The pleasures of fantasy, which can eclipse the act of viewing itself, seem to get short shrift these days, or are at least outstripped by studies of tangible manifestations of such fantasy—fan fiction, cosplay, web comics, mashups—in other mediums, namely TV shows. Yet fantasy takes on unique and essential forms in film fandom: outside of the associations one creates between films, directors, and stars, there are the dreams of films that never quite came about, or, as Hélène Cixous has notably explored, projects for our favorite actors and directors that we dream up ourselves.
The dual biographies of Alfred Hitchcock now available—Sacha Gervasi’s Hitchcock and Julian Jarrod’s The Girl—engage such fantasy (see “The Master” at work!) and are both commendable for trying to complicate ideas of monolithic genius by detailing the vital role his wife, Alma Reville, played at all stages of production. However, neither film is really satisfying as a film, meta-film, or even film history. For a winking, large-budget indie and a stiffly appalled HBO/BBC co-produced telefilm, they are respectively adequate in their execution but wholly unremarkable.
Their milquetoast style is all the more offensive because of what we are given instead of actual formal inventiveness or psychological depth: prosthetics and vocal imitation. As in last year’s The Iron Lady, it seems as though this sort of caricature, once the hallmark of piquant late-night sketch show roastings, has now become the gold standard of acting. This isn’t to say that there isn’t room for that type of performance, or that it doesn’t take skill—I’d love nothing more than a Dana Carvey comeback, preferably in something like a Tarantino-directed Strom Thurmond biopic. But the fact that it’s steadily becoming the crutch on which all the bulk of these flabby, unimaginative productions rest is disconcerting, and reduces discussion of performance to a standardized test-style “percent correct.”
How Toby Jones plays Hitchcock versus the way Anthony Hopkins does is “interesting” for roughly the combined length of each film’s trailers. The contrasts one can tease out after that short amount of time are the same after watching both films all the way through: Hopkins fucks up the voice and Jones isn’t tall enough. Though only one of these things can be helped, it’s no less distracting given that The Girl’s Hitchcock is supposed to be a bulbous sexual menace. (At one point in The Girl Hitch drunkenly laments to Robert Burks how reviewers described him: “like two balloons tied together . . . like a walrus dressed up like a man.” This line unintentionally breaks the fourth wall like no direct address ever could.)
In my imagination, I swap the two actors. Jones’s perverse coldness complicates the quirky, cuckolded character of Gervasi’s diegesis: for 98 minutes he alternates between Helen Mirren’s Alma towering over him and having convincingly terrifying dreams of collaborating with Ed Gein. In The Girl, Hopkins’s goofy mugging underscores the great degree of arrested development and self-delusion sexual sadists in the workplace have. As it stands, you can watch them in chronological order (first Hitchcock, then The Girl) and imagine him transforming physically between Psycho and The Birds as his eccentricities evolve into perversion.
Oh yes, that. That other thing relating to sex besides the posthumous uxorial credit that undoes both films’ credibility more completely than any faulty spirit gum could. Like some small child singing with their ears plugged, Hitchcock doesn’t attempt to deal with Hitchcock’s well-documented cruelty towards members of the opposite sex. Instead, the source of dramatic tension is a simultaneous attempt to recapture his passion for filmmaking and the affection of his straying spouse. Cuteness trumps history: in addition to inventing Alma’s almost-affair with novelist/screenwriter/suntanned silver fox Whitfield Cook, Hitchcock also oddly omits his daughter Patricia from the cast of Psycho. The childless couple trade witty ripostes over jealousy and overeating in their mansion; Hitchcock’s obsessions over his actresses are diluted to puppy-eyed admiration; Alma bemoans the fact that he got “too close” to Princess Grace. The movie hits the beats, but lacks depth.
Conversely, The Girl is completely invested in pulling the veil off of Hitchcock’s aggressive antics. Only the most grotesque and dangerous moments of The Birds and Marnie are recreated. Sienna Miller captures Tippi Hedren’s aloofness and quiet rage as the harassment escalates, but carries a pervasive hollowness. This is possibly attributable to the fact that she is just as poor an actress as Ms. Hedren, but most of the fault lies in the direction. We careen between Hitchcock engaging in Mulvey-maddening gazes towards Hedren’s sunlit-streaked thighs to experiencing Hedren’s night terrors caused by having live birds thrown at her to a mandatory, omniscient “fame montage.”
It should be no surprise that such pithy attempts to “understand” both sides cheapen victim and aggressor. While very few female experiences are universal (a lesson from First Wave feminism that many still fail to grasp), speaking as a woman who has been physically and verbally sexually harassed by a co-worker, some events follow a sequence so predictable that where they lead seems invisible. What the direction fails to capture are those solitary moments of confusion and fright after someone has aggressively staked their claim on you verbally or with touch, those moments where you are trying to figure out what just happened, those moments where you are furious with the other person for doing it and yourself for not recognizing what was happening until it was too late or being able to stop it. They somehow do not exist. With droll television aesthetics—a wide shot followed by a series of close-ups that drain even the most expressive face of any meaning until the scene ends—we see Hedren break down and come back again. Certainly, expressing the psychological complexity of sexual harassment before, during, and after, is immensely difficult. And despite warranting “a trigger warning” for anyone who has been the victim of sexual harassment, The Girl too often feels too small.
Between printing the man or the legend, it seems that neither is a viable option. I instead suggest a return to death of the artist.