Reporting Eric Henderson
Minnesota native Tippi Hedren says she still remembers getting off the streetcar in downtown Minneapolis and getting a gig to work as a clothing model at Donaldson’s Department Store.
Clearly a few things have changed in the last 50-plus years since Hedren, original from New Ulm, called the Twin Cities her stomping grounds. Her high school alma mater, in fact, is no longer, which can’t be a very fresh feeling.
And yet, she was radiant and in winningly humble spirit in front of a packed-to-the-rafters Heights Theater Thursday evening, warmly greeted by “my own people.”
The occasion? A screening of Hedren’s most challenging collaboration with suspense titan Alfred Hitchcock, part of a multi-city traveling “retrospective” in prelude to Turner Classic Movies and DirecTV’s film festival in Los Angeles next month.
When I say “most challenging,” I’m guessing you think I’m talking about The Birds, which was Hedren’s debut feature film and required a week-long shoot to film that terrifying bird attack in the attic.
Indeed, Hedren spent much of the time before Thursday’s screening talking about how she came to be discovered by Hitchcock (who saw her in a TV commercial) and how he offered her the star unveiling most other actors could only dream about.
But if you’re looking at the emotional requirements of the role, I think you’d be hard pressed to argue that Hedren didn’t deliver a far more shaded, more complex performance in Hitchcock’s 1964 follow-up to The Birds.
Marnie, which was called “unusual” and “ahead of its time” by special guest Leonard Maltin (who served as Q&A M.C. at the Heights), is unquestionably both those things, but I would not be at all surprised to find evidence that it was also one of his most personal projects.
If Vertigo is the movie that lays Hitchcock’s sexual obsessions bare, Marnie is its frigid companion piece, right down to the heroine dying her brunette hair blonde (or vice-versa).
Hedren plays a kleptomaniac who targets bank safes and then funnels much of the money from her exploits back toward her love-deprivational mother. But her series of schemes comes to a major roadblock when she attracts some unwanted but smoldering attention from the head of her next intended bank.
Since the man pursuing her was played by none other than Sean Connery — then at the very height of James Bond mania — Hedren recalls saying to “Hitch” that she was pretty sure she wouldn’t be able to convey her character’s frigidity against him.
Hitchcock’s immortal retort: “It’s called acting.”
Marnie is in some ways like a feature-length version of the last scene in Psycho, the one where a bunch of men in suits explain, at great length, the complicated relationship between Norman Bates and his mother. Marnie is the question mark at the center of her own movie, and both Connery and Hitchcock spend an awful lot of time unpacking her neuroses. Its open Freudianism may seem a little kitschy now, but it still reads a lot more modern than Psycho‘s puzzled cops learning, apparently for the first time, what the difference is between cross-dressing and transvestitism. And any humor to be derived from the proceedings mostly come from screenwriter Jay Presson Allen’s suggestive double entendres (i.e. “I’m queer for liars”).
With only one or two moments that could be called classic Hitchcock suspense sequences (foremost among them Marnie’s attempt to pull off the latest bank job) and, of course, the necessary lack of chemistry between the two leads, Marnie has never been one of Hitchcock’s most beloved movies, and Hedren said she still remembers being stung by the reviews it got.
“It was really kind of heartbreaking,” she told the crowd at the Heights.
But, as Maltin suggested, the sexually frank movie remains ripe for reevaluation, and the crowd that massed for Hedren’s return to the cities seemed more than game for the attempt.