How The Birds Changed Tippi Hedren Forever

Daphne du Maurier's unsettling horror story, "The Birds," was the inspiration behind Alfred Hitchock's 1963 horror-thriller film of the same name. Hitchcock effectively utilized the premise of violent, inexplicable bird attacks to underline the themes of love and violence and how the two were connected within the context of the narrative. The onus of bringing this unique story to life fell on Tippi Hedren, who plays Melanie, the protagonist whose presence becomes an inadvertent threat to those around her.

"The Birds" was Hedren's screen debut and according to the actor, the process of working alongside Hitchcock was not a pleasant experience. Hitchcock himself had made the harsh proclamation that "all actors should be treated like cattle" — a statement that was corroborated by the way he treated Hedren while filming "The Birds" and 1964's "Marnie." Hedren details the alleged assault she had faced in her memoir, "Tippi," explaining how Hitchcock's obsession with her left her utterly traumatized.

"Tippi" also delves into the details of filming the infamous attic scene in "The Birds," in which her character Melanie is singled out and viciously attacked by a flock of homicidal birds. While the emotional distress of filming with mechanical birds (used throughout the film) was enough to make Hedren anxious, things took a darker turn when Hitchcock chose to use live birds to shoot the scene at the last minute.

An arbitrary, last-minute change

In a video about the making of "The Birds," the cast and crew reveal that shots that featured flocks of birds heading towards Bodega Bay were real, although the ones used that were shown attacking the characters were mechanical in nature. More than $200,000 was spent on creating these mechanical creatures, and Hedren explains in her memoir that Hitchcock had repeatedly assured her that the attic scene would be filmed using the mechanical birds (via VogueUK):

"Hitchcock had outlined it for me in great detail. It would be just me and a flock of relentless, homicidal mechanical birds. I'd have no way to escape, and I would end up on the floor, completely terrorized and almost mortally wounded. He lied."

Hedren explained that she was notified about the abrupt change in plans on the day of the shoot when assistant director James H. Brown told her that the mechanical birds were not working, and they were going to use live ones instead. Despite her understandable shock, Hedren "trusted the expertise" of bird trainer Ray Berwick, but also acknowledged that not even he could anticipate an animal's next move and control it during a stressful scenario.

As Hitchcock yelled "Action!" a flock of live ravens, doves, and pigeons were hurled at Hedren, an experience she describes as "brutal and ugly and relentless." Filming lasted five days, and Hedren says she was "on the verge of collapse" on the final day of shooting. After one of the birds pecked too close to her eye, Hedren decided that she had had enough, and told Hitchcock that she was "done" and could not continue filming anymore. Although Hitchcock obliged, Hedren said that she was "unable to move, and [had] began sobbing from sheer exhaustion" brought about by the experience.

How Hitchcock's altered ending is a disservice to Hedren's character

The horrific events in "The Birds" build up to the climatic attic scene in which Melanie is attacked, but this event is preceded by a lot of layered interpretations surrounding the character. As Melanie's arrival at Bodega Bay coincides with the bird attacks, she is constantly blamed by the women around her as being "the cause of this." Melanie is villainized to the point that one of the characters calls her "evil," while Mitch's mother, Lydia, is constantly threatened by Melanie's presence in her son's life.

The repeated implications that Melanie is somehow responsible for what happened in the town are reinforced by the altered ending that Hitchcock went for as opposed to what was in the script. After Melanie is attacked, she and the others manage to escape the birds and get into a car, and the final shot is that of thousands of birds looking on ominously. The original ending was supposed to highlight the universality of the bird attacks and the havoc they wreaked everywhere, even outside Bodega Bay. By choosing to not retain the ending, Hitchcock sets up a link between the attacks and Melanie's presence, making the nature of the horrific attacks more personal in nature.

While it is unclear as to why Hitchcock chose to change the ending, the way he allegedly treated Hedren (both personally and professionally, and the two often intersect) altered her career and personal life forever. Although Hitchcock is undoubtedly a master of his craft, pushing actors to do their best while respecting their boundaries should not be a mutually exclusive experience. Abuse is abuse, and genius should never be a shield used to deflect valid criticisms against the greatest artists, including Hitchcock.