All through April, the Tuesday Night Bloggers are on an “Anything Goes” kick: the subject can be anything beginning with the letter “A.” So far this month, I’ve focused on Agatha – Christie, that is – so I thought that, for my final TNG post of the month, I would switch it up to another of my favorite “A” folks: Alfred, as in Hitchcock! Hitchcock was the ultimate Auteur and this time around, I’d like to focus on his work with Actresses and, more specifically, Actresses of a certain Age!
Every one has heard the rumors of Alfred Hitchcock’s obsession with beautiful blondes, many of whom did some of their best work for him. The director focused on the outer person rather than engaging in any in-depth character work with his actors. He had a hand in every aspect of the actress’ look: choosing her wardrobe, her hairstyle, the way she was lit. Then his camera would linger lovingly on Grace Kelly, Eva Marie Saint, Madeleine Carroll, Kim Novak . . . and the result was cinematic magic! In terms of the inner performance, however, the actresses were left to their own devices, much to their occasional consternation. When Doris Day appeared in the 1956 remake of Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much, she became frustrated by what seemed like the director’s apathy with her work. When she finally and tearfully confronted him, an astonished Hitchcock explained that he thought she was wonderful and would have told her if he was in any way displeased with her performance. Obsessed as he was with appearance, Hitchcock saw the role of the director and actor as giving the audience the appearance of a reaction: the head and hands just so, the facial expression in place. He could care less if the actor could feel what he was trying to show.
If you thought this was going to be a post about Hitchcock’s beauties, I’m sorry to disappoint you. Lately, I’ve been reflecting on another issue: the longevity of actress’ careers. Ryan Murphy’s TV-series Feud: Bette vs. Joan has just completed its run on TV. It chronicles the tempestuous relationship between Hollywood superstars Bette Davis and Joan Crawford during and after the making of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? It’s good campy fun, sure, but it also has a vital point to make about the way actresses as they age are relegated to so-called “hag” roles: first, mothers, then grandmothers, then horror movie harridans, and then . . . oblivion. The obvious reason for this is that leading actresses tend to be rated on their beauty and/or sexual allure. At the sign of the first wrinkle, their sex appeal is considered kaput! Crawford’s career is a test case of this theory: she traded on her beauty rather than on talent (although some early films, like Grand Hotel and The Women, showed how good she could be.) When her looks were gone (at least in the eyes of the studios), she could barely get any work. Bette Davis was never considered “beautiful” enough by the studios, but then she never minded that. Her motivation for being an actress was to show the world she could act.
In Feud, Murphy cast two gorgeous actresses as Davis and Crawford: Susan Sarandon is now 70 years old, and Jessica Lange is 67. Both of them have played sirens and sexually alluring characters during their careers. In Feud, both are depicted as sexually active older women grappling with an industry that sees them as has-beens. The series also postulates another, even more awful, theory: casting former screen queens into scream queens, or “hags”, is the male’s ultimate revenge on these women who traded on, and grew rich upon, their beauty, yet shared it with none of their male fans. (Stanley Tucci is great as Jack Warner, who is supposed to have been one of the biggest monsters in charge of the studio system.)
The sad fact is that Hollywood continues to cater to men. Not even men – 15-year-old boys! Thus, each year another swarm of generic X-Men or Avengers or Justice League or Suicide Squad adventures is trotted out to the masses, while the window for the release of complex, grown-up films gets smaller and smaller, and the ratio of stories centered on women to stories about men becomes more lopsided.
That’s why I want to focus all movie fans on Hitchcock who, throughout his career, and despite his preoccupation with beautiful blondes, employed a wealth of mature actresses with meaty, strategic roles. These women were among the best stage and film actresses who, stripped of any need for Hitchcock’s glamorization, turned in staggering performances that often stole a movie out from under the stars.
Here are my favorites. I’ve divided them into three categories: Bad Mothers, Good Mothers, and The Very Best Roles for Actresses of a Certain Age. See if you agree with my choices.
One could write a book about Hitchcock’s treatment of mothers. He was a late child, whose siblings were too old to pay much notice to him and whose parents treated him with a sternness borne by their working class lives owning a grocery and their outsider status as devout British Catholics. His mother would make young Alfred stand before her bed each morning and recount all the bad things he had done the previous day. (At least, this is the apocryphal tale Hitchcock would tell his biographers and interviewers.) The director got away from his family as quickly as he possibly could, got married, and never looked back.
Hitchcock’s view on mothers is distinctly Freudian: the male must sever himself from his mother and attach himself, through marriage, to a wife. Those who fail to do so lead stunted lives and travel a road either to villainy or death. The Hitchcock canon is studded with mama’s boys who either perform this Freudian ritual (and thereby become heroes) or remain warped by it (Stormin’ Norman Bates and his ilk). So it’s no surprise that many “bad” mothers are found in the films, each of them gripped tightly about their sons, steering them to horrible ends.
The most famous of these, of course, is Mrs. Bates from Psycho. I hesitate to spoil the magic for any of you who have delayed seeing the film. Let’s just say the actress who plays “Mother” is not whom you would expect from Central Casting. But almost as impressive is Bruno Antony’s mother in Strangers on a Train. Played by the inimitable Marion Lorne, this giddy social matron appears innocuous and charming. Yet take a look at the painting she has made of her husband, and you can see where Bruno’s insanity comes from.
Less to my taste is Madame Sebastian in Notorious. (I’ve always been averse to Nazi women.) She is cold enough to attempt to drive her son to murder his beloved. While the main story is about the struggle of Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant to maintain their love while working undercover to undermine a Nazi ring, the emotional center of the film for me has always been about Claude Rains’ Sebastian and his struggle between his political loyalties and his deep love for Alicia. The question of whether he can withstand his mother’s influence makes for real heartbreaking stuff.
Emma Newton in Shadow of a Doubt is another dingbat mother and probably the sweetest mom in all of Hitchcock. Over the course of the film, her daughter Charlie struggles to protect Emma from the truth that her beloved brother is a murderous psychopath. Most good mothers struggle, however, with their own children, especially their sons.
The hilarious Jessie Royce Landis plays a stylish, droll mom in two of the director’s wittiest films. As Grace Kelly’s mother, Jessie Stevens, in To Catch a Thief, Landis provides many of the film’s biggest laughs. She enters the Freudian landscape more completely in North by Northwest as Clara Thornhill, whose relationship to her son Roger (Cary Grant) is a little too close. In fact, it is while making a call to his mother to confirm a date with her that Roger is kidnapped by spies and sent on a dangerous journey. Ultimately, what matters most to Hitchcock is that, by the time the journey is over, Roger must sever his primary relationship to mom and take off with Eva Marie Saint. This he does, and all ends happily.
The most intriguing Good Mom of them all is Lydia Brenner, played to perfection in The Birds by Jessica Tandy. Lydia’s son Mitch (Rod Taylor) may be a suave ladies’ man, but he always comes back home to Mother – at least, until he meets Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren.) Lydia’s awareness of her son’s feelings – and her jealousy over them – is apparent from the first moment she sets eyes on Melanie. Hitchcock makes the whole arrangement even more complicated by styling the two women the same way in terms of dress and hair. Mitch clearly has a “type,” and even though the film ostensibly deals with how to deal with all of them killer birds, it really is about Mitch making the choice to stand beside Melanie, which he does when he risks his life repeatedly to save her. In an oddly feminist touch for the director, the real focus is on the women here, as we see Melanie embrace Mitch and his family, while Lydia’s feelings for the younger woman transform from that of a rival to a loving mother. Mitch’s transference of affections is complete yet secondary to the transformations of the two women. Thus, even though this is one of Hitchcock’s darkest films (spoiler alert: the birds win!), we can still feel some satisfaction at the emotional growth of the three main characters through the building of a healthier family unit.
The Very Best
My five very favorite performances by mature actresses in Hitchcock offer a diverse set of roles, both heroic and villainous, comical and tragic. And yet, one can see, just like in The Birds, how each character contributes as a helper or an obstacle to the establishment (or re-establishment) of a healthy family unit. Here they are, in chronological order:
Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty) in The Lady Vanishes (1938)
This exciting thriller is what happens a sweet spinster music teacher disappears on a train bound for Great Britain from a fictional country known as Bandrika. A lovely tourist named Iris Henderson, played by Margaret Lockwood) sounds the alarm at the old lady’s disappearance, but for a variety of interesting reasons, every other passenger denies the missing woman’s existence, and Iris is left with nobody except a musician she despises, played by Michael Redgrave, to save the poor lady . . . if such a lady exists.
She does exist, indeed, and May Whitty’s performance makes you wish that Iris and Gilbert would find her more quickly. In a few key scenes, Miss Froy becomes one of the film’s most memorable figures.
Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson) in Rebecca (1940)
Hitchcock’s first American film was a resounding success for him and for Selznick Studios, garnering acclaim for the director and a Best Picture Oscar. It is far from my favorite Hitchcock film, maybe because it is not fully a “Hitchcock film.” The director grew increasingly frustrated with Selznick’s almost hourly interference. His vision of adapting the book to his own mordantly humorous style was probably the wrong approach. Selznick was determined that the film would please the millions of readers who had made the Daphne Du Maurier novel a best selling Gothic classic.
And so there is a more subdued feeling here than you find in Hitchcock’s earlier British films and in the subsequent movies he made once he freed himself from Selznick’s control. There is little chemistry between Lawrence Olivier as Maxim de Winter and Lynn Fontaine, who won the role of The Second Mrs. De Winter over dozens of other actresses, including Olivier’s choice (and his lover), Vivienne Leigh. Reports say Olivier treated Fontaine abominably. Frankly, this seems to help the actress turn in a performance of muted hysteria.
It also allows Judith Anderson to steal the film as the vicious housekeeper, whose devotion to her late mistress tips her over into insanity. Hitchcock films her scenes in high contrast lighting, but the madness you see in those eyes is a result of Anderson’s brilliant channeling of the novel’s best character. Every crazy housekeeper who followed owes something to this performance!
Miss Lonely Hearts (Judith Evelyn) in Rear Window (1954)
She lives in the apartment directly under the one where Mr. Thorwald may or may not have butchered his wife. She has only one line at the very end of this, my favorite Hitchcock film, and yet with her face, body and gestures, Judith Evelyn reveals to the audience the sum total of a life of romantic disappointment. If you want to look at Rear Window simply as a mystery thriller, you go right ahead. Yet some of the best scenes Hitchcock provides have no connection – or only a peripheral one – to the murder plot, and several of these involve Miss Lonelyhearts. Her tiny apartment is the scene of two date: one is with Mr. Nearly Perfect, an equally romantic soul who shares a glass of wine, a well-cooked dinner, and a stolen kiss with Miss LH. His only flaw is that he doesn’t really exist. The second date is more troubling: Miss LH picks up a much younger man in the bar across the street, brings him home, and then gets in way over her head.
It is a testament to the director, the screenplay, and the actress that we care as much about the fate of Miss LH (and the other denizens of this apartment complex) as we do about the main characters. These neighbors serve as a thermometer to the emotional state of Jeffries and Lisa, the two main characters trying to solve the Thorwald (possible) murder, and Miss LH does the lion’s share of this work. When they observe the date with The Invisible Man, Jeff tells Lisa, “At least that’s something you won’t ever have to worry about,” she replies, “Oh? You can see my apartment from here?”
Still later, Jeff’s obsession with proving Thorwald a murderer is measured when he witnesses a despondent Miss LH lay out a bottle of pills, clearly for the purpose of ending her own life . . . and then he promptly forgets about it. The act instead is interrupted by the sound a beautiful new song composed by one of the neighbors. Miss LH steps to her window to listen – and Hitchcock composes a beautiful shot of Lisa, in the exact same position, framed in the window directly above Miss LH (which puts Lisa in Thorwald’s apartment where she has broken in to search for evidence). Lisa has also been distracted by the song (which we will learn at the end is titled, “Lisa!” The music saves Miss Lonelyheart’s life even as it endangers Lisa’s, for the delay has given Thorwald time to return home, and he is about to open the front door!
The fact that all these scenes happen with virtually no dialogue illustrate both the faith Hitchcock had in the essentially visual power of film to tell a story and in the brilliant performance by Miss Evelyn in the role.
Stella (Thelma Ritter) in Rear Window
This is perhaps my favorite performance of them all. At the very least, Stella is the funniest character in Hitchcock’s filmography, and Ritter milks every line she has for all its worth. She is the conscience of the film, the one who warns the hero – and the audience, who voyeuristically wish, along with Jeff, that a murder has been committed – that people need to stop being “a race of Peeping Toms” and look inside their own houses for a change. Clearly, in this era of social media, we have ignored Stella’s advice, and look where it has gotten us. But even Stella loses herself in the powerful allure of the Thorwald case, plays private eye, and provides welcome comic relief as the suspense is ratcheted up!
I offer here a link to some of the character’s best dialogue through that wonderful film site, IMDb.
Lucy Drayton (Brenda de Banzie) in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)
Like so many other Hitchcock stories, this one uses spies and intrigue as a smokescreen to explore the relationship of a married couple. An assassination and a kidnapping are the elements thrown at a “typical American family” in order to show the cracks and stresses between husband and wife. James Stewart is appropriately heroic here – not quite the morally ambiguous character he played in Rear Window and will perfect in Vertigo. And Doris Day is a revelation in this film as a loving mother whose life falls apart. (The scene where she learns her son has been kidnapped is so brilliant that you have to ask yourself what ever made her feel at all insecure about her performance.)
But the most complex role in the film belongs to Brenda de Banzie as Mrs. Drayton, another seemingly typical tourist in Morocco who, with her husband, befriends the McKennas – and then steals their son away to keep their silence. One of Hitchcock’s prevalent motifs is the toll taken on the person who practices espionage, but it usually focuses on the good guy. (For example, Alicia Huberman in Notorious weds a Nazi and performs her wifely duties for him, discovering what a loving man he is to her at least, and feeling a sense of betrayal toward her true lover, the man who sent her on the assignment in the first place.)
Here we see the emotional toll taken on the supposed villainess. The first signs are small, as Mrs. Drayton insists that the boy be well cared for. Slowly, she becomes Hank’s surrogate mother, and the weight of her guilt grows, along with the regret Lucy feels at having sacrificed a “normal” marriage and family for a political cause. Ultimately, the safety of this family rests in the actions of both the real mother and her surrogate, leading to a finale that is both exciting and poignant.
My little blog can’t do much about it, but I will continue to shout to the rooftops that Hollywood should take a page from Hitchcock, as well as other non-U.S. film industries (hello, France) who hold the image and the work of older actresses in greater esteem than we do. Meanwhile, I urge you to check out the actresses I’ve described above. And please feel free to comment with some of your own favorite performances by mature actresses.
As a standing member of the Tuesday Night Bloggers at the end of another month, I promise that each of your entries earns an “A”.