Dec 6, 2016

Book Review--Hitchcock, Roar and Manicures in Tippi: A Memoir

Tippi: A Memoir
Tippi Hedren with Lindsay Harrison
William Morrow, 2016

Though she's made her living acting, performing has never been the center of Tippi Hedren's existence. Most famous for the two movies she made with Alfred Hitchcock, The Birds (1963) and Marnie (1964), those experiences were brief, if significant, episodes in a busy, rich life. The actress and animal advocate speaks candidly about it all in a new memoir.

While her family had to be careful with money, Hedren was blessed with loving, supportive parents and the sort of beauty that made opportunity come to her. When she was in her teens, a modeling scout gave her a business card as she walked down the street one day, and it was the first break in a long career. When she began to age out of modeling, Tippi moved to Los Angeles, where commercial work led to her being discovered by Alfred Hitchcock, who she remembers with "admiration, gratitude and utter disgust."

Without fully understanding what she was signing up for, Hedren agreed to enter an acting contract with Hitchcock, eager to find a regular source of income as she was a single mother (to actress Melanie Griffith). The director and his wife Alma groomed the young actress for stardom, and she was shocked to eventually be offered the lead in The Birds.

Hedren in 1965
What followed was an intense experience, full of the perks of stardom, but also horrific because of Hitchcock's unrelenting sexual obsession with the actress. There has been a great deal of criticism of Hedren's revelations about her relationship with the director. I've found it difficult to understand the skepticism, since it was no secret that Hitch was known for erotic fixations on his actresses, and for making inappropriate sexual comments to stars like Ingrid Bergman (who dealt with them by laughing and saying he was a "naughty boy").

No one can account for what happened between Hedren and Hitchcock in private, but it is entirely plausible that the director groomed the actress in the hopes that he would better be able to control her than the bigger stars he usually had in his films. It could easily have been his way of finding both an actress for his film and the fulfilment of his erotic obsessions.

Hedren and Hitchcock in a promo for The Birds
The criticism that Hedren has "changed her story" over the years can be answered by the scorn of the male critics and writers who have commented since the release of the book. Victims of sexual harassment and abuse are inevitably the targets of more abuse and disbelief when they make their stories public. It is always a risk, and talking about it takes great bravery. Often that is why women chose to speak of it later in life, when there is less at stake.

Hedren's experiences with Hitchcock and indeed acting in general are not the focus of her memoirs though. Most of the book is devoted to how she came to love big cats and other exotic animals, and how she has cared and advocated for them throughout her life. This includes providing a sanctuary for homeless animals at her preserve Shambala and working to change laws to ensure their protection.

Another notable effort Hedren made to bring attention to her beloved animals was in her production of the notoriously troubled Roar (1981). Along with her dangerously impetuous husband Noel Marshall, the actress spent eleven years making a film featuring the animals on the preserve. Acting alongside their own children, they and the crew members suffered through life-threatening injuries (they practically had their own wing in the local hospital), lack of funding and even natural disasters to make what was ultimately a financial disaster (it probably would have been worse if they went with their original title choice: Lions, Lions and More Lions).

In addition to her animal advocacy, Hedren has also devoted a lot of time to human rights organizations. During the Vietnam War she took two dangerous trips to visit soldiers. In the war's aftermath, she returned to provide services and resources to Vietnamese refugees.

This led to Hedren taking on responsibility for several refugees who traveled to the States, where she helped them to find training and employment. The women admired the actress's nails, inspiring her to ask her manicurist to train them in the profession, after which she helped them to start their own businesses. With that one effort, she started a billion dollar manicure industry that still thrives today.

Hedren and her daughter Melanie Griffith in 2014
Hedren shares these experiences in a frank, open manner, though keeping the more salacious romantic details under wraps. She is honest about the shortcomings in her three failed marriages, but grateful for the good that came of them. Clearly it is her daughter Melanie who is the true love of her life, and her devotion to her, and candor about the lack of attention she gave her as child in her early years despite her deep affection, are touching and refreshing.

It's a bit disturbing how unaware Hedren seemed of the danger she caused others with the frequent escapes her big cats made, sometimes into residential neighborhoods. In one passage she seems more concerned about the trouble her preserve could face if one of her escaped cats were to attack someone, rather than fearing for an innocent victim. She seems to have come around though, and even worked to enact legislation which would protect humans from the dangerous, natural impulses of these animals.

Hedren has had so much handed to her because of her beauty and strong family background and she could have had a much simpler, easier life. That she has chosen the harder, more fascinating road and used her privilege to help others throughout her life is inspiring and admirable. In fact, in a further act of generosity, all proceeds from her memoir will be used to fund the Shambala preserve.

It's a fascinating read from an independent, adventurous and big-hearted woman.

1 comment:

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