Three days after the HBO premiere of “The Girl,” Tippi Hedren appeared in person at the Academy for a beautiful digital screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds.” Though the actress has been outspoken recently about her troubled relationship with the director — particularly during the production of “The Birds,” which “The Girl” chronicles — her words for the Master of Suspense at the October 23 screening were more tempered.
Hedren described her discovery prior to the film as “almost like a fairytale.” She had been with Ford Models for 11 years before Hitchcock’s wife and collaborator Alma Reville (portrayed by Helen Mirren in Sacha Gervasi’s upcoming “Hitchcock”) spotted the 31-year-old Hedren in a TV commercial. In very little time, “Hitch called the executives at Universal and said, ‘Find the girl.'”
Hedren mentioned wryly that the studio heads called her on Friday the 13th of October, 1961, asking her to come in for an audition, but remained mum on which director or project she would be reading for. Even after discovering that Alfred Hitchcock himself had shown interest in her, Hedren underwent extensive screen testing for a role still undisclosed to her. Bob Boyle was brought in for set design, Edith Head for costuming, and Hedren auditioned in this elaborate set-up for three days, reading lines from “Rebecca,” “Notorious” and “To Catch a Thief.”
“Alfred Hitchcock Presents” was a popular show at the time, and Hedren assumed she was auditioning for a role in one of the episodes. But soon thereafter, Hitchcock, Reville and Universal studio head Lew Wasserman took her to dinner, presenting her with a broach with three birds on it (which she wore to the Academy screening), and telling her she had won the lead role of Melanie Daniels in “The Birds.”
“The Birds” is one of Hitchcock’s stranger pictures, anticipating the small-town discontent of “The Last Picture Show” and the senseless animal horror of “Jaws.” Playgirl Melanie (Hedren), a Paris Hilton-type with more refinement, tracks down Mitch (Rod Taylor) after he’s mocked her in a bird shop, following him to gray Bodega Bay, where he lives on weekends with his mother (Jessica Tandy) and his much younger sister (Veronica Cartwright). When increasing masses of gulls, crows and swallows begin randomly and viciously attacking the locals, Melanie’s stay in the seaside town is extended to a traumatic weekend of fending off the lethal fowl. She falls for Mitch in the process, much to the quiet devastation of school teacher Annie (an excellent Suzanne Pleschette).
When Hedren was asked to describe her experience during the production of the film, she responded dryly: “Do we have about five hours?”
However, as opposed to going for the jugular as she did at the TCA (where she outright called Hitchcock “evil and deviant”), Hedren instead opted for some illuminating onset stories. While Hitch is famously known for heeding the advice of Reville, there was another seasoned pro who made him sit up and listen: Jessica Tandy. One of the strongest sequences in “The Birds” is a quiet and attack-free scene in which Melanie takes care of Mitch’s mother, Lydia (Tandy), after she’s had a fright discovering one of the winged monsters’ bloody victims.
Hedren described the scene: “I bring her a tray of tea, and Hitch said, ‘I want you to play this in a very bitchy way.’ So I did! When the scene was assembled, Jessica watched it with Hitch, and when they were done watching it she turned to him and said, ‘Nobody’s going to like that girl.’ And, you know what? Hitch listened to her. Back came the set…and I did [the scene again] in a very caring way. It was one of the best lessons I ever had — how an actress can change the whole picture by the way that one scene was done. “
In one of the film’s most famous sequences, Melanie Daniels discovers a room full of birds, who dive-bomb her almost to death with pecks and cuts. When Hedren went over the scene with Hitchcock prior to shooting, she asked specifically about the daunting logistics, to which he replied that they would be using mechanical ravens, “as we did with the children.” But Hedren never got the kids’ special treatment: “They all lied to me. There had been no intention of using mechanical birds.There were four cartons filled with ravens, gulls and pigeons, and trainers with gauntlets up to their shoulders, and they hurled those birds at me for five days. That was memorable.”
Veronica Cartwright, who played Mitch’s 12-year-old sister Cathy and was one of the child actors given the luxury of the mechanical birds, was also on-hand for the Academy’s discussion. She said that her experience on the film “was completely different than Tippi’s,” and that she felt comfortable around Hitchcock. But Hitch was still his devious self around the young Cartwright, telling jokes about prostitute nuns and giving her recommendations for good wine shops.
Cartwright did at one point half-jokingly signal to the elephant in the room: “Someone asked me the other day, ‘Did you see ‘The Girl’ the other night? Was he really that creepy?’ I said I didn’t see that side of him except for the time that we were on the treadmill and he kept speeding it up, maybe to look at little panties? I don’t know.” Cartwright ran on the tread mill for the rear-projection sequences outside of the schoolhouse, when throngs of crows descend on the school children.
When Cartwright described her then-naive confusion with the common practice of studio reshoots (in this case, all Bodega Bay scenes were shot once on location, and once on the Universal lot), Hedren interjected: “What we did up in Bodega Bay was mostly the outdoor scenes, because what [Hitchcock] wanted was control of the lighting. So these sets were brought back into the studio so that he would have control to make his leading ladies look absolutely fabulous.”