by M. Faust
Only as good as your last film
Pity Toby Jones, the British character actor best known as the voice of Dobby the elf in the Harry Potter movies. In 2005 he landed a plum role starring as Truman Capote in the biopic Infamous, only to go head-to-toe with Philip Seymour Hoffman playing Capote in another movie. You know what happened: Hoffman got an Oscar, Infamous was barely released.
Last year Jones got another showy starring role as Alfred Hitchcock in The Girl, a film about the making of The Birds. How was his agent to know that Anthony Hopkins was also getting ready to play Hitchcock in another film?
The Girl played on HBO a month or so ago. Hopkins’s take on the famous director, who managed his own black-humored public image as carefully as anything in his films, can be seen on the big screen starting this week in Hitchcock, generally a better film and indisputably a more enjoyable one.
You’re likely to enjoy Hitchcock more if you saw The Girl. Based on a book by the rabidly iconoclastic Donald Spoto, The Girl presented Hitchcock as a wreck of a man, sexually frustrated, obsessed with his leading ladies, and psychologically abusive of his wife and creative partner Alma Reville. Whether or not it was accurate (I’m always loathe to take Spoto at his word, though Tippi Hedren vouches for The Girl’s veracity), it was an unpleasantly creepy film to watch.
By contrast, Hitchcock is fairly lighthearted, with a mostly playful impersonation by Hopkins that cleverly calls on our memories of Hannibal Lecter. He may not precisely look like the man, and surely no filmmaker is more recognizable than Hitchcock, who not only hosted a popular television show but produced trailers for his films starring himself. But Hopkins has the posture and the slightly waddling walk down, as well as the self-satisfied humor.
As directed by Sacha Gervasi (who wrote the filmed-in-Buffalo Henry’s Crime), Hitchcock film recounts the making of Psycho and starts with the director at the height of his career. North by Northwest is a huge success, and everyone in Hollywood has an idea for a blockbuster follow-up, from James Bond to The Diary of Anne Frank. Instead, he wants to re-live his early days in the business with a quickly shot low-budget film. And he wants to base it on a book about Ed Gein, a murderer who did any number of things that people in the 1950s couldn’t even imagine. Transvestitism and necrophilia were only the tip of the iceberg.
This is, after all, an era in which censors still existed, and they said things like “No American movie has ever found it necessary to show a toilet, much less flush one.” Watching Hitchcock torment Hollywood bigwigs with lurid details of Gein’s life that he has no intention of using is a droll delight.
Hitchcock gets to make his film only by raising funding himself—practically unheard of at the time—and by negotiating with the censors at every step. For their part, the studio seems to want to see him fail, though even if does Jerry Lewis is making them so much money that they hardly care.
Alma is played by Helen Mirren, which is a bit of a stretch for a character anyone could possible ignore, and she gets to assert her place in film history as her husband’s uncredited collaborator.
Hitchcock doesn’t exactly whitewash its subject: He’s seen peeping on one of his actresses, and shunning one who failed to accept his offer to make her a star. But neither does it insist on rubbing our noses in his failings and pecadillos.
The cast also includes Scarlett Johansson as Janet Leigh, and Michael Wincott as the real Ed Gein, who becomes Hitchcock’s invisible advisor. There’s a funny bit featuring an unrecognizable Ralph Macchio as Joseph Stefano, the screenwriter Hitchcock hires to adapt Gein’s story. And look for the hack director the studio tries to bring in to replace Hitchcock when he takes ill: That’s Devo’s Gerald Casale.
Watch the trailer for Hitchcock
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