Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Deconstructing the Hitchcock Blonde

Paper Abstract:

Alfred Hitchcock is famous for, among many other things, his propensity for utilizing blondes in his films. These women have earned the distinction of being called the “Hitchcock blonde.” Ingrid Bergman, Grace Kelly, and Tippi Hedren span three decades of blonde-ness, proving to be arguably the most memorable blondes, as well as some of his most frequent collaborators. Interestingly, all three actresses starred in back-to-back films in their respective decades – Ingrid Bergman in Spellbound (1945) and Notorious (1946), Grace Kelly in Dial M for Murder (1954) and To Catch a Thief (1955), and Tippi Hedren in The Birds (1963) and Marnie (1964). The close proximity of their roles provides ample opportunity for careful comparison and also to appreciate the diversity of the actresses and the characters. The Hitchcock blonde is not just a pretty face; she is a real tough cookie and encompasses a broad range of traits. The paper looks at all six characters, compares and contrasts them, briefly summarizes the biographical relationships of the actresses to Hitchcock, and makes broader connections between the characters and their social-historical contexts, especially concerning women’s roles in society.

Paper Excerpts:

After Spellbound, Bergman jumped at the chance to work with Hitchcock again in Notorious. She delivers a complex performance as Alicia Huberman, the daughter of a Nazi. Alicia displays reckless behavior obviously caused by deep emotional pain. She drinks excessively, and her relationship with Devlin (Cary Grant), an intelligence agent, is volatile from the start. They fall deeply in love, but their love is strained by her secret mission to infiltrate a gang of Nazis. This involves Alicia using sex to get close to Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains), and Devlin manifests his jealousy by acting aloof and cruel toward Alicia. Alicia approaches her assignment with forlorn resolve, almost like could not care less what happens to her. She eventually marries Alex, and she performs her job brilliantly. When Alex learns Alicia’s true identity, he and his mother (Madame Leopoldine Konstantin) begin poisoning her. Eventually, Devlin comes to save her, and he finally admits his love. At last, Alicia is safe and happy in Devlin’s arms. Over and over, Devlin and his colleagues make references to Alicia’s bad reputation, including her alcoholism and promiscuity, but she overcomes this reputation by displaying tremendous bravery in fulfilling this dangerous assignment. By risking her life for her country, Alicia Huberman shows that being a Hitchcock blonde involves depth and courage.

During World War II, American women achieved a new independence by virtually taking over the workforce. “The war overturned attitudes about working women and altered women’s place in the labor force more radically than any other event in the twentieth century” (Hymowitz 311). Since men were fighting overseas, women had to assume their jobs. Amazingly, “six million women took paying jobs during the war” (Hymowitz 312). However, just as quickly as this explosion occurred, it ended. Spellbound and Notorious perfectly coincide with the end of the war and communicate its dramatic effects on American women. Released in 1945, the same year the war ended, Spellbound emphasizes the working woman. Constance Petersen is the only career woman with a serious job of the six characters to be examined. Despite the men around her trying to diminish her power by referring to her femininity in a negative way, Constance perseveres and thrives. She represents the epitome of the wartime woman with her fierce determination.

Released in 1946, Notorious presents a startling contrast to Spellbound. “When the war ended, the nation welcomed the men home and began enforcing the promise the women workers had made – or the country had decided they had made – to give up their jobs for the returning soldiers” (Collins 394). Whether it occurred involuntarily or not, Alicia Huberman represents this slap in the face to all women of forcing them back into the home. Even though Alicia is brave and independent, the men belittle her, use her as a prostitute, and basically call her a drunk and a slut. Only a year before, Bergman played a promising psychoanalyst, but Alicia acts as a reminder of men’s insecurities upon returning home and seeing women doing their jobs just as well or even better. In its social context, Alicia seems like a warning to women to resume their proper duties, like a symbolic slap on the wrist. “Once the war was over, the woman worker was no longer a symbol of patriotic ardor but rather a threat to social and economic security” (Woloch 469). Like all threats, they had to be neutralized immediately. Spellbound and Notorious quite accurately resemble these turbulent times for women in American society.

During the 1950s, American women continued to work, but it lacked the excitement and meaning of the war years. “Within a few years of the end of hostilities in 1945, employment of women was just about back to its wartime peak, and still climbing. However, the jobs they were holding down were not, for the most part, careers. Women were typists and sales clerks and telephone operators and receptionists…” (Collins 399). Mostly, women in the 1950s struggled against the confines of domesticity. Women were encouraged to stay home and raise families and basically just bow to the oppressive male system. “They dropped out of college, married early, and read women’s magazines that urged them to hold on to their husband’s love by pretending to be dumb and helpless” (Collins 398-399). Dial M for Murder and To Catch a Thief glaringly parallel the social atmosphere of the 1950s. Margot Wendice and Francie Stevens are secondary characters, the most obvious difference between these characters and the ones in the films from the 1940s and 1960s. Grace Kelly receives second billing, and the characters played by Ray Milland and Cary Grant really drive the stories. She is basically reduced to the role of sidekick, albeit a very attractive one.

In fact, quite a bit of the action of Dial M for Murder occurs without her in it, and she only appears in earnest in To Catch a Thief about a half hour into the film. Actually, most of Hitchcock’s films from the 1950s focus on male characters, such as Strangers on a Train, Rear Window, and North by Northwest, a clear articulation of the decade’s priorities. In addition to a surprising lack of screen time for Kelly in both films, especially Dial M for Murder, To Catch a Thief raises another question: Why was it acceptable for Cary Grant to play the romantic lead in 1946 and again in 1955? For a man, getting older makes him distinguished, but women had to be replaced with new and younger models, like cars. Among the six Hitchcock blondes, Margot is the only true housewife, and her character remains relatively undeveloped, especially compared to Tony. Also, even though Francie is by no means weak and would never be a housewife, she seems flat in comparison to the rich characterizations in Spellbound, Notorious, The Birds, and Marnie. Despite wonderful performances by Kelly, her films suffer from a reduction of the Hitchcock blonde to eye candy status. All of these issues regarding the Hitchcock blonde are totally congruous with the social climate and women’s roles in the 1950s.

At the beginning of The Birds, the Hitchcock blonde assumes the form of Melanie Daniels in the first of Hedren’s two films. Cool and self-confident bordering on arrogant, Melanie is a socialite accustomed to the good life. At a bird shop, she eyes Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) and finds him attractive. She decides to pursue Mitch, and she drives all the way to Bodega Bay to do so. Even though Melanie acts immature at the start of the film, she transforms into a pillar of strength once the bird attacks gain momentum. Mitch’s sister, Cathy (Veronica Cartwright), takes to her immediately, and Melanie protects her in a very motherly way. Mitch’s mother, Lydia (Jessica Tandy), dislikes Melanie upon her arrival, but Melanie exhibits compassion toward her during the crisis. Of course, Melanie and Mitch bond even faster than usual because of the situation. While everyone else falls apart, Melanie remains strong. Despite her pampered life, Melanie exudes strength and courage. At the end, she is stunned when some birds violently attack her, but the shock does not make her weak. Melanie exchanges a tender look with Lydia in the car, so in addition to falling in love, she finds the mother she never had. Under immense stress, Melanie Daniels demonstrates the resiliency of the Hitchcock blonde.

Quite consistent with the increasing popularity of the women’s movement, The Birds presents a strong heroine, completely unlike the subordinate characters of the films from the 1950s. In fact, Melanie Daniels is actually the strongest Hitchcock blonde out of the set, because she transforms and matures much more than the others. Even though Mitch also remains calm, Melanie commands the situation and concerns herself primarily with the well-being and safety of others. She demonstrates the take-charge attitude prevalent in American women of the 1960s. Certainly, Melanie and Marnie are more developed than the characters in the 1950s, much like the characters of the 1940s. Once again, female characters propel the story. Despite Marnie’s illness, she fights for her independence. It also seems like more than mere coincidence that the appearance of a psychotic female character, Marnie, occurs at the same time as the emergence of a new feminist perspective in society. Could it be, perhaps, the manifestation of male insecurities, or even a subconscious attempt to curb the momentum of the movement? Conspiracy or not, The Birds and Marnie illustrate the pervasive influence of society in the 1960s and emphasize important changes in the roles of American women.

All in all, the Hitchcock blonde is more than just a beautiful stereotype. Even though they enjoy the company of many other blondes, Ingrid Bergman, Grace Kelly, and Tippi Hedren virtually defined the concept of the Hitchcock blonde with their inspiring incarnations in films released only a year apart. In six films, the Hitchcock blonde assumes the identity of a psychiatrist, a spy, a reluctant killer, an amorous heiress, a hero, and a disturbed thief. In addition to highlighting the variation among the roles, these films prove that art cannot escape its social context by definitively commenting on women in American society in three different decades. Much controversy has surrounded whether or not Alfred Hitchcock was a misogynist. While these six Hitchcock blondes experience a lot of turmoil, they all emerge stronger and indeed triumph over it. Rather than being misogynistic, these characters are actually quite empowering for women. Besides, the men in Hitchcock’s films do not exactly have it easy either, and his audiences similarly suffer along with the characters. If anything, it appears that Hitchcock was an equal opportunity sadist.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

thanks, this was interesting. I googled Deconstructing the Hitchcock Blonde and your blog came up first and was perfect.