Sunday, February 3, 2013
The Hitchcock Brunette
Suzanne Pleshette was probably the most overrated "underrated" actress in the history of Hollywood. Every write-up on Pleshette describes her as an actress who never fulfilled her potential in feature films. With all due respect, as much as I acknowledge that she was a talented and interesting actress, I don't think she was as great as people allege. Especially in her later years, when she did TV movies like the one where she played Leona Helmsley, Pleshette became overly mannered and harsh in her acting, almost as if she had become frustrated and disappointed at the types of films being offered to her and was unable to hide her annoyance anymore. Whatever sense of subtlety and sensitivity that may have been there in her early years was gone by the time she was in her 40s and 50s as her voice deepened to a gravelly growl that no longer purred with the sexy sophistication that it once had. Unlike her peers, her acting did not improve with experience and maturity as she began dipping into her usual bag of tricks and played "Suzanne Pleshette" far too often. I know that I am in the minority, but I never responded to her brash work on "The Bob Newhart Show" the way other people did. She simply didn't have the acting range that the similar Jessica Walter or Elizabeth Ashley (two other husky-voiced brunettes from the same era) had. That's a shame, because she did have a directness and forthright quality that made her appealing and interesting to watch in the early years of her career. Even though she's got a relatively minor role, perhaps her best work as an actress in feature films was her supporting role in Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds" (1963).
In "The Birds," Pleshette plays Annie Hayworth, the lovelorn school teacher of Bodega Bay, California. Sophisticated Annie originally came to Bodega Bay years ago for a long weekend visit with the family of her beau Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor), who she had been dating in San Francisco. Because of the icy reception Annie receives from Mitch's uptight mother Lydia (Jessica Tandy), Annie and Mitch's relationship fizzles after the weekend is over and they've returned to the city. However, Annie remains hopelessly in love with Mitch to such a degree that she moves to Bodega Bay and takes a job teaching at the local schoolhouse so that she can remain part of Mitch's life by establishing friendships with his mother and with his sister Cathy (Veronica Cartwright), who becomes one of her charges at school. All of this is told by Annie in hindsight and occurs before the movie even takes place. Annie's complacent existence in Bodega Bay starts unraveling with the arrival of socialite Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren), who met Mitch at a pet store in San Francisco and impulsively ordered some love birds, which Mitch had been inquiring about as a birthday gift for his sister, in order to bring them to Bodega Bay. Through a series of events, Melanie ends up staying in Bodega Bay over the weekend and takes a room at Annie's house. Over the course of several days, Bodega Bay is besieged by a series of violent bird attacks where Annie is killed while attempting to save Cathy's life.
What I liked about Suzanne Pleshette's work in "The Birds" is how controlled and civil Annie is during the course of the story. Annie is a character who would normally be portrayed as a spiteful old maid, but Pleshette makes her attractive, sophisticated, appealing. Pleshette brings an inherent decency to the character that make her scenes much more interesting and enlightening than expected. The highlight of the movie are the scenes between Annie and Tippi Hedren's Melanie. Rarely in movies or television do you find two women interested in the same man behave as compassionately and sympathetically as Annie and Melanie treat one another. The first Annie/Melanie scene, where Melanie arrives at Annie's home while she is tending to her garden, feature both characters subtly making pointed remarks meant to elicit information as to how the other woman feels about Mitch. When Melanie indicates that she met Mitch in San Francisco, Annie says tellingly "I guess that's where everyone meets Mitch." Annie realizes Melanie's intentions when she learns that she has brought love birds with her from San Francisco. Pleshette's close-up at that moment, with her slightly raised eyebrows, reflects a woman who has recognized a potential adversary for winning Mitch's heart. But she remains polite to Melanie nevertheless. When Melanie returns to Annie's house later to rent a room from her, Annie's knowing reactions and facial expressions at hearing about Melanie's decision to spend the night at Bodega Bay underscore her character's sadness and discomfort at realizing the extent of Melanie's successful efforts to attract Mitch's attention. Annie seems resigned to the fact that Melanie appears to be succeeding with Mitch in areas where Annie had failed.
In most films, one would normally expect Annie to turn into the jealous "other woman," but Hitchcock and Pleshette refreshingly turn this cliche upside down by portraying her as a warm and mature individual who continues to treat Melanie with decency and respect. Even though it's clear from Pleshette's reactions and gestures that Annie is heartbroken at realizing Mitch will never be in love with her, she never takes out her frustration on Melanie because she has accepted her fate as second-best in Mitch's life. Pleshette never forgets to instill Annie with traits of kindness and understanding and continually surprises us throughout "The Birds." Annie remains a thoughtful host to Melanie during her stay at her house and offers supportive advice to Melanie on how best to handle Mitch and his mother. My favorite scene in the movie is the one where Annie offers Melanie brandy and insight after the latter returns from a frustrating dinner at the Brenner's house. With her subtle gestures and discerning glances, Annie explains the circumstances of how she fell in love with Mitch and ended up in Bodega Bay. In so doing, Melanie begins to understand the strange relationship Mitch has with his mother. Melanie also realizes that Annie's limbo existence in Bodega Bay could potentially be her own future if she is not careful with how she deals with the Brenners.
Annie is an interesting character in Hitchcock's filmography, the rare Hitchcock woman who is forthright and honest and not prone to duplicity nor subterfuge. I like how Annie's story about Lydia's possessive grip on Mitch's life is told without any bitterness or resentment towards Mitch nor Lydia. Because she's unselfishly in-touch with her emotions, she's an incredibly wise and sympathetic character who we hope the best for. That's why it's so sad when Annie admits to Melanie that the reason she moved to Bodega Bay is because "I wanted to be near Mitch. Oh, it was over and done with and I knew it, but I still wanted to be near him. You see, I still like him a hell of a lot. And I don't want to lose that friendship...ever." You realize the paralyzing degree to which Annie has put her life on hold for Mitch. I also like the moment when Annie answers the phone during her conversation with Melanie and hands the phone over to Melanie so that she can speak with Mitch. Pleshette does some subtle gestures during this scene that speaks volumes. When she answers the phone and hears Mitch's voice, Pleshette demurely glances downward and spontaneously breaks into a low-key smile that demonstrates how happy she is to hear his voice. Moments later, as Annie sits nearby and listens to Melanie's conversation with Mitch, she quietly lowers her eyes and turns her head slightly when she realizes that Mitch is inviting Melanie to attend Cathy's birthday party tomorrow. We realize that, even though Annie is a realist, she still harbors some hope that her relationship with Mitch may resume. However, the emotions and behavior generated by Melanie's presence has made Annie realize that that will never happen. These small moments speak volumes regarding Annie feelings of disappointment concerning Mitch. In the end however, Annie wins our respect and admiration because she saves Cathy's life and, in the process, sacrifices her own when she pushes Cathy back into the house when the birds attack. We realize that Annie's love for Mitch was not shallow and that she sincerely cared about him and his family and was willing to put her life on the line to prove it. It's too bad that Mitch always took Annie for granted and never appreciated her as much as he should have.
Suzanne Pleshette never again worked in as important a feature film in Hollywood as "The Birds." Throughout her otherwise decent career, Pleshette mostly worked in television and in mediocre feature films that did little to elevate her status as an actress. Her frequent appearances in episodic guest appearances on TV shows established her as an appealing, reliable presence on the small screen, but it may have also caused the Industry to take Pleshette for granted. The prevailing wisdom in Hollywood could have been, "Why should the public pay to see her when they can watch her for free on television?" Pleshette was always popular with the general public but, because she spread herself too thin by being overly prolific, she rarely had opportunities to work with a major director like she did in "The Birds." Pleshette makes the most of the opportunity and allows you to realize the direction her career could have gone had she been offered film roles as good as the one she had here. Even though "The Birds" is meant to be Hitchcock's star-making showcase for Tippi Hedren, he doesn't short change Pleshette and allows her an opportunity to create a fully-dimensional character within her limited screen time. Hitchcock appears to have been fully engaged while working with Pleshette because he seems much more interested in exploring Annie's inner psyche. The result is that Suzanne Pleshette ends up playing a fully-dimensional individual in "The Birds" that ranks as another fascinatingly complex female character in the entire Alfred Hitchcock filmography.