Tippi Hedren: Why I love being free as a bird
Tippi Hedren, ice-cool star of The Birds, tells Donal Lynch how director Alfred Hitchcock made her ‘a caged bird’ after she rebuffed his advances and of raising her famous daughter, Melanie Griffith, as she tried to battle her own demons
She’s an old bird now, is Tippi Hedren. Blonde plumage wispily frames the planes of her 82-year-old face and liver spots mottle her wings — bravely on display. The talons, meanwhile, are hot pink. Like a peacock, she moves slowly, regally, about Newbridge Silverware’s Museum Of Style Icons in Co Kildare as curious shoppers peer over a cordon, not quite able to place her. The clue is in the jewel-encrusted brooch on her lapel: three birds flying. It was a present from Alfred Hitchcock. Residuals might trickle off but gold and pearls are forever.
The occasion for her trip to Ireland is the unveiling of the long-lost green suit, which she wore throughout The Birds, Hitchcock’s 1963 masterpiece. When it’s finally brought out from behind a large vintage poster for the film it’s an unusual addition to an exhibition that includes such show-stopping style moments as Bette Davis’s Virgin Queen outfit and Audrey Hepburn’s original Little Black Dress.
The holes in the suit, through which they attached the flapping gulls to Tippi, are still there. She explains that since she would wear the same suit for the whole film, Hitchcock wanted it to have a muted quality: “He didn’t want anyone to say ‘oh, not THAT outfit again’.” And yet the sheer plainness of the suit tells its own story.
The author Camille Paglia once called The Birds Hitchcock’s “ode to woman’s sexual glamour in all its seductive phases, from brittle artifice to melting vulnerability”. The clothes had to blend into the background — the “ode” emanated solely from Tippi’s cool heat.
The greatest of the Hitchcock blondes has spent the last four decades talking about her collaboration with the celebrated director, on both The Birds and the critically underrated and psychologically disturbing Marnie. He plucked her from the obscurity of the TV ad world and moulded her into a star, an imperious sorority goddess and a worthy successor to his former muse, Grace Kelly.
Tippi later quipped that there was method in Hitchcock’s apparent madness in casting an unknown for such a big project: no established actress would have undergone the gruelling scenes in The Birds, during which she had live ravens and magpies gouge her cheek, just below her eye.
Once again his instincts translated into box office gold: The Birds was a huge hit and its lore only grew with time. And yet despite the success of their work together, the relationship quickly soured. Hitchcock lusted after his young starlet and sought to control every aspect of her life, including whom she slept with. When she attempted to extricate herself, he vindictively kept her under contract, which meant that she got paid ($600 per week) yet was not free to work with other directors — Francois Truffaut was one of those who were turned down. He also barred her from going to New York to pick up a prestigious acting award. Her brief window as the hottest property in Hollywood soon closed.
Her memories of him then must be defined by a certain ambivalence? “I split them completely,” she tells me. “I have to. I so admire the art and the genius of Alfred Hitchcock and I would never even begin to knock that capability. He was adept at finding off-the-wall, horrifying scripts. The fact that he took me as a complete novice in film acting and taught me how to break down a script and get into the character was amazing. So I admire that. But I highly resent the fact that he ruined it by becoming obsessed.”
This obsession manifested itself by him making demands of her that she would “never in my life acquiesce to doing.” In a “very demanding kind of situation” he propositioned her sexually. Revolted, she rebuffed him and he resolved to lay waste to her career.
Is it possible, I wonder aloud, that he was also nervous of her burgeoning stardom? Hitchcock had, after all, invented the idea of the director’s picture — he was the first auteur whose name appeared at the top of the billing, above the acting stars. He had signed “The Girl” (as he called her) before he had even met her and now, perhaps, he wanted to curb this pup’s hubris.
“Oh I think that’s very possible,” she tells me. “I was a nobody when he met me. I was becoming a big thing and it’s likely that he didn’t like that changing balance.”
It was said that one of Hitchcock’s intimidation tactics was to give a present of a miniature coffin to Tippi’s daughter. At the same moment the actress had both ravens and the portly director bearing down on her, she was already a single mother, having split from the actor and film producer Peter Griffith several years earlier. The relationship had given her a child who shared the name of her character in The Birds — Melanie — and who would herself go on to become one of the biggest stars in Hollywood and a household name. “I don’t believe that you should tell any child what they should be,” Tippi says of her famous daughter. “When she told me she was going to do her first movie (The Drowning Pool with Paul Newman) I thought, ‘God, she’s seen how hard it is, what a difficult job it is. She knows it’s not all lights and red carpets’. She knew what she was getting into.”
In reality, it would have been impossible for the young Melanie Griffith to predict quite how tumultuous her first few years on the world stage would be. In addition to becoming one of Hollywood’s hottest new talents she became involved with Don Johnson, who had co-starred with Tippi in The Harrad Experiment. They became one of the most photographed couples in the world, Melanie the Hollywood Lolita, he the heartthrob du jour. At the time the relationship began, Melanie was 14, Johnson was 22 and twice divorced. Tippi says that, despite reservations, she couldn’t bear to stand in the way of young love, and feared losing Melanie. After two years together, the starlet and the dreamboat got married — it was only the beginning of Griffith’s problems. In her 2004 autobiography, Tatum O’Neal alleged that when Melanie was 18 (and O’Neal herself just 12) they participated in an opium-fuelled orgy in a Paris hotel room.
The moment she realised that Melanie was dependent on drugs was, she tells me, “terrible, just awful. I think it’s the same with many parents — you don’t even know what they’re on. I’m not trying to pass blame, but I think it was the fault of people around her also.”
Even as her star rose and she won acclaim for her mesmerising turn in Working Girl, Griffith would continue to fight her demons. She needed periodic trips to rehab — the last reported in 2009 — but she and Tippi repaired their relationship and would go on to star together in several films.
Tippi was 14 and on her way home from school when a woman approached her as she got off the tram. “She gave me her business card and asked me, ‘Would you give this to your mother and have her bring you down to Donaldson’s Department Store? I’d like you to model in our Saturday morning fashion show’.
“From that age onwards I never needed a job I didn’t want to do.”
She knew that to really make it as a model she would have to go to New York, so she called Eileen Ford, owner of the Ford Modelling Agency, who told her to come to the Big Apple. Tippi saved up enough money to take the train cross-country and put herself up for three days in the quaintly named Barbizon Hotel For Women. Ford put her to work straight away and Tippi easily segued from modelling into television commercials. One of these ads was for Sego — a dieting drink (“I weighed about 100 pounds,” she hoots) which aired during The Today Show, of which Hitchcock and his wife were avid viewers. On Friday, October 13, 1961, a call came through to the offices of Tippi’s modelling agent asking for “The Girl”. She obediently trotted over to Universal’s offices, where she met executive after executive. Nobody would tell her exactly what was going on. Eventually they pressed her to sign a contract. “By the time I was finally brought into the first meeting with Alfred Hitchcock, he had a big smile on his face. I was signed before I even met him.”
Even then she did not think that she would be considered for The Birds. Hitchcock had a television show — Alfred Hitchcock Presents — and she thought she would do that. The studio threw a party at Jason’s restaurant — “the hotspot for the top echelon in Hollywood” — it was then that Hitchcock placed a beautifully wrapped package in front of her. “I opened it and it was this pin,” she tells me, gesturing to her lapel. “He said, ‘I want you to play Melanie Daniels in The Birds’.” The shooting for the final attack scene — one of the most iconic in all movie history — sounds almost as terrifying as the film itself. They used live birds, instead of the mechanical ones which had been promised, and Tippi sustained several injuries. Cary Grant, who visited the set, called her “the bravest actress I have ever met”.
She needed all her bravery as she faced down Hitchcock, who taunted her that she would not be able to support Melanie or her ageing mother (her ailing father had since passed away). After waiting out her contract, she went on to work with Charlie Chaplin. “I heard he nearly died when he heard that,” Tippi tells me.
By that point, she had already married Noel Marshall, who brought his three sons to live with Tippi and Melanie. Their marriage lasted 18 years before they were divorced. Tippi later wed businessman Luis Barrenechea in 1985 — that marriage lasted a decade. “It’s been three times — and out!” she laughs. “I think marriage is an individual choice, and it’s not for me. I’m a very independent person. If I want to walk out in the middle of the night, I do it. I’m very content in my own skin. I’ve had suitors over the years, of course, but I can’t see myself getting married at this point in my life.”
Her twilight years are lived out at the Shambala sanctuary for big cats. She transformed 70 acres of land northeast of Los Angeles into a sanctuary for almost 70 cats, which include tigers, lions, bobcats and panthers.
Tippi’s eyes light up when I mention the cats — just don’t call her a cat lady, please — and she confirms that, yes, one of the lions is named after her son-in-law, Antonio Banderas.
One person who made apilgrimage to the animal sanctuary was Sienna Miller, who will star as Hedren in a forthcoming film, entitled The Girl, about her relationship with Hitchcock.
Tippi’s influence in cinema has endured — everyone from Jodie Foster to Naomi Watts has cited her as an inspiration (both dressed up as her for photoshoots in Vanity Fair) — and companies such as Louis Vuitton have referenced her Hitchcock characters in their advertising campaigns.
And yet the legacy, of course, is bittersweet. No matter how long she lives she will be Hitchcock’s “caged bird” — both in thrall to and repulsed by his memory. In the few roles she takes on these days, she still goes back to the first principles he taught her. “He wasn’t just my first director, he was my drama coach,” she says. “He gave me an extraordinary education. And whatever else happened, I will always be grateful to him for that.”
The Newbridge Silverware Museum Of Style Icons, Co Kildare, opens Monday to Saturday, 9am-6pm, and Sundays and bank holidays, 10am-6pm. Entrance is free. See newbridgesilverware.com