Alfred Hitchcock and His Progressive Female Roles

The Golden Age of Hollywood was an era in filmmaking that inspired millions of aspiring actors to try to be discovered, many of whom resulted in failure. Yet it wasn’t necessarily an achievement for those who actually managed to get discovered by producers or studio executives. While the Golden Age of Hollywood brought forth some of film’s greatest stars and classic actors, it was primarily because such actors were marketed and promoted as such.

Actors, then, were owned by the studios and they were dictated as to what to star in, usually being typecast in similar roles producers felt worked to the benefit of the actor’s talents. This kept actors from truly challenging their acting abilities, mostly due to the rationale producers had that if they cast their actors as the same character-type, eventually they would perfect the role completely without any flaws. For producers, it was about marketability to bring themselves and their studios revenue. It wasn’t necessarily a flawed perspective considering Hollywood was only beginning to boom during this era and producers were overly cautious not to let the bubble burst, yet it generalized the acting range for many actors of this era.

However, typecasting and marketing did have its adverse effect on actors, many of whom were completely redefined to maximize audience appeal, even changing their birth names to make them appear more relatable. Ingrid Bergman, who was one of the few actresses during this era to break outside of the normative conventions of this Hollywood era, described such incidents in her autobiography when she recollects her first meeting with David O. Selznick. The famous producer, best known for producing Gone With the Wind, was first taken aback by Bergman’s height, not satisfied since she was tall, and proceeded to challenge her about her name.

Bergman remembered Selznick saying to her, “Well the first name to start with. We can’t pronounce it. You’d be called Ein-grid and Bergman is impossible too. Far too German. There’s obviously trouble with Germany coming up, and we don’t want anybody to think we hired a German actress. Of course, there’s your married name, Lindstrom, that’s very close to Lindbergh – Charles Lindbergh, the great flier. He’s a favorite in this country at the moment; his nickname is Lindy, maybe you could take that name?” This exchange highlights, even at a minimal level, how executives only thought about marketability, which very often was at the expense of the actor or actress. Fortunately, Ingrid Bergman was one of the few actresses who stood her ground and managed to negotiate and craft her own career, unlike many actresses from this era of filmmaking who submitted to such requests

Producers weren’t the only ones guilty of marketing and perpetuating character-types. Film directors were just as guilty, many of whom felt there was a particular importance to emphasize an actress’s femininity and being a female role model to younger female generations. There was a sort of expectation for the female characters to follow and be complimentary to the male lead in films, feeding into the era’s moral code. This was a concept that films rarely deviated from.

However, this mentality shifted dramatically once Alfred Hitchcock directed Rebecca in 1940, shifting the narrative focus upon the female character and having its narrative dependent upon her rather than the male lead. While Hitchcock encouraged femininity in his actresses’ performances, he did something unique: he allowed for his leading ladies to be independently their own. Their character’s actions, motivations, and behaviors were indicative of their understanding of their role, not Hitchcock’s own.

Hitchcock was also unique in that he allowed his actresses to craft their own performances and invent their behaviors and mannerisms. Hitchcock’s direction was concise, specific, and detail-oriented, yet he was always sure his actresses had enough space to truly become their own entities when his cameras were aimed at them. More noticeable was the character-types Hitchcock established for his films, which were a complete deviation from the standard Hollywood expectations during this era. The female characters he emphasized in his films were strong individuals and capable of strength that usually superseded the expectations and abilities of the males.

What partially allowed for the actresses of Hitchcock films to be more progressive was Hitchcock’s specific selection of films to direct, which were typically leading actress heavy. He was fascinated by heroines who were capable of detecting danger or were ultimately the ones who largely dispelled evil and crime from their respective environments. It was such character-types that the majority of Hitchcock’s narratives capitulated towards. Yet these were frameworks that Hitchcock established, and he left it to his actresses to understand and build their characters themselves. Without that touch, the authenticity of the character and the performance would have not been convincing to film viewers. Teresa Wright, Hitchcock’s star from 1943’s Shadow of a Doubt, can corroborate this when she was quoted as saying, “I felt that Mr. Hitchcock had already built the character and all I had to do was play it.”

Hitchcock’s style of direction was to capture the most poignant and artistically compelling camera shots. He was continually worried about the visuals of his films, which is why the majority of his filmography are of films that are visually appealing to the film viewer, such as the famous shower scene in Psycho, the Mount Rushmore climax in North by Northwest or the neighborhood vantage from Rear Window.

For his actors, especially his actresses, Hitchcock maintained a hands-off attitude. Janet Leigh, star of 1960’s Psycho, once recalled, “…His attitude was: ‘I hired you as an actress, so if you need a motivation to move when I ask you to move, I’m happy to help you, but if you don’t need it, fine.’” Or, Hitchcock offered minimal advice, usually in the form of physical acting. Eva Marie Saint, star of 1959’s North by Northwest, remembered, “Hitchcock gave me three things, three directions. One, lower your voice. Two, don’t use your hands. And three, look directly into Cary Grant’s eyes at all times.” In the cases of Leigh and Saint, Hitchcock’s directing advice to them was to appeal to his vision of the physicality of the completed film rather than their acting style. To Hitchcock, the actor’s work was in the delivery of their dialogue.

This style of direction was highly progressive in an era when directors told their actors how to perform. With Hitchcock, he was more progressive with his actresses than his leading males. His typical choices of actors, like James Stewart or Cary Grant, guaranteed a specific type of performance, one that was expected of them. Studios were very specific with their male actors, such as the infamous change to the ending of Hitchcock’s 1941 film, Suspicion, when producers demanded Hitchcock not reveal Cary Grant’s character to be a murderer because it wasn’t marketable for the actor’s image, thus Hitchcock had to settle for a more ambiguous conclusion to the film.

With his actresses, he had more flexibility with their portrayal on camera, which he used to his advantage. The studios wanted their actresses to maintain glamour and find love, which Hitchcock could easily incorporate into his films. It was the path that led them to this romantic conclusion that Hitchcock had more leeway with. It is true he too wanted to have his actresses be glamorous in appearance, yet he also wanted them to have solid intuition in their thoughts and actions.

His female characters were usually the ones to adapt to a circumstance and find a solution, which typically was a result of the framework he gave his actresses to work with. Grace Kelly once quipped about this style of direction by saying, “Mr. Hitchcock taught me everything about cinema. It was thanks to him that I understood that murder scenes should be shot like love scenes and love scenes like murder scenes.”

Such statements reinforce Hitchcock’s perceptiveness of how his stories should be told. In many regards, the majority of his films were taken from the female vantage or the lead actor became dependent upon the film’s leading lady, such as Cary Grant to Eva Marie Saint in North by Northwest, Gregory Peck to Ingrid Bergman in Spellbound, or James Stewart to Kim Novak in Vertigo. This wasn’t accidental, but entirely part of Hitchcock’s intention.

When discussing Hitchcock’s film vision, Suzanna Pleshette, co-star of 1963’s The Birds, said, “He was very well prepared. The reason he could be so relaxed is because he knew precisely the film he was making, We could fill it up, but he was going to make that film. We were not going to change the film, we were going to enhance the film.” Such remarks suggest Hitchcock’s vision was never to create a damsel in distress performance, but rather a narrative of a strong female having to persevere over an unforeseen obstacle.

It is no mystery as to why Hitchcock would prefer his narratives to be progressively female, which was because he was enormously infatuated with the female psyche. Karen Black, star of Hitchcock’s last film, 1976’s Family Plot, spoke of Hitchcock’s fascination with women by saying, “I think he liked women. And I think you can communicate best about that which you have affinity for. And it’s real to you. And I think he had affinity for women, and that’s why they came across so well. Because he could communicate about them.” This is perhaps why the females of Hitchcock’s films had the most life to them because his focus was upon perfecting them behind his camera.

Ingrid Bergman, best known for Hitchcock’s Spellbound and Notorious, spoke of the director, “He had such enormous enthusiasm and such enormous energy. He really burned his candle at both sides.” This further suggests that Hitchcock’s true enjoyment of filmmaking was capturing an exquisite yet empowering performance from his leading ladies. As Suzanne Pleshette phrased it, Hitchcock already had a vision for his films, yet it was the enhancement of that vision, from his actresses, that allowed for his films to excel.

This leads back to the emphasis that Hitchcock established a framework, an expectation for his actresses, but left it to them to establish that metamorphosis he wanted his film to capture. Eva Marie Saint verifies this style of direction when she said, “…what we did in our dialogue was left up to us. He gave enough direction to let me know how he conjured up the sexy spy lady [in North by Northwest], and I just tried to hit the mark with what he gave me.” Janet Leigh further corroborates this idea of a framework with her character in Psycho when she spoke of her role and Hitchcock’s understanding of it, “I found the character [Marion Crane] compelling. She’s such a fascinating character and shows the duplicity we all have, and what Mr. Hitchcock always liked to show was the split personality, so it was a very fulfilling role.”

These actresses reinforce the notion that Hitchcock provided a vision to them, yet allowed for his actresses to understand the specifics of their characters on their own. Saint further stated regarding character interpretation, “With her [her role as Eve Kendall], there was a subtext that I had to work with, with who she really was,” which emphasizes Hitchcock’s desire for his actresses to use their own intuitions to make their characters believable. As long as their interpretation was functional when a camera was aimed at them, their understanding of their characters was useable to Hitchcock.

What makes Hitchcock more of a progressive director was firstly establishing his own female character-types that could stand independently from other films and then allowed for his actresses the space to authenticate their roles to audiences. This doesn’t go to say that other prominent directors from this era of filmmaking didn’t do the same, yet nobody maintained as much consistency with progressive female roles as Alfred Hitchcock. He wanted to provide imagery of strong females who weren’t reliant on their male counterparts to assist them. Hitchcock’s films were commonly reactionary towards his female characters, to which the male actors were often dependent upon their female co-star.

This was all a part of Hitchcock’s vision, a vision that was outside the normative vantage of filmmaking during this era of Hollywood. Janet Leigh, when speculating about Hitchcock’s career and its legacy, sums it up perfectly, “I think what answers the question of why his films have maintained the brilliance and held up so well…He had a vision for each film, and that’s what he did. That’s why his camera was absolute, because his camera told a story in a way that led the audience to a point and allowed the audience from that point on to then imagine what happened for the rest of it. That’s why you don’t see blatant things, you were led to a point, and then your imagination and your own vision took over.”

Sources Cited:

Bergman, Ingrid and Burgess, Alan. My Life. New York: Delacorte Press, 1980. Print.

Garrett, Greg. “Hitchcock’s Women on Hitchcock: A Panel Discussion with Janet Leigh, Tippi Hedren; Karen Black; Suzanne Pleshette; and Eva Marie Saint.” Literature/Film Quarterly 27.2 (1999): 78-89

Raubicheck, Walter. “Working with Hitchcock: A Collaborators’ Forum with Patricia Hitchcock, Janet Leigh, Teresa Wright, and Eva Marie Saint.” Hitchcock Annual 11 (2003): 32-66

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