Saturday, December 8, 2012

"Hitchcock": A Wonderfully Entertaining Lie and Fabrication

I finally got around to seeing the new bio-pic "Hitchcock" (2012) starring Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren.  As I blogged a few weeks ago, I was curious to see it because it has helped bring attention to the career of Vera Miles, a long-time favorite of mine.  I also said at the time I had concerns that, because I was very familiar with the life of Alfred Hitchcock and had read the book "Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of 'Psycho,'" I might object at the first sign of anything that reeked of exaggeration or fabrication.  As I watched the film, however, its charms took over and I very much enjoyed it on its own terms, even though I knew much of it was essentially a lie.  It is well known to anyone who has been on their studio tour that "Psycho" was actually shot on the Universal lot, and not Paramount as this movie alleges, even though Paramount was the studio that initially released it in 1960.  Janet Leigh once stated in an interview that she barely interacted with Vera Miles during the filming of "Psycho," which makes the scenes in "Hitchcock" where Jessica Biel as Miles befriends Scarlett Johansson's Janet Leigh charmingly fanciful hogwash.  In all the books that I've read about the marriage between Hitchcock and his wife Alma Reville, there are no suggestions that Reville felt frustrated that her own talents had been overlooked, that she felt any need to be recognized on her own terms (as this film suggests at times), nor that her friendship with writer Whitfield Cook was of a close enough nature to make Hitchcock feel threatened and jealous.

But the fact that much of the film is a lie ultimately doesn't matter because, as I watched "Hitchcock," I realized it was ridiculous to complain about its factual inaccuracies because cinema, essentially, is a fabrication and a lie, even when it attempts to dramatize a real-life incident or subject.  You're not going to get the "truth" (whatever that is) unless you are attempting to create a documentary.  I read a few reviews by critics who were put-off with "Hitchcock" because of its inaccuracies.  I think the basis for this animosity is because film critics are the ones who likely know their Hitchcock film history and don't like it when a film plays fast and loose with a subject THEY know about.  The double standard with that, of course, is they can accept it much more easily in a historical or biographical movie on subjects where they are not experts.  (Ben Affleck's brilliant "Argo" is a perfect example.)  In these instances, critics defend inaccurate films that they personally like on the grounds of "artistic license."  As such, "Hitchcock" should not be considered the definitive, true-life story of one of the cinema's greatest directors.  Instead, it should be seen as an affectionately exaggerated homage of Hitchcock and his wife and colleagues, during a period of time he was working on one of his finest masterpieces, and of a by-gone Hollywood era that existed before summer blockbusters, sequels, and multi-plexes changed the face of the entertainment/cinematic landscape forever.

What makes the movie work is how it etches a gallery of engaging characters who just happen to be based on true-life figures in Hollywood history.  They are playing an interpretation of who these people were, not the actual persons themselves.  It's likely that Helen Mirren's character bears little actual resemblance to the real-life Alma Reville, but Mirren's Alma proves to be the heart and soul of the movie.  She effectively portrays an intelligent, talented, and supportive woman who proves to be her husband's best collaborator and ally.  She's always got his back.  Anthony Hopkins is great playing Hitchcock himself.  I disagree with others who felt that they were taken aback by Hopkins's performance and that it took them awhile to get used to it.  I bought it from the very first scene he appeared.  In his skillful hands, Hopkins makes Hitchcock self-indulgent, childish, insecure, insensitive, difficult, brilliant, sympathetic.  He and Mirren have genuine chemistry portraying a married couple who understand one another completely after decades of sharing a professional and personal life together.  What's interesting is how the film portrays both Hitchcock and Alma Reville as two people who love one another so much that they are still able to make each other jealous when their professional attention is diverted by third parties. 

In its portrayal of the real-life actors who starred in "Psycho," the movie plays fair in its depiction of Janet Leigh and Vera Miles.  As played by Scarlett Johannson, Leigh comes across as a consummate, conscientious professional and family-oriented woman and never once succumbs to any shallow movie star stereotypes.  Jessica Biel brings understanding and sympathy to the role of Vera Miles, the Hitchcock protege who fell out of favor with him by becoming pregnant and bowing out of acting in "Vertigo" (1958).  Even though the movie demonstrates how Hitchcock didn't give Vera Miles an easy time of it, Biel portrays her as an intelligent, strong-willed woman who holds her own opposite him, gave as good as she got, and didn't end up becoming his victim, even if he tried to punish her for disappointing him.  At no point does Vera Miles ever come across as Hitchcock's victim the way actresses Tippi Hedren and Diane Baker have alleged they were treated by him in real life.  In "Hitchcock," Miles simply comes across as too self-possessed to ever let it happen.  I am a little disappointed that James D'Arcy was underutilized as Anthony Perkins.  It's a bit perplexing that the screenplay of "Hitchcock" chose to ignore the dramatic potential of further exploring the psyche of the closeted Perkins during a period of his life when he was still seen as a romantic leading man and was wrestling with his sexuality.  Nevertheless, in his few scenes, D'Arcy is sympathetic and convincing in portraying Perkins's insecurity and mannerisms.

This is the second of two films this year dramatizing the life of Alfred Hitchcock.  HBO's TV movie "The Girl," which purports to be about the relationship between Hitchcock and Tippi Hedren during the making of "The Birds" (1963) and "Marnie" (1964) was the other.  Even though both films deal with Hitchcock's obsession with his leading ladies, "Hitchcock" is much less hateful towards its subject matter than "The Girl."  It might touch upon his obsessions and indulgences, but never degenerates into portraying him as a monster.  Some of the best moments in "Hitchcock" are the scenes portraying Hitchcock's interaction with both Janet Leigh and Vera Miles.  We get to see him being both tough and tender with both actresses, and this allows us mere mortals to get a glimpse at the complex relationship that exists between a director and his leading ladies.  My favorite moment is the scene when Vera Miles has completed her work on "Psycho" and bids a poignant farewell to her disappointed mentor.  Biel effectively conveys the respect Miles still feels for Hitchcock despite their professional differences.  Likewise, in the same scene, Hopkins superbly demonstrates the affection Hitchcock felt for Miles and never allows him to come across as a degenerate creep the way Toby Jones played him in "The Girl."  The only thing I objected to in "Hitchcock" were the fantasy scenes depicting Hitchcock being visited by Ed Gein, the real life serial killer that writer Robert Bloch based the Norman Bates character upon.  The scenes suggest that Hitchcock felt an affinity with Ed Gein, which exaggerates things a little too much for my tastes.  Even though I recognize the filmmakers' need to create intrigue, because the making of "Psycho" probably didn't have enough on-set drama to justify a feature-length movie, I simply don't feel that there are enough commonalities between Hitchcock and Gein to warrant that juxtaposition.  But that's a minor quibble for a movie that, even though I don't consider it award-worthy material, is still genuinely delightful and entertaining. 

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