Reviewed by Anne Henderson

Tippi: A Memoir By Tippi Hedren,

  • Publisher: William Morrow 2016
  • ISBN-10: 0062469037
  • ISBN-13: 978-0062469038
  • RRP 16.99 (pb)

At 86, Alfred Hitchcock’s star from nowhere, Tippi Hedren, has written her memoirs. Hedren was the beautiful model, plucked from the Ford Modelling Agency after Hitchcock saw her in a TV diet drink commercial, who went on to star in The Birds and Marnie before being flung back to nowhere by a vengeful Hitchcock after she refused his unprofessional and lecherous advances.

This memoir is, however, far more than an account of Hedren’s time with Hitchcock. She went on to appear in over 80 films and television shows while pursuing a dream of living with big cats and eleven years making the movie Roar, founding Shambala – a big cat preserve – outside Los Angeles, setting up the Roar Foundation and helping to set up and manage relief organisations globally. Hedren’s list of awards in the Appendix takes up more than two pages.

More than all this, Tippi is a keyhole look at the phenomenon of Hollywood and the motion picture industry, the playground of great genius, dreamers, dealers, crooks and, above all, the survival of the fittest.

As Hedren’s memoir illustrates, in the motion picture industry you take the risks, you take the blows and you take the prize, whatever it takes. In all of what she endured from Hitchcock, Hedren makes no bones about it – “[Hitchcock] was a brilliant, brilliant filmmaker. I owed him. I owed him 100 percent of the dedication, concentration, and talent I had to give to The Birds and I owed him the professional respect any actor owed to their director.”

If you are anticipating the full lurid details of Alfred Hitchcock’s sexual assault on Tippi Hedren, while filming Marnie, you will be disappointed. As was The Spectator’s reviewer Christopher Bray who pours doubt on Hedren’s accounts of Hitchcock’s lechery and excuses Hitchcock’s cruelty as a way of getting Hedren to act. All the evidence is against Bray’s thesis but, what the heck, Bray can only see a dumb blonde. But Tippi Hedren is no dumb blonde – that was her problem.

Even at 85, Tippi Hedren can only summarise the moment Hitchcock came to her dressing room during the filming of Marnie and pushed himself on her with, “It was sexual, it was perverse, and it was ugly, and I couldn’t have been more shocked.”

Given that, in her memoir, Hedren has already described Hitchcock trying to kiss her and force himself on her in a car at a hotel entrance, as well as asking her “to touch him” after which she could just bring herself not to slap him, stalked her in his car driving past her house on many occasions after work, isolated her in a proprietorial way from other male actors and told her he loved her, all of which she had resisted and pushed back on, it can only be reasonably imagined that the assault in her dressing room was not far short of an attempted rape.

After Marnie, for which Hitchcock refused to allow her name to go forward for the Oscars, Hedren asked to be released from her contract. Hitchcock tried to force her to stay by reminding her she had a four year-old child and a sick father to support. After she walked out, he made sure she was blacklisted in Hollywood for some years. It was the early 1960s and as Hedren explains it:

Sexual harassment and stalking were terms that did not exist back then. Besides, he was Alfred Hitchcock, one of Universal’s superstars, and I was just a lucky little blond model he’d rescued from relative obscurity. Which one of us was more valuable to the studio, him or me?

None of this should surprise. Hedren has spoken to others in interviews of how Hitchcock treated her but never till this memoir has she written of it herself. Tippi is a frank record of those dark Hollywood days and more besides. In fact, the worst of Hedren’s experience of Hitchcock was the deliberate cruelty she had to undergo in various scenes – most of which she believes Hitchcock put her through as punishment for rejecting his advances.

Real birds were used to attack Hedren for the attic scene so that on day five she snapped as a bird almost pecked out her eye. When she shouted, “I’m done”, Hitchcock called, “Cut” and she was left alone lying on the floor. A doctor forced Hitchcock to give her a week off for “intensive rest”. When Hitchcock objected the doctor asked, “Are you trying to kill her?” In a scene where birds attack Hedren outside a telephone booth, she was assured the glass would be shatter proof. Not so. When the glass shattered, assistants spent the afternoon picking glass fragments out of Hedren’s face.

In all of it, Hitchcock’s wife Alma and his assistant Peggy and others on the set were complicit. They tried to sway Hedren to tolerate the abuse to keep Hitchcock happy. Hedren liked Hitchcock’s wife Alma and recognised her brilliance as a movie editor and advisor but she was shocked to have Alma come to her, as she did while filming Marnie, and say, “I’m sorry you have to go through this.” When Hedren told Alma she could stop it, Alma “just turned and walked away”. Marnie writer Jay Presson Allen caught Hedren in the back of limo and asked, “Can’t you just love him a little?” It was pure Hollywood, where art is all and loss of personal morality, even safety, a small price to pay for the end product.

Christopher Bray for The Spectator fails to see the relevance of Tippi Hedron’s life story overall. That she went on to build a preserve for big cats is an irony he misses completely. One could say Hitchcock was the black panther she never took to.

Tippi Hedren married for a second time in 1964 – to her agent and manager, Noel Marshall. In 1969, while filming Satan’s Harvest in South Africa alongside George Montgomery, Hedren became fascinated with lions. With Marshall in tow, she visited Mozambique’s largest preserve, after which they firmed on an idea to make a movie entirely devoted to filming large numbers of big cats living among humans. Returning to Los Angeles, they began taking in unwanted lions.

This is a memoir that comes across as a frank monologue from Tippi – chatty, informal and idiomatic at times and completely in character. But it’s also well edited and introduces outsiders to the remarkable lengths Hollywood dreamers will go to in their quest for a motion picture. Roar – which had openings across the world including in Sydney and Melbourne and made just $2 million – took eleven years and cost $17 million. Hedron writes: “So many dreams, so little money.” As she puts it:

I know how to live broke. In fact I’m living proof that things can turn around, and that you really can be content and broke at the same time. So we kept calling and serving lunches. In the meantime, we had no business taking in more animals, but we did it anyway.

The reader can only guess how $17 million came into Hedren and Marshall’s accounts. They lacked financial backers through most of it and were forced to sell belongings and even their fine home on Knobhill Drive above Sherman Oaks overlooking the San Fernando Valley. They poured in every cent they earned not only to the film but into years of building a preserve in Soledad Canyon where the film was eventually shot. They faced a devastating flood in the middle of filming, followed by a bushfire that stopped just short of finishing off the project completely.

Hedren writes, however, that at every nasty turn they never considered quitting. Their cameraman, Jan de Bont, returned to the job after being scalped by a lion during an early take. Hedren’s daughter, actress Melanie Griffith, gave it away soon after only to return a few months later. Several film crew and trainers were injured, one almost fatally. Both Marshall and Hedren suffered serious injuries. All this in spite of knowing most of what there was to know around handling big cats, and elephant Timbo. As Hedren writes, animals have their own perceptions. Sophia Loren visited the set and departed without her address and note book – left lying about, Timbo had eaten it.

Most readers will find this book hard to put down. In this careful, almost carefree, account of living with big cats, Tippi Hedron has caught a side of Hollywood we rarely see. As the confrontation between Trump voters and glamorous Hollywood stars heats up, this is a book for our time.

Anne Henderson is Deputy Director of The Sydney Institute and author of Menzies at War – shortlisted for the 2015 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards for History