News Column

Why Tippi Hedren's fans will flock to Virginia Film Festival's screening of Hitchcock's 'The Birds'

November 3, 2013

YellowBrix

Nov. 03--In the spring of 1963, many people started looking at birds in a way they never had before.

After seeing Alfred Hitchcock's film "The Birds," which premiered on March 28 that year, it was hard not to. The movie tells the tale of usually docile birds going on a murderous rampage in the small California community of Bodega Bay.

If moviegoers at the time had any idea what leading actress Tippi Hedren went through during the shooting of the film, it would have been even more unsettling. The internationally acclaimed actress will be a special guest at the 26th annual Virginia Film Festival, which opens Thursday and continues through Nov. 10.

To mark the 50th anniversary of the release of "The Birds," it will be presented at 7:30 p.m. Friday at the Paramount Theater. A discussion with Hedren will follow the screening.

The Hitchcock classic is one of more than 100 films, ranging from comedies to serious dramas and documentaries, that will be screened during the festival. Galas, parties and special events are also scheduled. A full lineup and tickets are available at www.virginiafilmfestival.org.

"There's a number of things I'm excited about with this year's festival," said Jody Kielbasa, director of the Virginia Film Festival. "First of all we're coming off our 25th anniversary, and had a record-setting year of attendance and box office.

"It seems we're currently trending to top that again this year. And it's going to be fun to open with the Alexander Payne film 'Nebraska,' and bring in Will Forte, who stars in it.

"I'm also excited to bring in Tippi Hedren, who to me is the iconic film actress. There is so much interest in her career and the relationship with Hitchcock. So to be able to screen 'The Birds' on its 50th anniversary, and to have her in to talk about the making of the film and her tempestuous relationship with Hitchcock is a wonderful opportunity."

Hedren, a blond beauty from Minnesota, spent her first 4 years in the small town of LaFayette, where her father had a general store that catered to area farmers. The family then moved to Minneapolis -- where, at the age of 15, she was spotted by a woman in the modeling industry who asked her to participate in a teen fashion show at a local department store.

The serendipitous encounter launched Hedren on a modeling career that took her all the way to New York City and a career as a top fashion model with Eileen Ford's prestigious modeling agency. By the early 1950s, she was earning an "absolutely fabulous" salary.

Hedren was doing so well financially that she was able to afford to travel around the world for six months. She now calls that experience her college education.

Television was the new big thing in the 1950s, and the programming was fueled by commercials. Hedren effortlessly made the transition from posing for still shots, which once put her on the cover of Life magazine, to doing commercials for television.

"One of the commercials I did was for a product called Sego, which was a diet drink made by Pet Milk," Hedren said. "Apparently, Alfred Hitchcock saw that commercial and decided to find out who the girl was.

"I received a call asking me if I was the girl in the commercial. When I said I was, I was told a producer was interested in me, but they wouldn't say who. They asked me to come over to Universal [Studios] and we'd talk about it.

"That was on Friday the 13th of October 1961. They ended up putting me through a suspense thriller for the weekend, because nobody would tell me who this producer was."

The following Monday morning, Hedren returned to Universal to pick up her fashion photo book, whichshe had left for studio executives to peruse during the weekend. She was then told to go to Music Corporation of America [MCA] which was a large talent agency to meet with other executives.

"The agent at MCA said, 'Ah, you're probably going crazy trying to find out who this producer is,' " Hedren said. "After I told him I was, he said Alfred Hitchcock wanted to sign me to a contract.

"I just kind of looked at him blankly. He then told me that if I would go over the contract, read it, understand it and sign it we'd go over and meet Mr. Hitchcock. So I was under contract to him before I met him, which I think is unheard of."

Hedren chuckled as she recalled how Hitchcock opened the door himself, and stood in profile the way he did during the title sequence in his popular television series "Alfred Hitchcock Presents." They then talked about everything from travel to food, but not a word about motion pictures or her modeling career.

A few weeks later Hedren was put through an intense three-day screen test that reportedly cost $25,000. After doing scenes from "Rebecca," "Notorious" and "To Catch a Thief," Hitchcock was certain he had his next big star.

"After they had all looked at the screen test, I was invited to Chasen's restaurant, which was the place in Beverly Hills to go for dinner," Hedren said. "Every night, it was filled with producers, directors and big stars.

"Mr. and Mrs. Hitchcock were there, and Lew Wasserman [studio executive and manager of MCA] came and joined us. Hitch then pushed toward me this beautifully wrapped little box from Gump's, which is an elegant gift shop in San Francisco.

"I opened it and there was a gold pin with three birds in flight and seed pearls. I looked at it, then I looked at Hitch -- and he said, 'We want you to play Melanie Daniels in 'The Birds.'

"I was so stunned that I got tears in my eyes. I looked over at Alma [Hitchcock's wife] and she had tears in her eyes. Mr. Hitchcock just sat there looking very pleased with himself."

It took six months to film "The Birds," which elevated the art of special effects to new heights. Both live and mechanical birds were used during the making of the picture, which the American Film Institute honors as the seventh greatest thriller ever made.

"When I first saw 'The Birds,' it scared the heck out of me," said Kielbasa, who hosted Hedren when he was the director of the Sarasota Film Festival. "I haven't watched it for years, because it honestly can be a very disturbing film in a lot of different ways.

"But that's what Hitchcock was a master at doing -- getting underneath your skin and finding something that can be upsetting and disturbing. He was truly a master at creating suspense.

"And in the film, you're seeing real emotional responses from Tippi that go beyond acting."

One of the most seat-clenching scenes in "The Birds" occurs when Hedren is attacked by a swarm of birds and seeks refuge in a telephone booth.

"They had assured me that the glass in the phone booth was shatterproof," Hedren said. "So I just did the whole acting thing, especially when the gulls crash into the glass.

"But at one point the glass broke and shattered. They spent the rest of the afternoon pulling shards of glass out of the left side of my face."

That episode was just a taste of the real-life horror to come during the climactic conclusion of the film, when Hedren is attacked by birds

in an upstairs bedroom. When she was first studying the script, she had a few questions for Hitchcock, who served as her drama coach.

One of the big questions: Why would her character go upstairs alone, knowing that people had been killed by birds and the house had been under attack by them? Hitchcock, who apparently hadn't thought about that, dismissed the question with a simple "Because I tell you to."

"I thought, 'OK, it's a movie,' " Hedren said. "Then I asked how they were going to do the scene when I open the door into the bedroom and all the birds fly at me.

"He said, 'We'll use the mechanical birds like we'll do when the children are working.' On the Monday morning we were going to start filming that scene, I was in my dressing room on the set.

"The assistant director, the late Jim Brown, came in and was looking everywhere except at me. I asked him what the matter was. He said, 'The mechanical birds don't work, we have to use real ones,' and out the door he sails. I picked my jaw up from the floor and went out to the set."

For the next five days, Hedren endured one of the most horrific experiences in cinematic history. Cary Grant, who was visiting the set during one of the harrowing shooting segments, later told the actress, "You're one brave lady."

"When I went out to the set, there wasn't a mechanical bird in sight," Hedren recalled. "However, there was a cage built around the bedroom door and inside the cage were four cartons of gulls, a raven and some pigeons.

"And there were bird trainers with gauntlets up to their shoulders. They threw birds at me for five days. Some of the birds were tied to me with elastic so they could move, but still stay on my body.

"On the last day of the shooting, one of the birds on my shoulder jumped and its claw came way too close to my eye. I just thought, 'You know what? I have to get out of here.' I got all the birds off me, and just from exhaustion started crying. This acting business is not for the birds."

Hedren received the Golden Globe Award for New Star of the Year for her work in "The Birds." She went on to appear in more than 50 movies and play many television roles.

Despite what she had to go through during the filming of "The Birds," she is proud of the picture.

"Most Hitchcock films hold up very well, but 'The Birds' has a life of its own," Hedren said of the film, which, since 2009, has had its own Facebook page. "I don't know of another film that has maintained the interest of generation after generation.

"I mean, it just goes on and on. It's really stunning. It's fabulous."

A 50th anniversary presentation of "The Birds" is one of the centerpieces of the 26th annual Virginia Film Festival, which opens Thursday and continues through Nov. 10.

The film will be presented at 7:30 p.m. Friday at the Paramount Theater. Following the screening, Hedren will talk about the film and her career. Tickets -- as well as a full schedule of films and events -- are available at www.virginiafilmfestival.org.

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(c)2013 The Daily Progress (Charlottesville, Va.)

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