Review

Spellbound by Beauty: Alfred Hitchcock and His Leading Ladies

by Donald Spoto

The dust jacket of Donald Spoto’s SPELLBOUND BY BEAUTY:
Alfred Hitchcock and His Leading Ladies depicts what appears to be
a composite shot of the famous director and one of his typical
blond starlets. He sits in a director’s chair (i.e.,
the place of honor from which one literally calls the shots), while
she poses on a bare object that could be construed as a crude bed.
One of her hands is held to her chest in a gesture of what?
Surprise? Defense?

Spoto would have us read all sorts of dire meaning into this
illustration as a way of introduction to his premise: that the
late, great director abused his female stars, subjecting them to
mental and, at times, physical humiliation. Such a theory is not
original. Hitchcock had long been accused of boorish treatment
against his actors, male and female. The question is why.
Was this a power game? Perhaps a motivational tool to draw out the
best from his performers?

The author of THE DARK SIDE OF GENIUS: The Life of Alfred
Hitchcock (1983), Spoto takes a film-by-film examination of
Hitchcock’s relationship with his starlets. In The 39
Steps
, for example, the director asserts his authority by
handcuffing Madeleine Carroll to co-star Robert Donat and
pretending he cannot find the key to set her free. In other cases,
he subjects his film women --- Ingrid Bergman, Marlene Dietrich,
Vera Miles, Tippi Hedren, Janet Leigh, Doris Day, Kim Novak, Eva
Marie Saint and Grace Kelly, to name but a few --- to unflattering
makeup and costumes, or treats them roughly via their scene work
(drenched by faux rainstorms, dragged through rocky terrain, and
other menacing situations). Many of the actors would later complain
about such treatment and how it brought them to tears or to seek
refuge in the offices of studio producers who were basically
powerless against the renowned “Hitch.”

Spoto picks his anecdotes carefully to “prove” his
thesis. Take these comments by Hume Cronyn, who appeared in the
1944 classic Lifeboat:

“We were always falling in and out of water…. We
were covered with crude oil, and when we finished a scene there
might be an hour or so of waiting time for a new camera setup. We
were soaking wet, there were wind fans and water-spraying machines,
and then we waited under hot lights, were soaked again --- and as a
result, all of us in the cast came down with colds and sore
throats, and some even got sicker.”

Whatever happened to suffering for your art?

But Spoto is inconsistent in such assertions. In the preface, he
tries to explain the “need” for another book (by him)
of Hitchcock, writing that the director “rarely had anything
to say about his male stars.” So why, then, the issue that
“Many of his leading ladies, on the other hand, achieved
international stardom precisely because of their Hitchcock
roles....That he maintained an insistent silence abut the quality
of their performances is a curiosity that cannot be ignored”?
What’s good for the gander…

Spoto, who has written the biographies of such Hollywood
luminaries as Audrey Hepburn, James Dean, Elizabeth Taylor, Marilyn
Monroe, Laurence Olivier and others, offers sexual innuendo at
every opportunity, describing many of Hitchcock’s female
characters with employing sexual blackmail, predatory behavior and
other qualities unbecoming a proper lady. There’s a lot of
repressed sexuality going on throughout his portfolio, it seems.
Perhaps, as Spoto would have us believe, it stems from
Hitchcock’s relationships with the women in his life,
including his mother, wife and daughter.

Spoto’s examples seem almost silly in these libertine
times. Hitchcock’s teasing and jokes both practical and dirty
might be considered a form of sexual harassment, but in
retrospect they hardly seem like casting couch accusations or
salary kickbacks.

Reviewed by Ron Kaplan (RonKaplanNJ@comcast.net) on January 23, 2011

Spellbound by Beauty: Alfred Hitchcock and His Leading Ladies
by Donald Spoto

  • Publication Date: October 27, 2009
  • Genres: Biography, Nonfiction
  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Three Rivers Press
  • ISBN-10: 0307351319
  • ISBN-13: 9780307351319