint of manicurists,” she says, regarding her hands (they are, of course, perfectly done). “Tee hee hee!”

A promotional poster for 'The Birds'

Yet it is those two films, made more than 50 years ago, which fascinate the public even now. Recently, a playful poll on Twitter asking “Who was Hitchcock’s greatest leading lady?” came up with one name above all: Hedren. She knows it, and accepts it. Her own house reflects it. There are pictures from Marnie, stills from The Birds (on wine labels), books about Hitchcock on the coffee table, and stuffed birds perched in almost every corner.

How does she avoid feeling bitter? Years in therapy? She looks at me as if I am mad.

“I don’t have time for counselling!” she says. “I’m very busy. Self-belief? My parents gave it to me. I know so many people who are eaten up by regret. It manifests itself in so many ways. They either become mentally a bit off, or they get very fat, or they are just horribly depressed. And there is also that thing called age. They don’t write movies for older people,” she says, laughing.

She is the least vain Hollywood personality I have ever met. Perhaps she’s had a bit of work done on her face, who knows? She’s not interested in hiding her age. Both invitations to her 70th and 80th birthday parties (each one thrown by Melanie), are framed and hung on her living room wall. She’s not keen on taking herself too seriously, either. “I went through passports at LA airport the other day,” she says, “and the security lady said ‘Oh, your name is Tippi Hedren. Do you know we had the real Tippi Hedren through here last year.’” She snorts with laughter. “I like going into town with no make-up on. And people say ‘You remind me so much of that Tippi Hedren!’. ‘Happens all the time,’ I tell them.”

So, tell me Hedren. Which leading man did you fancy more? The strong Rod Taylor from The Birds, or Scotsman Sean Connery? “Well,” she says, sitting down in a mountain of tiger-striped cushions. “After Sean Connery was neutered, to be honest he was never quite the same.” She looks at me steadily. “Sean Connery, the cat,” she says, hooting with laughter. Before admitting that of course it was the Scotsman who did it for her.

And how about Hitch? He never made a hit film after Marnie. And as his loyal secretary Peggy Robertson always said, “He never got over Tippi.”

‘The Girl’, a Wall to Wall production, will be shown on BBC2 later this year

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