“Mother … my mother … um, what’s the phrase? She isn’t quite herself today.”
It was like looking into a Fabergé egg last February when Vanity Fair published its loving but completely disturbing re-creations of famous Hitchcock movies.
Here on beautiful, perfume-scented pages were carefully wrought miniatures — a photo tribute in which present-day movie stars had been inserted into instantly recognizable stills from Vertigo, Psycho, Rear Window, each tableau a bit terrifying in its minute exactness.
The reader of these present pages (a soulmate, I feel, with many hours communing with silver shadows in the dark) will understand my sense of — is violation too strong a word, or titillation too frivolous? — confusion then, confusions plural, when I saw film moments I grew up on, eerie Hitchcockian mise-en-scenes whose hypnotic power can still grab me today, even after a lifetime of multiple viewings, reimagined into something rich and strange, a Mashup for the ReMix Generation, a sort of race-record cover version, with very pretty, very clean personnel — and no soul.
Take the photo of Jodie Foster, at top, impersonating Tippi Hedren in The Birds. It neatly conveys the blasphemous charm of Vanity Fair’s born-again confections, disquieting as much for the things they get “wrong” as for the things they get “right.” (You can view the entire spread here.)
On the plus side, there is the technical bravura in the shot, as in almost all the Vanity Fair photos, that demonstrates how much diligence and reverence was taken with these modern reproductions: The weathered look of the surroundings, the steel-toned palette, the pink flesh stark against the blues — all bring mid-century Hitchcock thrillingly back to life. What is wrong, so instructively wrong, is the pleading, warmly human face of Jodie Foster.
This is not mid-century Hitchcock.
Though Tippi Hedren looks just as fully engaged in the original shot at right, you need to see her in action to realize how exquisitely arch, how posed and contrived her performance is. And this is exactly what Hitchcock wanted.
After Grace Kelly deserted him (as he surely saw it) for marriage to a minor princeling (Hitchcock was notorious for unhealthy infatuations with his leading ladies), the great director decided he wanted nothing more to do with stars if he could help it. Stars came with built-in associations, the baggage of past roles. They were vibrant personas that connected with audiences. Hitchcock, however, was picking up something new in the air. He wanted something radical: stars who didn’t connect, stars who conveyed a modern isolation.
The director now pointedly chose actresses who had a tendency to appear wooden and uninflected on the screen — limited actresses whose hollow resonances helped define his particular kind of morally vague blonde: Soulless, blank-eyed (think of Janet Leigh driving in Psycho), they were embodiments of modern anomie, of existential emptiness.
And so we come to the superior vacancy of Tippi Hedren that the much-too-Oscared Jodie can’t quite touch. Hedren is Hitchcock’s most minimalist actress, one who conveyed emotions by her rate of blinking. When she is under massive attack in The Birds, she simply blinks more fiercely.
One of the persistent questions in the film is why the birds attack the humans in the first place. Hitchcock gives no reason, allowing audiences to shift uneasily in their seats as the screen is clawed into chaos. The film’s finale, with Tippi and company inching gingerly toward a gull-covered convertible with its fragile canvas roof, captures the jittery tempo of the paranoid, post-atomic 1960s, a touch that remains so endurably modern that the film is just as radical today — and yet as right-on — as the “unsatisfying” nowhere ending of No Country for Old Men: Things happen. For no reason. Deal with it.
And I, after many viewings, have dealt with it. You see I do know the reason why the birds attack: And her name is Tippi. Beautiful, blond, envelope thin, Tippi Hedren in The Birds is a creature of high-fashion artifice, of the elegant long neck and uncomfortable twisted positions favored by the Vogue photographer. An artifice so thorough that nature is thrown into an uproar, a rage, and rises to attack her.
As a smug, soulless playgirl, the Hedren character is the alien invader, a threat and a competitor, who with her contrived angularity vies for the mantle of ultimate beauty, offering something more polished and machine-made than the organic, messy circles of nature.
And so she must be stopped, and the gulls swoop down, in a famous sky-high shot, to rip her apart with talon and beak, banging with maddened frenzy into the glass phone booth where she has taken shelter, cracking the glass and setting off gasoline fires and exploding cars and wild runaway horses: a sly and never-to-be-forgotten Hitchcockian tableau of the Biblical Apocalypse.
Like I say, I go a little off my nut for Hitchcock movies. When I look at the Vanity Fair reproductions — Jodie Foster is the one closest at hand — I think of Gus Vant Sant’s laborious scene-by-scene remake of Psycho, a noble experiment that simply didn’t fly, much like the absurd Dodo bird, which the film resembled.
In that film Anne Heche did what Jodie is doing, what good actresses are supposed to do. She warmed up the role Janet Leigh played, showing thoughts and emotions crossing her face — and it was a disaster.
The shell-shocked Janet was much more provocative. Leigh’s motivations were simply left out of the original until much later when, almost in a script afterthought, we learn she stole the money to run away with the beyond-beautiful John Gavin (a reason to rob any bank at any time).
Under Hitchcock’s direction the actress never tips us to the fact that she might be something more complex than an automaton. The numb starey Janet, the icy Tippi (in both The Birds and particularly Marnie, where she is not only an automaton and compulsive thief but sexually frigid as well), the sleekly distant Eva Marie Saint in North by Northwest (available but so fashionably uninvolved) added the right note of blank-eyed post-atomic existentialism — and this coolness is the crucial ingredient that is missing in all the Vanity Fair recreations.
All except one.
But before I get to it, I must acknowledge the Marnie of Naomi Watts, who impersonates less a still from a Hitchcock film than a glam publicity shot of Tippi Hedren in all her high-haired, high-gowned Camelot-era splendor. Also superb is Charlize Theron’s spot-on Grace Kelly in Dial M for Murder, the most technically accurate impersonation in the bunch.
Theron’s warmth is not an error here, for Hitchcock had not yet made the turn. In Hitchcock’s Grace Kelly trilogy, his women are still women and not disturbed ideas about women. And Theron, like Kelly, conveys a warmly simmering sexuality that is loaded with ’50s propriety and sensual authenticity: it’s all happening just below the skin.
Still, good as the verisimilitude is, it’s an easy job. The Dial M heroine is not jammed up like — and here is my grand exception — Kim Novak in Vertigo, magically and against all odds conjured up — no other word for it — by Renee Zellweger (see below).
I am not alone in treasuring Vertigo as Hitchcock’s most profound and unintentionally personal film. Hitchcock, a mannered director of great high style, steps out from behind the black humor and droll cleverness — almost by accident, it would seem — to create a passionate woman and a male lead who has an unhealthy attraction to her.
Perhaps it was because the director detested working with Kim Novak, felt she was pushed on him by her boyfriend, the studio chief at Universal, that he couldn’t see what his left hand was doing. Here in Vertigo was Hitchcock’s own convoluted sexual history on full Technicolor display: his cloying, suffocating infatuations with leading ladies past. And he showed this infatuation without sympathy, as the unhealthy — literally morbid — thing it was. I won’t be giving anything away but fans of the film will know what I mean when I say: James Stewart can only love Kim Novak when he believes she is a dead woman, whether by ghostly possession or painstaking imitation.
In fact, Kim Novak is fantastic in the role. With the snowy whiteness of her skin and dreamy, somnambulant way of exhaling her role, she gives a beautiful, melancholy performance, all soft and bosomy and troubled. In the middle of Hitchcock’s Ice Age, his era of the shell-shocked albino blond with the blanked-out soul, Kim emerges as a full-blown neurotic, spending the first 20 minutes sleep-walking around a quaintly romantic San Francisco as a woman under a trance. And then in the second half waking from that trance in all her vulgar, broken humanity. (I can never visit that city without picking up a heavy Vertigo vibe from its Old California streets and strangely malevolent doll-house trappings.)
And it is exactly Kim Novak’s otherworldly essence that Renee Zellweger has captured and distilled in — most amazing of all — a still photo.
Though Zellweger looks nothing like Kim Novak — in fact, in this picture, feature for feature, she reminds me of a leaner Simone Signoret — I feel Vertigo, I feel Kim.
The amazing thing about Renee Zellweger is that she is not, in fact, beautiful. At rest, her face — well, it reminds me of a boiled potato. Yet she has, through some alchemy of the actor’s will, conjured the essence of beauty without really delivering the content. (The only time I can remember this being done before is by the brilliant but staggeringly plain Kim Stanley in The Goddess.)
Renee with a Z serves up the platonic idea of Kim Novak. Just as in Chicago, during a dream sequence when she appears in a spangly gown on a black set, she served up the platonic idea of Marilyn Monroe.
Platonic ideas are what the Vanity Fair spread is really about, conjuring up a sense of the films without doing broad burlesques of them. And for the most part, the photos succeed. Even paunchy Seth Rogan finds an unexpected — one would have thought impossible — point of contact with the sublimely elegant Cary Grant, whom he impersonates running from the cropduster in that famous cornfield from North by Northwest. Certainly, the most avant-garde image of the lot, bold in its risk, transcendent in its victory.
The only major stinker in the bunch is the Strangers on a Train recreation. James McAvoy, who was so attuned to the submerged sorrows of his role in Atonement, is here off the mark, his oiled-back hair doing nothing to help conjure up the special twinkly-eyed madness of Robert Walker.
Much worse is the actor who has stepped into the Farley Granger role. His face is too sensual, too virile to invoke the lush, high-strung Granger, who fit so comfortably into the role of beautiful boy love-object, complete with a certain pre-Stonewall, bottled-up neurosis that was forever leaping, unbidden, from his beautifully lidded but churningly alarmed eyes. (I can never remember Farley Granger smiling in a film or being anything but admired and desired and at the mercy of other people’s — usually sick — dreams. Rope, anyone?) None of the roaring energy of Walker’s top dominating Granger’s importuning bottom comes though in this anemic translation of Strangers on a Train.
That’s the funny thing about platonic ideas: they always promise more than they deliver. And while foreplay is always fun, a little goes a long way. Time to break out the DVDs and watch the originals.
Kim, Jimmy, and particularly Farley, I’m coming.