The Psycho of Hollywood
Tanenhaus, Sam, Newsweek
Byline: Sam Tanenhaus
Director Alfred Hitchcock gulped martinis, treated actors like cattle, and lusted after his leading ladies.
Will a new film starring Anthony Hopkins reveal the man behind the movies?
To say he's making a comeback would be misleading, because he never went away. Alfred Hitchcock's place in the pantheon of great directors has long been secure, thanks to a string of classics stretching from the 1930s, when he created gems like The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes, to the films that conquered Holly-wood in subsequent decades, including Notorious (a1946a), Rear Window (a1954a), and The Birds (a1963a). Stylish, literate, beautifully constructed, visually opulent, they showcased the period's most fetching stars (including Ingrid Bergman, Grace Kelly, Cary Grant, and James Stewart). No popular film-maker has been more admired by critics in his own lifetime.
Now something new is going on with Hitchcock. Thirty-two years after his death, he has become more relevant than ever, the subject of fresh and contentious speculation, his reputation as a director soaring to new heights even as a campaign seems underway to expose him as a bully and beast.
The British Film Institute, in its largest-ever undertaking, has been diligently restoring eight of the nine films Hitchcock made in the silent-film era, when he was in his 20s. This past August, 846 critics and professionals from the film industry voted Hitchcock's Vertigo the greatest film of all time, toppling Citizen Kane from its 50-year-long perch, in the prestigious Sight and Sound poll (conducted once a decade). But good news was followed by bad: in October, The Girl, a 90-minute HBO biopic, depicted Hitchcock (Toby Young) as a sexual harasser who destroyed the career of a fresh-faced Tippi Hedren (Sienna Miller) after she refused to submit to his demand that she make herself "sexually available" to him when the two paired up to make The Birds.
Perfection of the work vs. perfection of the life is an age-old conflict, but in Hitchcock's case the dichotomy resists convenient parsing, because the facts of his life are so tightly raveled with the big themes in his work: the thwarted desire that darkens into monomania, the tense duality of inhibition and violence, the exalted vision twinned with the near-sadistic drive for total control, especially over the actors he said "should be treated like cattle." These warring impulses shaped Hitchcock's ceaseless striving "to manipulate an audience's sensibilities to the utmost," as Donald Spoto wrote in The Dark Side of Genius, his biography of the director.
"There's no question about his work. He was one of the greatest geniuses in the history of the medium," says Sacha Gervasi, the director of an ambitious, period-soaked new movie, Hitchcock (in theaters Nov. 23), about the filming of Psycho, the masterpiece for which Hitchcock is best remembered today, though in fact it signaled a sharp break from all that had gone before. What remains is the mystery of Hitchcock's true nature. As Gervasi puts it: "What kind of a person was he?"
Hitchcock tries to answer this question, through a layered reimagining of the man that shows him rebelling against the lords of the studios in their waning days. Gervasi, whose first film was the prizewinning rock-and-roll documentary Anvil!, sumptuously re-creates the Paramount "dream factory" of the late 1950s: the prefabricated stage sets and make-believe city streets, the executive conferences in mahogany suites, the cumbersome editing machines, the small army of lackeys and assistants. Hitchcock, impersonated by Anthony Hopkins, is neither monster nor caricature, but a fish-out-of-water artist struggling to maintain his subversive vision in this strangely stodgy and repressed world.
Hopkins, with his antic intelligence, slyly peels away the layers of Hitchcock's familiar cartoon image--the swollen girth encased in undertaker's black suit, the comically plummy accent with its Cockney traces. …