HBO’s original film “The Girl” has premiered, and has garnered mixed reviews from critics, in part because they recoil from the film’s disturbing portrait of iconic director Alfred Hitchcock, played here by the great Toby Jones, who is almost as uncanny evoking Hitch as he was reincarnating Truman Capote in “Infamous.” It tells the well-documented story of how Hitchcock chose newcomer Tippi Hedren as his latest blonde obsession (placing her in line behind Grace Kelly, Kim Novak, Ingrid Bergman, Janet Leigh and others) and then relentlessly pursued a sexual relationship with the actress during the filming of “The Birds” and “Marnie.” Hedren, not surprisingly, found him about as alluring a potential sex partner as Hermione would regard Dobby the house elf. Less so, probably. Unlike so many actresses subjected to that kind of extortion as their final obstacle to stardom, however, Hedren refused to submit.
The movie is the most powerful and harrowing, portrayal of sexual harassment I have ever seen, and whatever its fate as a dramatic work, “The Girl” has a future, if anyone’s paying attention, in workplace training sessions. One of the Farkers who came here to argue with my criticism of that web site’s jokey commentary about a teenager who was pulled into a sexual relationship with his teacher protested that comparing his plight to rape was unfair, since no physical force was involved, and the student “consented.” If anyone can watch “The Girl” and conclude that Hedren would have been “consenting” to sex with that “walrus dressed as a man,” he has serious cognitive problems, and the situation parallels the inequity of power when a school teacher craves the sexual attentions of a student. What we see in the film is a perfect example of a relationship with a complete imbalance of power, with a power wielder who is willing to abuse his authority in order to bend a subordinate to his will, or make her suffer for refusing. After his clumsy advances were rebuffed, the warped director of “Psycho,” “Vertigo” and “North by Northwest” plotted to punish his prey, rigging on-set accidents for Hedren and making veiled threats. Finally we see the text-book quid pro quo sexual harassment advance: after Hedren is named one of the most promising screen newcomers, Hitchcock tells her that he expects her to be “sexually available” to him at all times, for any purpose, in gratitude for his bestowing her with a Hollywood career. If she refuses, he says, he will ruin her.
That, as film buffs know, is exactly what happened. Hedren did refuse, broke her contract, and was both soured on her profession and blackballed in it. She never appeared in a major Hollywood film again. It’s a stomach-churning story to watch unfold, all the more so if you know that this exact scenario is going on constantly across America and the world, on movie and TV sets, in corporate offices, in law firms and universities, in factories and on Congressional staffs, Walmarts, athletic teams, prisons and, of course, middle and high schools, except with victims who do not have Hedren’s tenacity, courage and values, and who cannot say “no.” Despite the tightening of workplace rules and laws, most Americans seem stubbornly ignorant or in denial regarding this pervasive phenomenon, as witnessed by the nauseating sight of serial sexual harasser Bill Clinton being given rock star treatment at a Democratic National Convention that was pugnaciously proclaiming its respect for women.
In his tepid review of “The Girl,” Entertainment Weekly’s Ken Tucker writes that “This is not the way I want to remember the man who made ‘Rear Window’ and ‘Strangers on a Train’.” No, by all means, let’s continue the denial of sexual harassment in high places and among the rich, powerful and admired, so victims like Catherine Willey and Paula Jones will be derided in the press, making it harder still for the waitress who is ordered to give Lewinskies to her boss if she wants to keep her job. ‘”The Girl” concentrated on the ‘Birds’ and ‘Marnie’ period of Hitchcock’s career, and told us story we know all too well: Sometimes extremely talented people are rotten, unhappy, pathetic human beings,” Tucker concludes.
Wrong. “The Girl” tells a story that we don’t know well enough or care enough about, one that is going on all around us.
Graphic: Living Room Theaters