30 November 2012

HITCHCOCK DAY: GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES

Toby Jones has, seriously, the worst agent. In 2005, his take on the cartoony Truman Capote in a not-quite-a-biopic Infamous ended up getting pushed back a year when all the attention was gobbled up by Philip Seymour Hoffman playing the same part in a film with a virtually identical story, Capote, which announced right from its title how much more serious and Important In All Ways it was of the two projects. That's a painful, undoubtedly embarrassing experience; but how much worse it must be that that the exact same thing has happened to the poor bastard again: somehow, in 2012, producers got it into their heads that what the world desperately needed right now were films about Alfred Hitchcock being a skeevy creep during the production of his late-career horror films, and while this time, Jones's project made it out first - premiering on HBO in October - once again, his picture has been almost entirely subsumed by the conversation surrounding Anthony Hopkins's take on Hitchcock in Hitchcock (the Capote relationship holding right down to the character's surname as title of the tonier project).

And while it's hard to feel too very sorry for The Girl - for that is the name of the Jones vehicle - it is so, so easy to feel sorry for its star. He's the best thing about the project to an almost laughable degree, for it is a nearly complete failure of dramaturgy, filmmaking, and acting, though there's more to it than just being the only bright spot in a mound of shit. It's altogether as good a performance as Jones has ever given onscreen: a top-notch piece of mimickry (better by far than Hopkins in the more prestigious film), but it goes deeper than that, into a subtly vicious display of petty meanness and villainy that does toe the line of melodrama, to be sure, but always falls back into something more real and thus more unsettling.

The titular is Tippi Hedren (Sienna Miller), who was plucked from TV commercial obscurity in the early '60s by the director to star in two of his late-career, The Birds and Marnie. The facts of the story are not much in doubt: she was at that time the latest in a long line of glamorous blondes cast as the leading ladies in Hitch's movie, and the latest in a long line of those glamorous blondes made profoundly uncomfortable by the director's sexual obsession. What sets Hedren apart is the intensity of Hitch's cruelty towards her, resulting in his largely successful attempt to ruin her career as a leading lady after their working relationship burned to ashes during the Marnie shoot.

None of these points, to my knowledge, have ever been seriously disputed, and Hitchcock's fairly loathsome behavior towards his leading ladies (particularly Vera Miles, whom he never forgave for getting pregnant just before Vertigo shot, and subsequently her replacement, Kim Novak, who received perhaps the worst abuse of any actor Hitchcock ever worked with) is, I presume, fairly well-known to anybody who likes the man's pictures enough to spend time watching a backstage story about their production. But The Girl seems to think that it's being revelatory, only slowly revealing that the droll, genial Hitch has a nasty streak underneath him, like we're meant to be sent on the same horrific journey of discovery that Hedren undergoes over the course of a trim 91 minutes. There are worse sins than telling an audience something it already knows, of course; The Girl commits many of them. Still, it's frustrating as all heck to have a movie misjudge its own shock value this badly, particularly when that shock is all buried in the script and not present in the movie itself much - for that is another one of its sins, that it wants to be a salacious, tawdry biopic, but it's too classy to actually get in their and get grubby with the characters. That, of course, is what happens when you let Julian "Kinky Boots" Jarrold direct your movie; I do not know the work of writer Gwyneth Hughes, though I am pleased to note that she wrote a Jane Austen biopic that was not the same as Jarrold's own Jane Austen biopic, so I will happily assume that they are two milquetoast, middlebrow peas in a pod.

The disconnect between the film's tacky content and its bland, TV-movie production values (this feels like something HBO would have put out in its mid-'90s "finding our way" phase, not in it's 21st Century "we put on Deadwood and Rome" phase) takes some frequently hilarious turns, particularly as the film continues to darken, from merely painting Hitchcock as a pathetic, sexually monstrous tyrant (as he probably was), to eventually suggest him to be some manner of serial rapist who only entered filmmaking for the opportunity to harass starlets (as he probably was not), collaborating with his wife Alma Reville (Imelda Staunton, given only one scene that's nearly up to her skills) not just to make thrillers, but also to seduce and ravage innocent young girls (okay, that's not entirely fair to the movie, but it's also not nearly enough of an exaggeration). The whole thing tips rather decisively from being a true Hollywood story sort of deal, glorying a bit too much in exposing the seedy side of a filmmaking icon but not being unfair, to turning into a daft psychosexual thriller with a Hitchcock who isn't even terribly credible as a movie character, let alone a real-life figure, no matter how hard Jones tries to sell him.

Even this is not the worst part of the film; no, the worst part is that this movie, which slams Hitchcock so hard for using his leading ladies as meat puppets and props and objects of his sad, grubby fantasies, ends up doing exactly the same thing. though she is the film's protagonist and our point of entry into the world of Hitchcock and filmmaking (though filmmaking gets extremely short shrift: the little bit we see on the set of The Birds is the most engaging part of the movie but it's certainly not the focus; and if you don't know what rear projection is already, or that Hitchcock used it a lot, don't expect The Girl to tell you why, exactly, there are so many studios with blank walls for sets), Hedren emerges from the movie a total blank slate, deprived of any character or motivation: she is a mother, we are told, but that fact does not inform her character at all; her ability to feel anything but revulsion and fear of her director is simply not something that The Girl is interested in exploring, and Miller's totally empty performance only makes things worse than they already were in Hughes shallow script. It's easy to see why she was cast - she makes a damn convincing ersatz Hedren - but she has only ever been a completely surface-level actress, and given that the very theme of the movie is that Tippi Hedren was justifiably furious at being trapped by a man who only saw her surfaces, this unfortunate characterisation makes the bottom fall out of a movie already stuck in the fever pits of toothless mediocrity (Jarrold's idea of challenging filmmaking is to dissolve from Hedren's face to a lawn that Hitchcock is walking on, in the first shot - do you get it he's walking all over her - or to crib inappropriate musical cues from Vertigo), for because of this total disinterest in The Girl herself, The Girl reveals itself as hypocritical in addition to being slack, boring storytelling about people, good and bad, who really deserve more interesting, thoughtful treatment than this.

4/10

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