Magazine article World Literature Today

Alfred Hitchcock, Creator and Creation: Fictionalizing the "Master of Suspense"

Magazine article World Literature Today

Alfred Hitchcock, Creator and Creation: Fictionalizing the "Master of Suspense"

Article excerpt

When I first heard that actor Toby Jones was to play the role of Alfred Hitchcock in The Girl, an HBO movie, I wondered what curse had been placed on him. In 2006 he had appeared brilliantly in Infamous as Truman Capote. However, in fall 2005, Capote was released starring Philip Seymour Hoffman in the title role, and whether Jones was, as some critics asserted, better at the impersonation became irrelevant. Now Toby Jones was playing Hitchcock in the same year that Anthony Hopkins plays him in Hitchcock. The Girl, however, was aired before Hitchcock, so perhaps there is truth in the general rule that whoever gets there first wins, as when Hollywood inexplicably released two versions of Choderlos de Laclos's Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Dangerous Liaisons with Glenn Close and John Malkovich (1988) cost $14 million and grossed almost $35 million, while Valmont with Annette Bening and Colin Firth (1989) cost $33 million and grossed just over $1.1 million.1 We can assume, however, that one version of the two is likely to be better than the other, and The Girl is so appalling, it is hard to imagine Hitchcock is worse.

Experiencing two portrayals of the same character in a short period of time almost always means that the viewer or reader will be comparing them as the drama develops and, because of this, will have difficulty suspending disbelief on the second occasion. The emotional reaction to the second portrayal will be muted, and therefore it won't seem as convincing. To see Dick Powell play Philip Marlowe in Murder, My Sweet (1944, based on Farewell, My Lovely) and then Robert Mitchum in the same story (1975) invites comparison, of course, but the usual gap in time between seeing them allows a normal viewer to experience each interpretation on its own terms. Similarly, when a character is based on a historical person, the problem doesn't manifest itself unless the personality and appearance of the person is still alive in the audience's imagination. A biopic can be quite effective, whether it is Abel Gance's Napoleon or Steven Spielberg's Lincoln. We have certain notions about historical characters- Napoleon was very short (not true), Lincoln was tall (true)-but we don't feel we know them personally. The details don't make an interpretation seem ridiculous. Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter is way over the sacrilege line for me, but apparently not for many.

Characters we "know," however, inevitably invite distracting comparisons. Hollywood and television have done many productions based on mass-media celebrities. Some, such as George "Superman" Reeves played by Ben Affleck (Hollywoodland) or the many Al Capones don't have a sharp enough identity to make us reject the portrayal on the basis of either appearance or personality. However, actors playing Clark Gable, Humphrey Bogart, or Elvis face a daunting task in anything other than parody.

The resemblance to a celebrity may be remarkable, as when Julianne Moore played Sarah Palin in Game Change, but doing an imitation turns the actor into an animatronic puppet. One of last year's more critically acclaimed films, My Week with Marilyn, achieved just the right balance with the Marilyn Monroe character. Michelle Williams resembled Monroe enough, caught her mannerisms enough, and yet she seemed like a human being. Kenneth Branagh playing Laurence Olivier caught almost nothing of him and came across like Wallander lost in the wrong movie. Perhaps the most remarkable example of a star playing a star was Faye Dunaway's turn as Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest. In this instance, the perception of Crawford was damaged forever, and Dunaway's career was almost ruined because whatever role she took reminded people of the Mommie Crawford.

Hitchcock is another of those celebrities that people seem to think they "know," because he carefully constructed and cultivated his image. His television show, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, mostly chose quality stories of a particular type rather than using original scripts. …

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