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18th February 2013

Finally we flip the lens: The dethroning of Alfred Hitchcock

Jessie Cohen analyses the current obsession with getting to know the man behind the master of suspense

In 2012 – thirty years after Hitchcock’s death – Hollywood decided that the time had come to ‘out’ the man behind the legend. First released was HBO’s The Girl, drawing on interviews with Tippi Hedren and reports from people on the set of The Birds in order to expose Hitchcock as an abusive, perverted director who could not differentiate between the fantasy woman he brought to life on screen and the actress herself. Toby Jones plays a pompous, over-zealous Hitchcock who speaks to Hedren (played by Sienna Miller) in cryptic riddles, incapable of engaging in a mutual dialogue with a person who he perceives not only as a fantasy figure but as his own construction.

For his engrained misogyny and piercing powers of projection, Hitchcock is reprimanded in this cathartic unveiling of Hedren’s traumatic experience as a ‘Hitchcock blonde’. The Girl gives voice to the silenced woman, and should be celebrated for daring to shatter illusions about this brilliant, charming man.

Fox’s Hitchcock, currently in cinemas, achieves something quite different. It peers into Hitchcock’s private life and illuminates the back-seat involvement of his wife, Alma Reville, on his most challenging film, Psycho. This film can be aligned with the popular trope of exploring the unknown, quietly oppressed woman behind the famous male. Hitchcock, it turns out, has a cheap and unsettling purpose: to divulge the private life of a public figure for the sake of entertainment, merely seeking to add colour to the blacked-out, two-dimensional profile shot that we are so familiar with.

Hitchcock is a shallow exposé of the human behind the facade, but what is most unsavory about the film is that it plays into the postmodern sense of entitlement to know everything about our celebrities, including their – rather irrelevant – private lives. Jodie Foster, who has been in the public eye since childhood, recently gave a speech at the 2013 Golden Globe Awards in which she rejects this inappropriate societal expectation: ‘Now I’m told that every celebrity is expected to honor the details of their private life with a press conference, a fragrance and a prime-time reality show. You guys might be surprised, but I am not Honey Boo Boo Child.’ For dead celebrities, there is no such check on our growing desire to expose and ‘peep’ into their lives. Ironically, in the case of Hitchcock, this desire is indulged in his films – from Psycho to The Birds – though the voyeuristic offense is committed against fictional characters. Therein lies the critical difference.

In their making, both films legitimate our insatiable appetite for peeping into the private lives of our public figures, but whereas The Girl exposes the monster behind the genius, Hitchcock lacks the self-awareness that a biopic on a misogynist man cannot afford to sweep under the carpet.

The objectifying irony of this apparent expression of devotion goes un-noted in this twee Hollywood biopic which compliantly sings to the 60’s tune: ‘This is a man’s world […] But it would be nothing, nothing without a woman or a girl’ (James Brown). Conversely, The Girl challenges the terms of this age-old tune by exposing that in the case of the ‘great and glorious’ Hitchcock it took a woman and a girl.

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