It’s hard to imagine anyone other than a hardcore movie buff getting much out of The Girl, the new HBO drama about the disturbing mid-1960s relationship between filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock and actress Tippi Hedren. “Disturbing” may be too mild a word: Hitchcock, coming off the phenomenal success of Psycho and his hit television show, plucked Hedren from semi-obscurity (she’d been a successful model) and apparently came to see her as a puppet to be used as he pleased. Her resistance to his increasingly abusive sexual fixation led him to cripple her budding career, which should have soared after her starring roles in The Birds (1963) and Marnie (1964). Just how far she would have gone is debatable — among Hitchcock’s leading ladies, Hedren was no match for Grace Kelly, Eva Marie Saint, or Ingrid Bergman — but there’s no question she deserved better than she got.
The script draws from Donald Spoto’s book Spellbound by Beauty and, judging from some of the details, Me and Hitch, Evan Hunter’s amusing account of what it was like to work with Hitchcock 0n the two Hedren films. (Hunter took rueful credit for the idea of making The Birds a screwball romantic comedy that abruptly morphed into a horror film.) Spoto first delved into the director’s creepy behavior in his earlier Hitchcock biography, The Dark Side of Genius, and the revelation crystalized much that had been bothersome about the treatment of women in his films — a nasty streak partly concealed by the sexual mores of the era, but made clear in the rape-as-therapy plotline of Marnie and the misogynistic humor in Frenzy. Hitchcock was an innovative virtuoso of film technique and his gallows wit remains bracing to this day, but there were some pretty dark alleys in the back of his mind, and Tippi Hedren had to make her way through the worst of them.
Film buffs already know most of the details, and The Girl dutifully ticks them off, but for anyone not immersed in cinema history the film will come off as little more than an extended PSA on the evils of sexual harassment in the workplace. During this period Hitchcock was at the peak of his career, completely at home in the endless technical details of making big-ticket movies, but The Girl gives no sense of him as a master of a hugely difficult craft. Toby Jones gives an utterly uncanny impersonation of Hitchcock’s inimitable voice and delivery, but he captures none of the maestro’s drollery and outward charm. With his bulging forehead and fixed stare, Jones looks like he just chewed his way out of John Hurt’s chest. By playing Hitchcock as deeply, obviously weird right from the start, The Girl loses the shock of seeing a man who personified dry British wit turning into a coarse, perverted bully. And contrary to what the closing note would have us believe, Marnie is not “hailed as Hitchcock’s final masterpiece” by anyone other than the most hero-worshipping auteurist. If anything, it’s marked down as the film that showed the old man going off the rails. Whether you think he got back on track depends on your view of the last four films: Torn Curtain, Topaz, Frenzy, and Family Plot.
As Tippi Hedren, Sienna Miller does solid work in an underwritten role — paradoxically, it takes real talent to play a believable mediocrity, and Miller gives Hedren plenty of emotional shading beneath the icy blondness. As Hitchcock’s reserved but not entirely submissive wife Alma, Imelda Staunton makes the most of her few minutes of screen time — it’s obvious she’s seen this grubby embarrassment on the horizon for a long time. But screenwriter Gwyneth Hughes and director Julian Jerrold leave them adrift. The casting couch was nothing new in Hollywood, and in the early Sixties unwanted sexual attention was usually considered the woman’s problem — if it was even seen as a problem to begin with. A typical episode of Mad Men gives a better evocation of the time and place. Instead, Jerrold gives us clever-clever visual quotes from Psycho and Vertigo, which serve as unfortunate reminders that as bad as he could be in private, Alfred Hitchcock was still ten times the filmmaker anyone involved with The Girl can hope to be.