Spellbound by Beauty: Alfred Hitchcock and His Leading Ladies

By DONALD SPOTO

About actors, Alfred Hitchcock famously brokered no compliments. In his third book about the director, Donald Spoto explores the “strange amalgam of adoration and contempt” Hitchcock felt for performers, whom he termed “cattle” and “stupid children.” The result is a breathless catalogue of behavior over more than fifty years of moviemaking that ranged from merely cold to downright cruel. “Svengali Hitch,” as he called himself, enjoyed putting women, beautiful blondes especially, through degrading, dangerous agonies in order to remake them as stars. He segregated them from cast and crew, told dirty jokes, exposed himself, and played pranks, such as leaving skulls on Janet Leigh’s chair during the making of Psycho.”But he saved the real horrors for Tippi Hedren, with whom he was obsessively but unrequitedly in love. While shooting The Birds, Hedren almost died from physical exhaustion after Hitchcock kept her chained to real birds for five days of filming. Spoto tries to counterbalance the adulation that has ossified since the director’s death in 1980 but also strives to demonstrate the humanity behind Hitch’s pathology. Hitchcock partly believed that his actions would translate into better reactions on screen and partly resented the actors’ high salaries and active social lives. Isolated by his obesity, repressed, and just plain mean, Hitch animated his pictures with his neuroses. We in turn watch his characters in emotional extremis, our enjoyment sanctioned by the fact that their suffering is mere fiction; how complicated our pleasure becomes when we begin to see the extent to which life mirrored art.