While talking to fellow filmmaker Francois Truffaut, director Alfred Hitchcock noted that he made his films with women in mind. He felt that women were the ones generally going to the movies and that when they brought a man along, it was still the women who made the decisions of which film to see. He certainly spent a lot of time fussing over his leading ladies. He was very much involved in not only choosing the right actress for the part but in choosing what clothes they should wear, hairstyles they should have, and every other aspect of how they’d look on screen.
His films are known for icy blondes - cool, collected, beautiful, mysterious, and often contradictory - but in reality, his films featured brunettes and redheads who were quirky, intelligent, funny, and sensual. Hitchcock did use his considerable directorial authority to mold his actresses into exactly the kind of characters he wanted for his films. Sometimes, this meant telling off-color jokes to loosen them up; other times, it means harassing them to the point of mental break as he notoriously did with Tippi Hedren while making The Birds.
Author Caroline Young posits a theory that when Hitchcock was dealing with established stars with studio backing such as Grace Kelly or Janet Leigh, then the director was more genteel in his handling of his leading ladies. But when the actresses were more or less unknown and signed to his own contracts, such as Hedren or Vera Miles, then they got the brunt of his more brutish nature and piggish attitudes. It's an interesting theory and seems to be born out from the facts. Whether true or not and no matter how he treated his leading ladies, there is no doubt that he made some of the most interesting films of all time and created some of the more memorable female characters in cinema.
In her beautiful new book Hitchcock’s Heroines, Young focuses in on Hitchcock’s leading ladies: their looks, the place in his films, and their relationships with the director. She highlights 23 of his films - about half his filmography - and breaks down their plots, how they came into being, the type of women characters in the film, and his relationship to the actresses. She gives brief biographies of the actresses and highlights the costumes they wore plus what overall effect the costumes had on the film.
Using quotes from a variety of people involved with his films, she gives an informative, but easily accessible look into the director, his films, and the ladies who starred in them. It is a large, coffee-table book that is jam-packed full of beautiful, often full-page photos ranging from publicity shoots, movie stills, and my personal favorite, behind-the-scenes footage.
These photos are worth the price all on their own. That Caroline Young's words are so informative, interesting, and easy to read is just icing on that gorgeously rendered cake. Hitchcock’s Heroines is out now from Insight Editions.