Mar 28, 2017
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Was Hitchcock a Misogynist or a Feminist: See Chart
by Doniphan Blair • Survey by Davell Swan
Alfred Hitchcock and leading lady Tippi Hedren on publicity tour for 'The Birds' (1963), she sporting a fake smile. photo: courtesy A. Hitchcock
A PANEL FEATURING DONALD SPOTO,
the "Hitchcock Expert" and biographer-to-the-stars (including Jesus, one of his interesting idiosyncrasies), and Jennifer Siebel Newsom, the actress, wife of ex-San Francisco mayor and director of "MisRepresentation" (2012), a feminist critique of exploitation and glass ceilings in Hollywood, transpired at SF's Academy of Art in October to discuss all things cinema.
Also on the dais was Diane Baker, the third star of Hitchcock's "Marnie" (1964), who broke plenty of glass herself—indeed, she currently heads the Academy of Art's film department.
Considering this, the burning question seemed to be: "Was Hitchcock a feminist?" (To see CineSource's chart of a survey researching these issues, go
.) Although it wasn't broached that evening, when I
interviewed Mr. Spoto
the next day, I asked him.
"He was extremely ambivalent about women," said Spoto, who hung out with Hitchcock and became a nominal friend, when researching his first biography, "The Art of Alfred Hitchcock" (1976), also his first book. He has now published almost 30, including many biographies of our classical screen actresses, some directors and few pop culture figures, like Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Princess Diana.
"He admired them and was in awe of some. As you know, the gesture most done to women in his films is: Strangle them. How many pictures can we name where there is this gesture?" Spoto continued.
"Like all really creative men, he found the ambivalence in men towards women. I mean he adores Madeleine Elster [Kim Novac's character] in 'Vertigo'  and he can't wait to kill her."
Spoto knows Alfred's misogyny first hand, having shocked the world with his revelation of it in his second Hitchcock biography, "The Dark Side of Genius" (1983). While Hollywood was well aware of Hitch's practical jokes, scatalogical asides and incessant teasing, even that jaded group was surprised how far it went, notably with the actress Tippi Hedren, who became a close friend of Spoto.
(lf-rt) Writer Donald Spoto, actress/director Jennifer Newsome and actress/film school director Diane Baker discuss film at the Academy of Art, October 15. photo: D. Blair
A couple of days later, I met an Academy film teacher at a party and asked her the same question. "Hitchcock should have been arrested and incarcerated for what he did to Tippi," she told me.
"Should we make any allowances for his brilliance? " I responded. "His many movies with powerful female characters? His profound awareness of female perspectives?"
"No. No. Absolutely not," she retorted, eyeing me as if such notions might indicate my own misogynist streak.
As far as dismissing Hitchcock out-of-hand, however, La Professora is in the minority. Spoto himself continues to hail Hitch's immense artistry even while saying that his sad, romantic issues made him more human.
Indeed, a majority of film critics have come to consider "Vertigo" (1958) the greatest movie of all time, according to a 2012 survey by the English film magazine Site and Sound. Finally usurping "Citizen Cane" (1944), which looks ancient and artificial by comparison, "Vertigo"'s post-modern, romantic fever-dream seemed to predict the '60s, if not male-female relations to this day.
Yes, I know, this factoid—The Greatest Film of All Time!—is getting old but therein lies a serious cinematic—as well as aesthetic and moral—riddle.
Was Hitchcock a brilliant artist dedicated to investigating humanity's preeminent issues, often through the eyes of empowered female characters in tough situations—in other words, was he a feminist decades before the word was even coined?
Or was he double-agenting bizarre misogynist fantasies behind a faux genius, revealing his actual intentions in his abuse of female stars, prepubescent toilet humor and pompous adherence to protocol?
CineSource author Davell Swan and fellow Hitchcock aficionado Petunia pose at a San Francisco Hitchcock location for a CineSource article and movie. photo: courtesy CineSource
Or must great art be separated from sordid life, despite the fact that, more than most other artists, Hitchcock lived out his fantasies and pursued objects of affection through his art?
Of course his particular art form is preternaturally susceptible to such transference and Hitchcock lived almost entirely vicariously, painting a detailed picture of his aggravated romanticism in "Vertigo" (1958) and revealing his overwhelming urges in "The Birds" (1963) and "Marnie" (1964), the two films with Hedren.
Like our obligation to choose whether or not we believe in god(s)—a conundrum Spoto also addresses in four of his books (before becoming a biographer and film theorist, he was a Catholic theologian)—we of the filmmaking community must decide.
At CineSource, we felt it incumbent upon us to crack the code of Hitchcock's psychosexual matrix. In fact, CineSource heralded "Vertigo" in a
four-article scene-by-scene deconstruction
by Davell Swan a full year before the Site and Sound survey.
Then, in May 2012, we weighed-in with a full Hitchcock issue replete with two theories, "AphrodisiaCriminality", about how he connects crime and Eros, and "
Inverse Helen of Troyism
", showing how his dedication to women action heroes illustrates our transition from patriarchal to matriarchal narratives, the "inverse" of Homer's "Iliad".
But the nagging question remained. Was Hitchcock a horrific horndog, a romantic genius, or both, as Spoto suggests? Or does it matter, if art and the artist are not synonymous?
To analyze these issues scientifically, CineSource devised the "Hitchcock Matriarchal Survey" (HMS) and assigned lead Hitchcock researcher, Davell Swan, to compile it. The HMS reviews, calibrates and letter grades the content of the 48 of his 53 features films where he had narrative control.
(His teleplays we leave to tomorrow's graduate students, although it should be noted that television is about instant gratification and his work in that medium began during his transition to deeply injured romantic, hence it is a bit more vicious.)
CineSource's Hitchcock Matriarchal Survey, which reviews and rates the feminist quotient of Hitchcock's features. survey research: Davell Swan
The HMS has eight columns indicating whether a film had female writer(s) or primary character(s), whether those characters were empowered and their ideas central, all of which we sum up, grading on a curve, with a letter grade.
Using this criteria, and Merriam-Webster's definition of feminism—"the belief that both men and women should have equal rights and opportunities," we believe the HMS gives us a general idea which films were partially or fully feminist. The Hitchcock oeuvre, we found, has just under a "B" rating overall, certainly a high mark for a major male director.
Whether Hitchcock could achieve such high art and romanticism while harboring a hatred of women, a cynicism about love and a pessimism about civilization, calls into question the fundamentals of art and aesthetics and their association with evolution.
Of course, male resentment of women is also common. In "Backlash" (1990), Susan Faludi identified the counterrevolution against feminism which transpired in film in the '80s, typified by Glenn Close's spurned lover character in "Fatal Attraction" (1987).
Nevertheless, right from his first films in the 1920s, a female liberation time rivaling the '60s, Hitchcock focused on strong women and their feelings and actions, even as he introduced extreme evil to accentuate drama, what is sometimes derided as "horror."
"The Lodger" (1927), although it is about a serial killer and opens with an extreme closeup of a woman screaming, focuses on a young woman and doesn't just objectify her. It also initiates many other standard Hitchcock tropes.
Her boyfriend is a dumb cop whom she dumps after befriending the suspect lodger. She stands by him and against prevailing opinion, even an angry mob, until he is cleared, a theme Hitchcock repeated endlessly (perhaps what he hoped we would do for him). As advanced as "The Lodger" was for 1927, to be rigorous, we grade it a "B."
I dare anyone to deny Hitch's profound understanding of women after viewing the cinematic reveal of Charlie, Teresa Wright's character, in "Shadow of a Doubt" (1943). Laying in the dark on her bed, she tells her father she has spent the last few hours thinking about how screwed up their family is.
Of course, it was also Charlie who inadvertently invited the devil—in the guise of the beloved brother of her nincompoop mother—into the family home, hardly protected by her lily-livered father. But she deals with it!
Page two of CineSource's Hitchcock Matriarchal Survey, also available as a 11"x17" laminate from
survey research: Davell Swan
"If you don't leave this house," she tells Uncle Charlie (after whom she was named and who is played to the hilt by Joseph Cotton), once she discovers he kills rich widows for a living, "I'll kill you myself."
Despite a brainiac younger sister and some hints from snooping detectives, one of whom she later dates, Charlie figures everything out for herself. Indeeds, she confronts her uncle—a cynical misanthrope who declares, "If you remove the fronts of houses, you will find swine"—and dispatches him single-handedly.
Shot in 1942, before the Allies had won any land battles, "Shadow of a Doubt" is an Ur-romantic war cry, bringing artistic sustenance to those heading into battle with vicious haters. CineSource awards that film an A+ (although for simplicity's sake we dropped pluses and minuses).
Just three years later, Hitchcock moves beyond simple girl geniuses to matriarchal powerhouses able to balance both brilliance and emotions in the Freud-laced thriller "Spellbound", where the amazing Ingrid Bergman plays as an accomplished psychiatrist.
Although she is smitten with Gregory Peck, as the handsome amnesiac, and acts on her feelings against the scientific rationalism of her profession and colleagues, she also uses her smarts to solve her beloved's psychological problems AND sleuth out the actual murderer.
Indeed, in the film's fantastic finale, she stands the murderer down, as he aims his gun at her, a masterful use of the POV shot which Hitchcock elevated, if not invented, and is an excellent manifestation of how he takes on the perspective of "others." Then she coolly defeats him, logically explaining that if he kills her, he'll surely get the chair. "Spellbound" earns another one of HMS' 14 "A"s.
But in 1959 something shifts. "[Hitchcock] filmed the teleplay 'Arthur', in which Harvey grinds up the body of a woman he has strangled and feeds it to his chickens." And "this is the first Hitchcock production with a blunt and angry violence exercised against a female protagonist," Spoto tells us, although Swan notes it is precursed by the killing of the woman in "Stranger on a Train" (HMS rating: C).
Within a few months Hitchcock is making his most famous and horror-filled movie, "Psycho," which garners a "B" due to the agency exhibited by Janet Leigh's character when she steals for her boyfriend and hits the road. Although, admittedly, things don't end well, when Hitchcock provocatively terminates her mid-picture, that is not necessarily a negative, but it did in fact indicate the start of his descent into romantic darkness.
"All that summer [of 1959]," Spoto tells us, "he continued to complain in the press about his leading ladies: Hepburn was no longer 'possible' [due to becoming too famous] and there was still the problem with Vera Miles [who had gone and gotten pregnant, which aced her from 'Vertigo' although she did play Leigh's sister in 'Psycho']."
Indeed, if we dissect "Vertigo", its pretty easy to see Hitchcock's romantic conundrum. Apparently he wanted to impregnate Miles with his genius and carry her away to a never-never land where artist and muse, director and leading lady, can engage in a penetrating but probably platonic pas de deux.
Teresa Wright bares her teeth at Joseph Cotton, her evil uncle, who tries to get a grip, in the 1942 matriarchal masterpiece 'Shadow of a Doubt'. photo: A. Hitchcock
Although a majority of critics, including Spoto, now consider "Vertigo" an "A++," and we at CineSource admire it immensely, the HMS deigns it a "D." This is due to the fact that, aside from some insightful relationship dialogue, it only articulates male romantic fantasies, with one man dressing Novak's character for ill and the other for love leaving the woman just a pawn in their games and killed in the end, which must symbolize failed romanticism.
The much more romantic "The Birds" starts with a powerful woman with a penchant for pranks, the perfect Hitch stand-in, pursuing her romantic idyll, a man also very much like Hitch, given he lives with his mother and two sisters in an isolated location.
But, drawing from a '60s, Southern California, newspaper story, she and the townspeople are suddenly attacked by birds, a leitmotif initiated in "Psycho", which undoubtedly indicates nature, human nature, or sexual id. Although life and art merge as Hitchcock endangers the life of the actress as well as the character in the movie, since we are only looking at the latter and "The Birds" focuses on an empowered woman who ends up in positive situation, it earns a "B."
Finally, Hitch lets us in on exactly how he feels in "Marnie". Here Hedren, playing a woman repulsed by men, becomes a master thief and is blackmailed into marriage and then raped by the '60s sex god Sean Connery—EXACTLY what Hitchcock tries to do, during the production of the movie, to Hedren.
Having shown that he could tell romantic stories of daring-do and battling evil, with women as well as men, and having investigated himself to a fare thee well, he goes ahead and tells the whole world, symbolically, in his films. Alfred makes his bed and then has to lie in it, bringing down on his head a Wagnerian gotterdammerung of grotesque proportions.
Like the spurned lovers of failed romantics of eternity, Hitch turned very bitter, taking his anger out on associates, whom he often treated shabbily or paid poorly, his leading ladies, notably Hedren but many others, the press and everyone else—even old friends like Cary Grant. He was cold and withdrawn at his 1979 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Academy of Motion Pictures, as Spoto details in the opening of "Dark Side".
Hitchcock was not a saint, obviously. Spoto explains that he was just a man, with human needs and frustrations, which grew bit outsized due to his phobias and appetites but also romanticism and artistry AND being close to so many incredible women.
But that is precisely why Spoto says he respects Hitchcock so. While those were his personal feelings, his art and idealism proved stronger and he staggered forward. Instead of making another over-the-top like "Psycho" and alienating all and sundry, he capped his career with "Family Plot" (1976) about criminals yes but with his trademark lightness, humor and strong women, obliging HMS to give it an "A" feminist rating.
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Doniphan Blair is a writer, filmmaker, musician and graphic designer, not to mention scoff-law and editor/publisher of this rag, currently residing in Oakland and who can be reached
Hitchcock-obsessed and head of SF HitchCult, Davell Swan is a writer, filmmaker, anchor and coproducer of notorious public access program, as well as lead singer in indie band, residing in South of Market San Francisco, where he can be reached
Posted on Dec 04, 2013 - 12:20 AM