Alfred Hitchcock tended to put his leading ladies – the characters AND the actors who played them – through the wringer. “The Master of Suspense” was a consummate filmmaker, but by some accounts, he was verbally (and possibly sexually) abusive to the women he worked with. The torment they endured make their performances all the more impressive. Today, I’ll pay homage to seven of Hitchcock’s most badass leading ladies.
- Joan Fontaine – Rebecca and Suspicion
Rebecca was Hitchcock’s first American film, and what a debut it was. Based on Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 novel of the same name, the gothic tale of suspense centers around the psychological torture of the second Mrs. Maxim de Winter, who is haunted by the specter of the first Mrs. de Winter, Rebecca, and tormented by Rebecca’s confidant, housekeeper Mrs. Danvers. The story relies on Mrs. de Winter feeling unworthy of her aristocratic husband (played by Laurence Olivier), to the point of considering suicide, and Joan Fontaine portrays that vulnerability perfectly. For her efforts, Fontaine was nominated for Best Actress at the 13th annual Oscars (and the film itself was nominated for twelve more awards, and won Best Picture), and many felt she should have won (she lost to Ginger Rogers for Kitty Foyle).
Suspicion, Fontaine’s second collaboration with Hitchcock, was released just a year after Rebecca, and as with that film, the central tension rests with the doubts and insecurities of its female lead. Fontaine plays Lina McLaidlaw, a young woman with wealthy parents who meets a charming, irresponsible playboy named Johnnie Aysgarth (played by Cary Grant, naturally). Johnnie convinces Lina to marry him, but almost immediately, Lina begins to suspect that her new husband’s motives are less than honorable. Once again, Fontaine was nominated for Best Actress, but this time, she won. Hers was the only Oscar-winning performance in a Hitchcock film.
- Ingrid Bergman – Spellbound and Notorious
Spellbound, Ingrid Bergman’s first Hitchcock film, is the story of Dr. Constance Petersen, a psychoanalyst who falls in love with Dr. Anthony Edwardes (Gregory Peck), the new director of the mental hospital where she is employed. Since this is a Hitchcock film, Edwardes is not what he seems. It turns out he’s not Edwardes, he’s suffering from amnesia and he may or may not have murdered the real Edwardes. Dr. Petersen uses her psychiatric skills to get to the bottom of both the amnesia and the murder mystery.
In Notorious, Hitchcock and Bergman’s next collaboration, Bergman plays Alicia Huberman, the American daughter of a Nazi spy, who is recruited by US government agent TR Devlin (Cary Grant) to seduce Alex Sebastian (Bergman’s Casablanca co-star Claude Rains), a Nazi friend of her father’s who is currently living in Brazil. The mission is complicated when Alicia and Devlin fall in love. Once again playing on themes of trust (trust withheld, trust too easily given), Hitchcock also succeeds in telling his most passionate love story (even getting around the three-second rule in the Hays Production Code by interrupting a two-and-a half-minute kiss every three seconds).
- Grace Kelly – Dial M for Murder, Rear Window and To Catch a Thief
In Dial M for Murder, Grace Kelly’s first of three Hitchcock films, Kelly plays a wealthy socialite named Margot whose husband discovers she has had an affair and arranges to have her murdered. The hit goes awry, the hitman ends up dead and Margot winds up in prison. The assault scene supposedly took five days to film and left Kelly covered in bruises. Hitchcock, enamored of (obsessed with?) Kelly’s combination of “frigidity and lust”, would cast her in his next two films, and would even attempt to coax her out of retirement ten years later to play Marnie; Tippi Hedren would wind up with the role – more on that in a bit.
Kelly’s next collaboration with Hitchcock, Rear Window, is one of Hitch’s best and Kelly is perfect as Lisa Fremont, socialite girlfriend to photographer LB “Jeff” Jeffries (James Stewart), who is laid up in his Greenwich Village apartment with a broken leg. To pass the time, Jeff spies on his neighbors through his courtyard window and becomes obsessed with the notion that one of them has murdered his wife. Initially, Lisa is skeptical, but eventually comes around, even participating in the investigation by climbing up the fire escape and breaking into the neighbor’s apartment. One of my favorite shots in any movie is Lisa pointing to her finger, on which she has placed the missing wife’s wedding ring.
Kelly’s final Hitchcock film, To Catch a Thief, is a more light-hearted romp than Hitchcock’s usual fare. It’s technically a mystery, but one with lower stakes – John Robie, played by Cary Grant, is a former jewel thief lured out of retirement when a copycat burglar puts him in legal jeopardy. Robie teams up with an insurance adjuster, who reluctantly divulges the name of the woman most likely to be the cat burglar’s next target and arranges a meeting with her – and her socialite (seeing a trend here?) daughter Frances, played by Kelly. The plot is merely a pretext to put the two impossibly beautiful stars together, but they both play their roles to perfection. And Kelly, wearing some of the most exquisite costumes Edith Head ever created, never looked more stunning.
- Kim Novak – Vertigo
Widely regarded as Hitchcock’s finest work (and one of the best films ever made, period), Vertigo received mixed reviews at the time of its release. A film noir about romantic obsession, Vertigo is the story of John “Scottie” Ferguson (James Stewart), a police detective forced into early retirement when an incident leaves him with a fear of heights and a raging case of, you guessed it, vertigo. An old acquaintance named Gavin Elster hires Scottie as a private investigator to track the movements of his wife Madeleine, played by Kim Novak. In the process of trailing Madeleine, Scottie naturally falls for her. If you haven’t seen the movie, I’ll not spoil it here, but since it’s Hitchcock, things aren’t exactly what they seem. There’s so much genius in this film – from Bernard Herrmann’s iconic score, to Edith Head’s elegant costumes, to the use of the dolly zoom to mimic Scottie’s vertigo – but the audience buy-in depends so much on the captivating, unattainable Madeleine, and Novak plays her to perfection.
- Eva Marie Saint – North by Northwest
For his next film, North by Northwest, Hitchcock hired another beautiful blonde, Eva Marie Saint. Saint plays Eve Kendall, who meets Cary Grant’s Roger Thornhill on a train. Thornhill, in a case of mistaken identity, is on the run from thugs who think he’s a spy (he’s actually an advertising exec). And because this is a Hitchcock film, once again the beautiful blonde is not who she says she is. North by Northwest features some of Hitch’s most iconic set pieces – the UN General Assembly, a crop dusting plane over a cornfield, Mount Rushmore – but those are mere backdrops to Kendall’s icy beauty.
- Janet Leigh – Psycho
For his next film, 1960’s Psycho, Hitchcock chose another gorgeous blonde, Janet Leigh. The promotional materials – and the fact that Leigh was such a big star – led audiences to believe that her Marion Crane was the film’s protagonist; imagine their shock when she is murdered less than halfway through. Psycho was revolutionary in a lot of ways – showing an unmarried, bra-clad Marion in bed with her lover, for instance, was forbidden by the Hays code, as was the shot of the flushing toilet. And the film’s casual violence, though merely hinted at through quick cuts and clever camera angles, was unthinkable prior to 1960. Filming the shower scene was brutal – it took a full week, and Leigh never voluntarily took another shower in her life. But for her efforts, she was nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, and won the Golden Globe in that category.
- Tippi Hedren – The Birds and Marnie
In 1961, Hitchcock saw Tippi Hedren in a diet soda commercial and knew immediately that he wanted to work with her; she certainly was his type – tall, blonde and beautiful. Hedren met with Hitch and agreed to a seven year contract. She made her film debut in Hitchcock’s next effort, 1963’s The Birds. Filming turned out to be an arduous experience for Hedren. In her 2016 memoir, Tippi, Hedren accused Hitchcock of making sexual advances toward her, and when she rebuffed him, he punished her by using live birds instead of mechanical ones for the scene in which her character, Melanie, is attacked. She spent five days filming the scene with live birds being thrown at her and attached to her body with rubber bands. At one point, a bird almost pecked her in the eye. The ordeal left Hedren exhausted and leery of working with Hitchcock again.
Knowing she couldn’t break her contract with Hitchcock without consequences – and afraid of being blacklisted – Hedren worked with Hitch again on his next film, 1964’s Marnie. A psychological thriller about a damaged woman with suppressed memories of childhood trauma, Marnie turned out to be traumatic for Hedren as well. In her memoir, Hedren states that Hitchcock put her dressing room next to his office, with an adjoining door, so he could walk in whenever he pleased. Hitch “gleefully” wanted to keep the marital rape scene when screenwriter Evan Hunter implored him to excise it. At one point, Hedren alleges that Hitchcock sexually assaulted her. Once filming was complete, Hedren was under contract with Hitchcock for several more years, but she refused to work with him again, and he refused to allow her to work with other directors. Hitchcock promised Hedren, “I’ll ruin your career”, but Hedren was a fighter, saying “He ruined my career but he didn’t ruin my life.”