At the peak of her acting career, Tippi Hedren fought sexual advances from Sean Connery as the cameras rolled. After Alfred Hitchcock said “cut,” she had to do the same with him.
Subtle refusals didn’t work with either of them. The frigid, troubled title character of “Marnie,” Hedren’s second and final film with “Hitch,” keeps her nightgown clenched around her neck.
“In case you didn’t recognize it,” she hisses at her husband, “that was a rejection.” Neither man backed off.
HBO’s “The Girl,” premiering Saturday, dramatizes Hedren’s struggle against the director’s obsession, which began with Hedren’s casting in “The Birds” and ended her run as a promising A-lister after the release of “Marnie” two years later.
Hedren caught Hitchcock’s eye in a commercial for diet soda, and he gave her a seven-year contract and the lead in his follow-up to “Psycho.” “The Girl” introduces Hedren as a giddy but grounded single mom determined to learn everything she can from Hitchcock’s coaching, which he dispenses alongside browbeating, “Mad Men”-style sexual harassment and filthy limericks.
The actress’s gratitude finally morphs into defiance after Hitchcock’s deception about the climactic attic attack in “The Birds.” She was expecting one day of shooting with mechanical birds and got a week’s worth of takes with real animals that left her reeling and bleeding.
The montage of that scene’s filming is the highlight of “The Girl” — and of Sienna Miller’s depiction of Hedren. Sadly, “The Girl” offers no insight into the gumption it took for a former model from Minnesota to weather such manipulation and torture.
Mostly, Gwyneth Hughes’ script lets the wardrobe department and Miller’s resemblance to her subject do the heavy lifting. Miller does a good job re-creating the classic Hitchcock takes, but she reverts to imitating Hedren’s on-screen persona in the rest of “The Girl,” too.
Hughes based her screenplay on accounts from Hedren and Jim Brown, who worked as assistant director on both Hedren-Hitchcock collaborations. Director Julian Jarrold doesn’t make the mistake of trying to imitate his subject’s work too much, but he can’t resist a few staircases and shower heads.
“The Girl” is as much about Hitchcock as Hedren, and Toby Jones, who portrayed Truman Capote in 2006’s “Infamous,” embodies another legendary pale eccentric with a quiet authority and spot-on cadence that masks any physical inconsistencies.
As Alma Hitchcock, Oscar nominee Imelda Staunton is excellent as usual, averting her eyes from her husband’s humiliating crush as she asserts herself in the filmmaking process.
“The Girl” avoids taking Hitchcock to Roman Polanski levels of loathsomeness, highlighting his insecurities about his age and weight as he forces underlings to drink with him while he moons over a knockout 30 years his junior. Fed up, Alma tells him, “The day she drops her knickers, you’ll run a mile.”
Hedren, of course, was just one of many muses: Hitchcock spent his career trying to perfect his idealized vision of femininity, which did not allow for brunettes and overt sexuality. He once said, “Blondes make the perfect victims. They’re like virgin snow that shows up the bloody footprints.”
Jimmy Stewart’s fetish with Kim Novak’s clothes and hair in “Vertigo” is a snapshot of Hitchcock’s need to control women through their appearance. Hitchcock made Hedren constantly wear hot pink lipstick she hated while making “The Birds,” not just when filming.
Years earlier, Novak’s character had submitted to having her hair lightened by saying: “All right then, I’ll do it. I don’t care anymore about me.” Hedren never got close to that point. When making “The Birds” didn’t break her, Hitchcock’s fascination deepened.
Haunted thief Marnie Edgar was a role Hedren, who was under contract in any case, couldn’t pass up. Letting Hitch direct her as a heroine who succumbs to sexual persistence proved disastrous, and his infatuation devolved into stalking and threats during production.
“Marnie” wasn’t a hit at the time, though critics eventually appreciated its depiction of childhood trauma and criminality. It’s sometimes called Hitchcock’s final masterpiece (by those who overlook 1972’s “Frenzy”).
But it’s no surprise that audiences didn’t appreciate a male lead forcing himself on his disturbed bride, only to have her forgive him after he hounds her into an allegedly therapeutic nervous breakdown. Jones’ rendering of Hitchcock as he plans and directs the pivotal rape sequence is as chilling as any scene that made it into the final cut of “Marnie.”
Hedren used “Marnie” to break ground in truly ugly on-screen crying. (She’d already established herself as the most glamorous smoker ever in “The Birds,” but no one is supposed to talk about that anymore.)
Film buffs should find “The Girl” worth checking out for Jones’ and Staunton’s performances, as well as the insight into the special effects of the era. When Hitchcock keeps his hands to himself, he remains a genius with a vision. And the peek into the dark psyche of cinema’s master of suspense makes his movies even more disturbing.