Actress Tippi Hedren.
Actress Tippi Hedren.
(File photp) Alfred Hitchock.
(File photp) Alfred Hitchock.

London - Film director Sir Alfred Hitchcock was a sadistic sexual predator who devoted his 40-year career to making stars of ice-cool blondes.

He would become fixated, fall hopelessly in love and, using his powerful position in Hollywood, try to woo them into bed via the casting couch.

And whether he succeeded or failed, Hitchcock would bully them ruthlessly. Among them were Joan Fontaine, Kim Novak, Janet Leigh and - his greatest infatuation of all - Grace Kelly, who later became Princess Grace of Monaco.

But when he plucked Tippi Hedren from obscurity, after spotting her in a TV ad for a diet drink, Hitchcock met his match.

In return for a $5,000-a-week contract in the Sixties, this blonde - with almost no previous acting experience - was offered leading roles in two of his most successful movies, The Birds and Marnie.

Their relationship quickly switched from mentor and pupil (“I learned so much about acting from him”, she says) to one of love-hate. He loved her to the point of obsession. She hated him because of his unwelcome sexual advances, which she always rejected, and because he was so determined to control her that he ruined her career.

Now their story is being told in a 90-minute BBC2 biopic, The Girl, with Sienna Miller portraying Tippi, and Toby Jones as the east London-born Hitchcock, who died in 1980.

Tippi - now 82, and the mother of actress Melanie Griffith and grandmother of actress and model Dakota Johnson - had no real experience as an actress, apart from her TV ads. But Hitchcock believed she had potential, and was prepared to put her name in lights, at a price she wasn’t prepared to pay.

It is only now - almost 50 years later - that Hitchcock’s sexual harassment of her, physical and verbal, is being shown on screen.

“At first I learned a lot about acting and I found it very useful’, she says. ‘Hitchcock was inspirational to me, but things changed in a sickening way.

“You have to remember that this was a very different time from now and Hollywood was a very different place.

“Of course, sexual harassment still occurs, but there are far more safeguards in place to prevent it, far more awareness and knowledge of the dangers.

“In my day, the casting couch was in regular use. It was accepted, as a matter of course, that actresses would have to do certain things to get certain parts and nobody found it that surprising.

“He made it very clear what was expected of me, but I was equally clear that I wasn’t interested.

“What Alfred Hitchcock did to me went way beyond that but my protests were still in vain. I told his PA, Peggy Robertson, and she did nothing, beyond trying to placate me and help get the movies finished.

“Nobody is denying that Hitchcock was a brilliant moviemaker and I enjoyed working with him before I realised he was starting to take an almost obsessive interest in me.

“He would stare at me across a room while supposedly in conversation with other people”.

At the height of the harassment, she bumped into Hitchcock’s wife, Alma, a redhead who didn’t fit his sexual stereotype.

Indeed, he used to complain that his marriage was sexless.

“She knew full well what was going on. I said: ‘It would just take one word from you to stop this,’ and she just walked away, with a glazed look in her eyes.

“I felt helpless to stop what was going on, thought it pointless to try and tell anybody else about it, but unable to get away from the situation I was in.

“Hitchcock had me signed to a contract before I had even met him, and had me tied to another contract, after I finished working on Marnie, which was designed to prevent me from working for anybody else, even though he didn’t cast me in any more of his productions.

“He trapped me and ruined my career. Producers would ring up - I know the great French filmmaker Francois Truffaut was one of them - offering me parts and Hitchcock would simply tell them that I wasn’t available.

“I was heartbroken when I heard the offers he had turned down on my behalf.”

Tippi has no qualms about undermining the image of a man who brought joy to millions with not only Marnie and The Birds but other classic suspense movies such as Psycho, North By Northwest and Vertigo.

“It is a true and accurate story that needed to be told,” she says.

She first revealed Hitchcock’s dark side in a 1983 book by Donald Spoto, and agreed to be a consultant on the BBC2 film, offering guidance and advice to Sienna Miller.

In fact, one might see her involvement in the project as a long-delayed act of revenge on Hitch.

“Not at all,” insists Tippi, neat, slim and trim with wavy blonde hair and wearing a knee-length, lacy blue dress.

“I don’t feel revengeful in the slightest. I’ve done this on behalf of all those women who may find themselves in the same kind of position I found myself in, who believe themselves to be helpless under the control of a domineering man who is seeking to take advantage of them.

“I want them to watch the film, to take courage from it and have the strength to say: ‘I will not acquiesce to whatever you want me to do, even if you are my boss. You do not have the right to make demands on me, certainly not demands of that nature’.

“I hope The Girl will be inspirational, in that sense.”

The film was written and researched by Gwyneth Hughes, who adapted The Mystery Of Edwin Drood for the BBC earlier this year and won a BAFTA nomination for the BBC mini-series Five Days.

The Girl charts the various occasions when Hitchcock is alleged to have behaved with sexual menace towards Tippi.

During the making of The Birds in 1963, for example, Toby Jones portrays Hitchcock rolling his ample frame over her sparrow-like body, as they sit together in the back of a car while being driven home from a location shoot in California.

There is also his cruelty during its making.

For the film’s climactic scene, she is engulfed by birds and Hitchcock had assured her that she had nothing to worry about. The birds would be plastic ones, on wires, and the scene would be shot in a day, he promised.

Instead, he reduced her to a quivering wreck by using real flapping, biting rooks and crows - some strapped to her with elastic - during a brutal five days of filming.

Later he tells Tippi: “There is only so much I can teach you through kindness, my dear.”

Tippi is very definite about Hitchcock not ruining her life.

And the fact that she was able to continue to enjoy “normal” personal relationships, despite the nightmare attentions she endured at the hands of the great director, is proof of that.

Divorced from movie producer Peter Griffith, the father of her daughter Melanie, in 1961, she was married for 18 years to her then-agent Noel Marshall and for a further 10 to businessman Luis Barrenechea. Now she lives amid the isolated splendour of The Shambala Preserve wild animal sanctuary in California.

“We have 50 big cats roaming around - lions, tigers, leopards, cougars -and the amount of meat they get through every day is phenomenal.

“But I have no qualms about personally giving them that meat, even though there are hungry flocks of ravens circling overhead, just waiting for a taste! Birds I am fine with - spiders are an entirely different matter . . .”

The impact Hitchcock had on her career, says Tippi, was felt particularly in the late Sixties, when she barely worked at all after refusing to yield to Hitchcock’s sexual demands.

But there’s a thread of work -in TV and in film - that runs consistently from the Seventies through to the present day, which suggests he didn’t ruin it entirely (she has had parts in more than 30 TV series and in as many movies since 1970).

And how many octogenarian actresses can boast a career that continues to flourish? At the last count, she was involved with four upcoming movies.

The Girl seems bound to cause controversy judging by the reaction it got at a private showing at the British Film Institute.

At a post-screening question and answer session with writer Gwyneth Hughes and director Julian Jarrold, some members of the audience said they believed it unfairly represents Hitchcock.

But Hughes says she has backed up Tippi‘s claims of sexual harassment with first-hand testimony from two other people, including Jim Brown, who was an assistant director on The Birds and Marnie.

What does Tippi think of it?

“My great fear before filming began was that I would not be portrayed as strong enough, nor standing up to Hitchcock as much as I did.

“But I’m delighted with that”. Only one thing is wrong, she says. “Near the start of the film, where I receive a bird-shaped pin as a gift from Hitchcock and his wife after being cast in The Birds, they quote me as saying: “Oh thank you . . . nobody has ever believed in me that much before”

“I didn’t say that because so many people in my life did believe in me, my parents among them. That bit is disappointing!

“The rest, though, the way Hitchcock behaved and the effect it had on me, is absolutely true”. -