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For a man who frequently opined that actors were nothing more than cattle, Alfred Hitchcock was nonetheless able to evince some fairly remarkable performances from many of his leads through his entire career. Beyond the obvious roles that come to mind, look to the genuinely nuanced work by actors such as Vera Miles in The Wrong Man, Jane Wyman in Stage Fright, Doris Day in The Man Who Knew Too Much and Teresa Wright in Shadow of a Doubt. In particular, it is the way he interacted with and was able to evince such work out of these female stars that forms the basis for the third in Donald Spoto’s (now complete?) trilogy of Hitchcock biographies, Spellbound by Beauty: Alfred Hitchcock and his Leading Ladies.
The book’s aim is to flesh out this previously glossed over and troubling realm of Hitchcock’s oeuvre; the fetishistic lengths to which his camera would go to capture some of the finest beauties of Hollywood’s golden age combined with the complete and utter lack of praise or even notice of these actresses and their work whenever he was asked about them seemed to hint at some sort of hidden turmoil that boiled both behind the scenes and behind the man himself. What Spoto does here is important: He doesn’t mince his words and shows that Hitchcock the man became something of a monster in later years and it was his inability to reign in this desire to control and own the females he directed (specifically Tippi Hedren over the course of The Birds and Marnie) that ultimately led to his creative decay and irrelevance from then on. It also has (the intended) effect of humanizing someone who has been raised above and beyond criticism by hagiography that fellated the man’s work and in doing so helped create an unrealistic portrait of the man that also worked towards pardoning him of his unacceptable behavior towards his actresses.
While it is true that his penchant for whispering innuendo and childish jokes to his ladies before a take often put them off-kilter in a way that paid off for reaction shots and performances, Spoto pulls no punches in stating that the way Hitchcock behaved in these situations was unacceptable. But luckily for us, Spoto is able to separate the person from the art while also showing how the two different things feed into each other, suggesting that without these barely repressed urges and self-loathing Hitchcock was saddled with he would not have become the filmmaker he was for so many years.
This isn’t a perfect book, there are a couple of moments where Spoto is unfortunately sidetracked by sniping about less-thorough biographers and the information they left out (especially silly given that he had chosen to wait until now to finally divulge some of the more damning evidence of Hitchcock’s on-set transgressions, glass houses Billy Joel and all that) and the book does in many ways feel like a missing link that while absolutely essential is only a piece of the puzzle that was missing from other Hitchcock analysis by this author and many others. It’s a breeze of a read, however, and helps to stand as a testament to reclaiming Hitchcock from hagiography showing him for the conflicted man he was while also reveiling just how remarkable the lives of these women were who gave him so very much of themselves in each and every Hitchcock film. An excellent companion to any Hitchcock collection.