Rarely has an actor or actress been able to sustain such a level of notoriety and fame based mostly upon a role in one, or perhaps two, film(s.) While today’s featured actress has worked since the early 60’s in many TV shows, TV movies, short films and features, she is primarily known for her work in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds and their subsequent collaboration Marnie. Sadly for her, the momentum she was building at that time was derailed, but in time she found employment again and is now about as busy as ever! Our star, of course, is Miss Tippi Hedren.
Born in 1930 (yes, this lady is eighty years old!) in New Ulm, Minnesota, she was the daughter of parents with Swedish, German and Norwegian heritage. Her name at birth was Nathalie Kay Hedren, but it wasn’t long before her father gave her the nickname “Tippi” with the notion that Nathalie didn’t really fit a new baby girl. Her father was a general store owner and Miss Hedren was exposed to the promotion and display of merchandise from childhood.
She began modeling clothes for local department stores and continued to do this when her family relocated to California when she was still a high school student. Although she was not tall, she was strikingly lithe and lovely with delicately beautiful features and limbs. Upon turning eighteen, she moved to New York City on her own to pursue a modeling career. In 1950, she had a bit role as a model in The Petty Girl, a Bob Cummings/Joan Caulfield musical based on real life pin-up artist George Petty. Hedren played one of twelve models representing the months of the year and as such performed the title song along with Caufield and the other girls.
Clearly determined to succeed at her chosen vocation, she soon became a popular and frequently employed model in everything from catalogs to print advertisements to photos accompanying magazine stories. In 1952, she married Peter Griffith, a former child actor with three Broadway credits to his name. In 1957, they had a daughter together – Melanie Griffith – but the couple would be divorced by 1961.
As a single mom, Hedren continued with her modeling work and filmed a commercial for a diet drink called Sego. In the commercial, the attractive blonde was walking down the street and was whistled at over her slim figure. Alfred Hitchcock and his wife Alma spotted her and Hedren was invited to meet with the director. The “Master of Suspense” who had worked with a string of blonde beauties who were cool on the outside, but fiery inside, offered to put her under personal contract, a situation that delighted and flabbergasted the aspiring actress.
Hitch had been on the lookout for someone similar to Grace Kelly, who he lost when she married into royalty and retired from show business. He’d worked with Kelly three times and she was his favorite leading lady along with Ingrid Bergman, who he’d also done three films with. Hedren was swept into a world of behind the scenes preparation. She was given a tailor-made personal wardrobe by Edith Head and was privy to every aspect of film and television production, with Hitchcock treating her as a protégé. He also put her through several screen tests (with a smug and unnecessarily condescending Martin Balsam.) She was under the impression that she was being groomed to work on his hit television series Alfred Hitchcock Presents, but was stunned to find out that he actually wanted to grant her the plum role of Melanie Daniels in his upcoming film The Birds! (He marked the occasion by giving her an 18K gold and seed pearl brooch of gulls in flight that she wears to this day. She even had a replica of it tattooed on her right shoulder this year to mark her 80th birthday!)
From here, things clicked into even higher gear as she was overwhelmed with costume and hair preparation and pre-production photo shoots, all the while being included in on and consulted with over most every aspect of the film. Hitch was obsessed with her and scarcely could take his eyes off her. And frankly, by the time he was done polishing her up, she was one of the most striking and sophisticated looking leading ladies to comes along in quite a while.
The Birds commenced production with costars Rod Taylor, Jessica Tandy, Veronica Cartwright and Suzanne Pleshette (who had wanted the role of Melanie terribly and resented her supporting role.) Outfitted in what has become an iconic costume, a celery green suit with tan pumps and a fur coat, with her hair coiffed into a bouffant twist, she was an elegant, alluring heroine with a purring, well-spoken voice. What she lacked was acting experience and familiarity with the dynamics of motion picture acting, despite all of Hitch’s training. However, to most viewers, she acquits herself admirably in the movie.
The film culminated in a vicious attack in which dozens of birds swoop in and peck at Hedren until she is rendered unconscious. Hedren suffered terribly during the five-day assault (in which live birds were used instead of the promised mechanical ones and she was scratched on the cheek) and eventually broke down, requiring a hospital visit and a week off. For Hitch, who loved to build up his heroines and then tear them down, it was more than a little fetishistic. He didn’t even mention the incident to her when she returned to the set following her recovery.
At the time, she was derided by some critics for being too understated and even “wooden.” By today’s standards, however, she comes across quite well as acting styles have changed in the ensuing decades and natural acting is generally preferred over histrionic emoting and manufactured mannerisms, et al. She shares good chemistry with Taylor and the two became lifelong friends. There is a posting her in The Underworld all about The Birds, so I won’t continue about it today except to say that it is one of my favorite films and I think Tippi is captivating in it.
Next was an even more challenging role, that of the title character in Marnie, the story of a frigid thief who moves from victim to victim, always changing her hair, clothing and name, who is finally found out by a man who decides to marry her rather than turn her in! The man in the film was played by Sean Connery, trying to escape the typecasting he was becoming mired in for his work as James Bond in Dr. No and subsequent films. He specifically told his agent that he wanted to be in an Alfred Hitchcock movie.
Marnie was based on an English book of the same name, though the story was re-set in America. Few of his collaborators were fully satisfied with the story elements and found themselves noting that Hitch was really only tremendously interested in one scene, that being a key moment of rape. He was allegedly quoted as saying that he wanted the camera right on her face when he “puts it in her!”
Hedren and Connery made a very attractive couple, though their scenes in the movie didn’t allow them to experience much happiness. The characters are frequently at odds, so the romantic element that some of the publicity photos seemed to promise really wasn’t there. It was more a story of psychological drama and the manipulation of one person by another in order to satisfy his desire. (Sound familiar?) It also explored the effects of trauma during childhood on the adult mind, something that was still somewhat obscure in 1964. In other words, the story was a bit ahead of its time.
The role was probably a bit more complicated, demanding and encompassing than an actress with limited experience, making only her second real movie, could fully handle, but she did give it her all. She was responsible for conveying practically every emotion imaginable, succeeding with some better than others. For one reason or another, there were times when Hedren would become sort of blank in the face rather than expressive. However, there were many other instances in which she dredged up real emotion.
As filming progressed, Hitchcock’s never-ending, smothering obsession with Hedren continued. Not content to control her on the set, which is something he did with nearly all of his actors, he also wanted to control her personally. Hedren, however, was having none of that. Torn between feelings of immense gratitude for the opportunity she was being given, but repulsed by the domineering and, at times, sadistic side of the relationship, the by-now remarried actress was in personal turmoil.
The dam finally burst one day when something either happened or was suggested by Hitchcock and the response from Hedren was emphatically negative. From that day forward, he wouldn’t speak to her on the set and did everything through a third party (“Would you please ask the girl to….?” etc…) He tried to obscure the situation by explaining that his anger with her was because she made reference to his weight (which she may have done, but only because she was lashing out in frustration.) It was ugly and continued to get uglier.
Once Marnie was finished (and it is said that he lost interest in the film at the moment he lost interest in Tippi Hedren), she wanted out of her personal contract and he refused to allow that. He kept her under contract – at a rate of $600/week -- but didn’t use her or allow her to accept any other offers of work (including one she was not immediately told about from Francois Truffaut.) There would be no further “Hitchcock Blondes” in his subsequent movies. Eventually, he sold her option to Universal Studios and she did a bit of TV work, but it was 1967 before she made another motion picture. The marquee value she had been given for The Birds and Marnie was wearing off by then, especially since Marnie was not a hit film upon release and its virtues have only begun to be appreciated in more recent years.
The film she was chosen for looked very promising. Charles Chaplin was directing Sophia Loren and Marlon Brando in A Countess From Hong Kong, a shipboard comedy romance, and Hedren was cast as Brando’s brittle and sophisticated wife. When she was in London for filming, Hitchcock and his wife Alma visited her for tea at her request, but the bitterness was still evident beneath the pleasantries. He scoffed at her notion that Hitch and Chaplin should pose together for a photograph. In any case, the film turned out to be a major disappointment for practically everyone involved. Hedren’s role was miniscule and came near the end. She pleaded with his to expand it, but there was precious little to do as her character was introduced so late in it. This tie-in ad shows her still-fit body, which was far more covered up in Countess. This was Chaplin’s last film.
She did win the part of a glamorous socialite who tried to help her boyfriend Christopher George beat a murder accusation in 1968’s Tiger by the Tail, but this was a minor film. In fact, the film is all but impossible to find today, including any photographs from it! It has the distinction of featuring Spanish entertainer Charo in a featured part, which would seem to make it a collector’s item, but it’s never broadcast in the U.S.
In 1970, she appeared with George Montgomery in a low-budget affair called Satan’s Harvest, all about drug farming in South America. The movie’s reputation is a poor one. Over the next year or two, she made a couple of appearances on The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, the Bill Bixby sitcom, as the wealthy and beautiful chief stockholder of a magazine.
The Harrad Experiment was a rather seedy little film about a group of students enrolled at a school that was dedicated to the sexual behavior of its inhabitants. The boys and girls were paired off and instructed to live as married couples. There were nude meditations and skinny-dipping in the school pool (this scene featured a young Gregory Harrison in the buff.) Hedren’s husband in the film was the one-decade older, and kind of craggy, James Whitmore, so it stands to reason that she would be interested in free love! She had no nude scenes in the movie, but did strip to her bra and panties for one instance.
Another low-budget film came in 1973, Mr. Kingstreet’s War, costarring John Saxon. This one was also filmed in Africa and when it was over, Hedren was informed that some of the big cats were going to be kept in small cages for the rest of their lives. Aghast at this form of animal cruelty, she bought a parcel of land in order to house the creatures herself. This land would be called Shambala and would eventually become a major passion for her and a world-renowned establishment for the housing of disowned, mistreated or otherwise poorly cared for tigers and other similar wildlife.
During this period and for long after, Hedren and her husband Noel Marshall were working on a project that was a labor of love for them, but one which was unbelievably costly and dangerous. They developed a screen story about a family who live in Africa with lions and other wildlife creatures amongst them, in their home. Called Roar, it was exceedingly long in the making and was best by countless mishaps, animal attacks, natural disasters and financial strains. A glimpse in the Trivia section for the film at imdb.com is like a laundry list of cast and crew injuries including maulings, bites and other attacks that led to multiple stitches for the people involved. Melanie Griffith, who appeared as Hedren’s daughter in the film was mauled and the cinematographer (who would later become a successful action director) Jan de Bont was scalped!
The $17 million film would not see release until 1981 after years and years of filming and it made only $2 million back. It was an exhausting, dangerous and draining experience for everyone, though most of the participants still considered it a satisfying and gratifying experience.
Now having to put meat on the table, literally MEAT on the table for her big cats at Shambala, Hedren (a vegetarian for many years) had to go to work in whatever projects she could find in addition to fundraisers. In 1982, she played a controlling and snooty socialite who tries to land her ex-brother-in-law Leslie Nielsen in Foxfire Light, based on a romance novel by Janet Dailey. (Note the famous seagull pin on her gown in this shot with fellow Hitchcock heroine Janet Leigh. It is seen below twice as well.)
She also appeared as a guest on Hart to Hart (in an episode that included the wildlife she adored and that also featured in-joke nods to her The Birds legacy.) In 1985, she had a bit role in the pilot for the revamped version of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The episode starred Melanie Griffith and her then-husband Steven Bauer along with John Huston and fellow “Hitchcock Blonde” Kim Novak.
With her built-in elegance and always-trim physique, she was often called upon for small roles as wealthy ladies or women of some financial standing. She also has played a large number of doctors along the way. Pacific Heights, which starred daughter Melanie utilized her in a cameo as a rich lady who’d been used by the movie’s villain Michael Keaton. A surprisingly pedestrian and unglamorous role came her way when she served for a time on the daytime soap The Bold and the Beautiful. A third husband, Luis Barrenechea, shared her life from 1985 – 1995.
She had a part in the TV remake of Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, which starred Mark Harmon. 1994 brought a supporting role in the utterly unnecessary The Birds II: Land’s End, though she was not portraying her original character. When one of the networks tried to counter-program Sunday afternoons usually dominated by football by airing Harlequin Romance-inspired TV movies, she took part in Treacherous Beauties. (She would later take part in another TV experiment when an attempt was made to bring telenovelas to American TV. Fashion House starred Morgan Fairchild and Bo Derek and aired five times a week for thirteen weeks.) She also appeared in five episodes of the cable series Dream On.
1996 brought Citizen Ruth, a showcase for Laura Dern that shed a seriocomic light on the abortion issue. Hedren played the head of the pro-choice side opposite Burt Reynolds who was on board as a pro-life character. She also had a role in the multi-star comedy film I Heart Huckabees.
Though her daughter has enjoyed in some ways a more successful career in films than her mother, comparisons tend to demonstrate a distinct difference in the two, from personal style to personal issues. Griffith’s life was nothing short of a rollercoaster for many years while Tippi has always come across as more grounded, secure and almost effortlessly ladylike. They share a strong connection with each other in any case.
She continues to work steadily, though there has been a healthy amount of drek over the years. Her primary concern is the effective running of Shambala and the enjoyment of her family, which includes her fourth husband Martin Dinnes (as of 2002) along with Melanie, Melanie’s husband Antonio Banderas and her three grandchildren. Lately, she has found herself the recipient of various awards and honors, an esteemed guest at retrospectives and she continues to be an activist on behalf of the “big cats” she works so hard to protect. Once, when her efforts to curtail the exploitation of them and the selling of them to unqualified owners was in full swing, her sanctuary was threatened with bombing and her personal safety was in question. However, nothing has been able to shake her dedication to this cause for almost four decades now.
The Tipster is one of my faves because she is a survivor and she never lost her sense of style (well… maybe for a little blip during the 70s, but who didn’t?!) She says that her ancestors all lived to be in their nineties, so she is never afraid to take on challenges and stand her ground, yet she, as a student of Kabbalah has embraced the act of forgiveness, which allows her to embrace her time with Hitchcock without regrets. And why regret it anyway? She’s an icon of the cinema thanks to her role in The Birds.