The Birds Controversy Explained

Alfred Hitchcock is one of the most recognizable directors of any era, thanks as much to his frequent onscreen appearances as his celebrated body of work. The master of suspense appeared on chat shows, trailers, and made cameos in many of his films, creating a persona as distinct as the Hollywood superstars he directed. Over 40 years since he passed away, the character of Hitchcock is still vivid — rotund, loquacious, droll, and just a little sinister. His unique charisma was probably best demonstrated by the intro to his TV series "Alfred Hitchcock Presents," where his jowly silhouette aligned with his caricature to the strains of "Funeral March of the Marionette," a fitting choice for a man who delighted in the macabre and had a reputation for controlling his actors.

Hitchcock's career spanned six decades and over 50 films, yet it is perhaps the 10-year period between 1954 and 1964 for which he is best remembered. That decade encompassed some of his most commercially and artistically successful films, such as "Rear Window," "North by Northwest," "Psycho," and "Vertigo." It was also the period synonymous with the Hitchcock's penchant for the "icy blonde," of which several served as muse, including Grace Kelly, Eva Marie Saint, Kim Novak, Janet Leigh, and Tippi Hedren.

Regarded as one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, his work has been endlessly analyzed, as has the director himself. Film theorist Laura Mulvey discussed his work unfavorably in terms of Freudian hang-ups and the voyeuristic male gaze. Many suspect that Hitchcock's films were vehicles for his own lusts and obsessions, especially regarding women. Controversial biographer Donald Spoto claimed that Hitchcock was:

"A man in the grip of uncontrollable impulses... Hitchcock's pathological urges... included misogyny, sadistic tendencies, and fantasies of rape; bathroom and various other fetishes about sex and the body; overwhelming guilt, anxiety, and a mother fixation; and phobias towards women, people in general, and the world at large."

Some modern observers have even compared Hitchcock to Harvey Weinstein with stories of him coercing or bribing female employees for sexual favors (via Lit Hub). Others have gone to bat for the director, including several of his high-profile leading ladies; Janet Leigh, Grace Kelly and Ingrid Bergman considered him a friend they were comfortable hanging out with, while Kim Novak went on record to defend him.

Question marks around Hitchcock's attitudes toward women emerged again in 2012 when we had two films about the director with two very different perspectives on his personality. In "Hitchcock," Anthony Hopkins played him as an eccentric, sad old man with an unfortunate tendency to develop hopeless crushes on his leading ladies. Meanwhile, in "The Girl," Toby Jones portrayed a far more bitter and twisted character, getting perverse kicks out of controlling Tippi Hedren over the course of two films. And that's where the controversy with "The Birds" can be found.

Hitchcock's obsession with blondes

For his part, Hitchcock was surprisingly open about his peculiarities and quirks, sometimes turning them into anecdotes. He often repeated his line about comparing actors to cattle, as he told Dick Cavett in 1972:

"I was accused of calling actors cattle, and I said, 'I would never say such an unfeeling, rude thing about actors at all.' What I probably said was that all actors should be treated like cattle."

There was a more unsavory aspect to this openness, perhaps revealing darker impulses. Regarding his infamous obsession with "icy blondes," he once told Francois Truffaut (via Globe and Mail):

"You know why I favor sophisticated blondes in my films? We're after the drawing-room type, the real ladies, who become whores once they're in the bedroom."

Others haven't minced words regarding his depiction of women. As the singularly-named Bidisha wrote in her brilliant takedown of the director in The Guardian:

"There's the vamp, the tramp, the snitch, the witch, the slink, the double-crosser and, best of all, the demon mommy. Don't worry, they all get punished in the end... we're stupid, cunning, soft-hearted and traitorous, all at the same time. Only in the mind of a true hater can these contradictory qualities come together in the nasty piece of work that is Woman."

Grace Kelly, who starred in three of his Hitchcock's films, was a major fixation for the director, and he was crushed when she left Hollywood to marry the Prince of Monaco. He then sought her replacement through a series of strikingly beautiful blonde actresses – Novak, Leigh, Saint, and Tippi Hedren.

This blonde obsession manifested itself most destructively in his relationship with Hedren, who Hitchcock had plucked out of almost nowhere for the lead in "The Birds." She plays Melanie Daniels, a socialite partial to practical jokes who meets her match in slick lawyer Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) when they bump into each other in a pet store. Not used to not getting her own way, she decides to play a further prank on Brenner by stalking him to his family home in Bodega Bay. Her weekend at the coast coincides — or perhaps instigates — unexplained bird attacks on the town.

Hitchcock's unknown actor at the heart of The Birds

"The Birds" was Hitchcock's next film after the massive success of "Psycho." The film was based on a story by Daphne du Maurier, with a little extra inspiration from a bizarre incident in 1961, when poisonous algae caused seabirds to go nuts before dying in the streets (via Live Science). While his leading ladies of that golden period from 1954 onwards had all appeared in films previously, this time he turned to Tippi Hedren, who had a successful modeling career in the 1950s but no acting experience. The studios weren't keen, but then again, they weren't keen on "Psycho" either...

One thing you can say about Hitchcock and his methods is that he always managed to get great performances out of his leads, and the casting was usually spot on. We can talk about Joseph Cotten's brilliantly sinister performance in "Shadow of a Doubt," Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh's superb characterizations in "Psycho," and James Stewart giving two of the most interesting performances of his career in "Rear Window" and "Vertigo." Giving the lead role in "The Birds" to an untested actor was a risk, especially since Hedren's character is onscreen for basically the whole movie. The film lives or dies on the choice of actor, and Hedren does such an engaging job of balancing Melanie's cool, detached poise and her growing warmth towards the Brenner family as the bird apocalypse grows ever more threatening.

Hitchcock was pleased with her performance, telling the press while promoting the film: "Tippi has a faster tempo, city glibness, more humor [than Grace Kelly]. She displayed jaunty assuredness, pertness, an attractive throw of the head. And she memorized and read lines extraordinarily well and is sharper in expression." He was so impressed that he also cast her in his next movie, "Marnie."

Gradually it was revealed that two incidents on set of "The Birds" caused her upset and physical harm. In the first, during a scene where Melanie is sheltering from a bird attack in a phone booth, the supposedly shatterproof glass broke, causing cuts to her face. Then, while filming the climactic scenes where the birds descend on the farmhouse, Hedren was forced to endure live birds thrown at her during the attack scene in the attic. Both these moments might have seemed unfortunate enough, if it wasn't for Hedren's later accusations regarding Hitchcock's conduct...

Tippi Hedren's scary ordeal with real birds

Hedren claimed that Hitchcock's behavior, which had seemed gentlemanly and benign to begin with, got increasingly worse. He tried to control what she ate and wore, as well as who visited her on set. Hitchcock also constantly insisted on taking her out for dinner and drinks, and he told dirty jokes while no-one else was around. He grew jealous when she talked to other men and instructed people not to talk to her or touch her. Then, he allegedly threw himself on top of her in the back of a limo, trying to kiss her.

She later speculated that the gruelling ordeal Hitchcock put her through in the attic scene was the director seeking revenge for her knocking back his advances. He originally told her that only mechanical birds would be used for the scene, but live animals were brought in when the models apparently weren't good enough. Shooting the scene was terrifying, lasting five days as crew members threw live seagulls, ravens, and other birds at her. She eventually broke down when one almost pecked her eye, and a doctor ordered her to take a week off to recover from the exhaustion of it.

It's uncomfortable to watch that scene again in light of this. Compared to the shower scene in "Psycho," where every single edit is crucial to the overall effect of the murder, it's rather untidy, repetitive, and goes on for an excessive amount of time. There are no shrieking strings or other musical accompaniment, just the fluttering and squawking of the birds and Hedren's gasps and moans as they batter and peck at her. Even given the far-fetched premise of the film, the scene itself is implausible, too. Melanie goes into the room of her own accord and is somehow unable to find her way back out of the unlocked door she just came through to safety. It's all a bit gratuitous — cruelty to the character for the sake of cruelty.

Nevertheless, Hedren originally defended Hitchcock's use of the real birds. In 1980 she said (via Lit Hub) it was: 

"Very hard for Hitch at this time, too. He wouldn't come out of his office until we were absolutely ready to shoot because he couldn't stand to watch it."

The aftermath

Hedren's change of stance on "The Birds" incident has caused some people to question the veracity of her abuse allegations, although Hitchcock having her tied down to a seven-year contract might have had something to do with it. He also had form.

Brigitte Auber, who starred in "To Catch a Thief," also claimed that he made a lunge at her, but he was apologetic after she rejected him. He admitted to slapping Joan Fontaine to get her to cry in "Rebecca" (via Daily Mail), and she later said:

"He wanted total control over me and seemed to relish the cast not liking one another, actor for actor, by the end of the film."

Hitchcock apparently had a fondness for groping women and sticking his tongue into their mouths, and one young secretary had quit her job in distress after he made "ugly, intimate demands." As Edward White, one of the director's many biographers, stated:

"Hitchcock alone bears responsibility for his acts of predation, though his behavior was thoroughly facilitated and normalized by the culture within which he lived and worked, one we are only beginning to fully reckon with. Socially awkward, self-​absorbed, and sexually frustrated, Hitchcock made passes at and assaults on young women because he failed to control his urges, but also because in the environment he inhabited, men of his standing were afforded license to behave in that way."

The relationship between Hedren and Hitchcock worsened during the filming of "Marnie," where she plays a woman abused, spied upon, and eventually raped by her controlling husband. The director isolated her from the crew, made a replica mask of her face that wasn't even needed for the film, and made further sexual advances. When she swore she would never make another film with him, he threatened to ruin her career. Things came to a head in public when an angered Hedren called him a "fat pig." Despite trying to hold Hedren to her contract, Hitchcock eventually sold it to Universal a few years later.

The release of "The Girl" was some small measure of revenge for Hedren, as she told the New York Times. Yet she also found a way to be magnanimous about her experiences with the director, able to separate the unquestionable greatness of his art from the abusive, controlling man. She even attended his funeral. As she said:

"He ruined my career, but he didn't ruin my life. That time of my life was over. I still admire the man for who he was."