Hitchcock's Blondes: The Unforgettable Women Behind the Legendary Director's Dark Obsession

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Release Date: 
October 10, 2023
G.P. Putnam's Sons
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“It didn’t help Tippi Hendren’s career that the actress told him what she thought of him: You’re a fat pig.”

Alfred Hitchcock’s appeal has yet to fade after many decades. Both his oeuvre and his personal life seem inexhaustible source material that has yielded many different perspectives, from the iconic “man wrongly accused” to his relationships with favorite actors such as Jimmy Stewart, Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman, and Grace Kelly.

In Hitchcock’s Blondes the perspective taken by Laurence Leamer revolves around the string of eight golden goddesses who starred in 14 Hitchcock dramas, each of whom provided audiences with intrigue on screen as well as off.

Leamer’s book is the second part of a trilogy about glamorous women forced to maneuver around creative men. His earlier Capote’s Women is being made into an eight–hour series starring Naomi Watts, Diane Lane, Calista Flockhart, Molly Ringwald, and Tom Hollander.

Hitchcock didn’t care whether his leading ladies were rare, natural blondes, or whether they were peroxided or even wore wigs—so long as they radiated on screen. For Hitchcock, “blonde women were the epitome of female beauty,” not the “big bosomy kind.” In these pages readers see both his passion for blondes as well as “his pleasure in making them suffer.” Actor John Gielgud once dismissed Hitchcock as, “a very coarse man, fond of making dirty jokes all the time.”

One of the books’ surprises is that the director of some of the most immortal films of all time understood that his heroines, “must be fashioned to please women rather than” the covetous and greedy male gaze that one might suppose. The lengths to which he went to showcase, and frequently manipulate, these women became the stuff of Hollywood legend.

“His blondes,” as he thought of them, understood Hitchcock’s obsessions and desires up close. Now we get to hear their perspectives from center stage. We also learn that Clark Gable had false teeth and that Ray Miland wore a toupée. Hitchcock made male actors suffer, too, as he did with Martin Landau whose scenes he systematically cut in North by Northwest.

A different surprise comes from Yale psychoanalyst Dr. Heath King, who opines that Hitchcock had Asperger’s syndrome, part of the autism spectrum disorder (these pages do not offer evidence with which readers can draw their own conclusions). Dr. Heath, who taught a course on masterpieces of American film, sees Hitchcock as “a loner, an ogler, who sublimated his lack of sex into a voyeuristic cinematic technique.”

Again, the director is grist for a wide number of perspectives. Readers may be entertained by their multitude or simply pick whatever perspective feels most sympatico. What is one to make of the hatred purportedly brimming in Janet Lee’s and Tony Curtis’ marriage that made her contemplate suicide yet still “put paid to Lee’s outward smile that everything was perfect and always would be.”

Hitchcock himself was versed in Freudian ideas. Freud had been dead only five years when Spellbound came out, a film full of symbolism, sexual innuendo, and suggestive imagery that could “titillate an audience” yet slip its way “through strict Hollywood censors.”

Readers will gain an inside look at Hitchcock’s personal life and his relationship with wife Alma Reville, whom “few people got close enough . . . to appreciate her attributes,” and his daughter Pat, who made her Broadway debut at age 15 in 1944. Although nominated multiple times for Best Director Oscar, Hitchcock never won the prize.

By the time he received the American Film Institute Life Achievement Award in 1979, he was dissolute, “already drunk most mornings.” Known as an avid wine collector, “For most of his life he had covered his drinking with a veneer of culture and good taste.” Now, “he just drank.”

Francois Truffaut tried to come to his rescue, pleading that “in America, you call this man Hitch . . . In France we call him Monsieur Hitchcock. You respect him because he showed scenes of love as if they were scenes of murder. We respect him because he showed scenes of murder like scenes of love.”

When he first arrived in Berlin in the fall of 1924, a devout Catholic from the UK, the city’s anything-goes attitude shocked him. Leamer shows him as essentially a voyeur, and so it made sense that “his preferred position was behind the camera—observing everything, but at a safe distance.” In this framework the Peeping Tom theme has its best expression in Rear Window.

Hitchcock manipulated and controlled his audience the same way he controlled his blondes. “For a movie to be Hitchcock’s he had to control every aspect. No other director of his time had such concern over details.” On set he once admonished Eva Marie Saint: “You don’t get your coffee. We have someone get it for you. You drink from a porcelain cup and saucer. You are wearing a $3,000 dress and I don’t want the extras to see you slurp from a Styrofoam cup.”

When Grace Kelly didn’t return to Hollywood after her marriage to Prince Ranier, “Hitchcock would have to create a new star.” This he did in Vera Miles who alone among his eight blondes stood up to him.

And what surprise to learn that Tippy Hendron had never acted before, or that Hickock struggled to get “more emotion out of her.” She was used to the magic dictum that beauty unlocked everything, but composer Bernard Hermann saw through her and considered her “both untalented and exploitive of Hitchcock’s obvious infatuation.” The director was devastated that “as well as he had prepared” Hedren for Marnie, “the central figure of the film could not deliver.”

It didn’t help the actress’s career that she told him what she thought of him: “You’re a fat pig.”