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Thursday, September 9, 2010

HISTORY LESSON: Hitch's Battle of the Blondes

It is impossible to discuss the career of Grace Kelly without equally discussing Alfred Hitchcock and his place in her life. He himself would say that he did not discover Grace, but rather saved her from a stale career full of bland roles and stunted professional progress. He saw in a Grace a potential that was not being utilized-- her subtly insinuated yet powerful sexuality. Once he put it to use before the movie camera, her image was forever changed. She suddenly became elegant yet smoldering, refined yet dangerous, mysterious yet alluring. However, Grace was not the first blonde in Hitch's life, nor would she be the last. There is a long line of women who have been either idolized, terrorized, or bewildered by the iconic director, but there are only two that stand out as his all time favorites: Ingrid Bergman and Grace. Comparing the two and their relationship with the smitten director sheds some light on the maniacal genius himself as well as the public's perception of the two beautiful actresses and their eternal place in celluloid history.

Grace and Ingrid are the only actresses to each appear in a Hitchcock picture three times. Hitch had a tendency to use his men more often than his women. He found ideal vessels of sexual courage and social deviance in Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart, not to mention the bit players he used over and over like Leo Carroll and John Williams. But the women? Maybe one picture, maybe two... He could never find the right woman to both marry to the role at hand, inflame his secret desire, and-- frankly-- put up with his questionable behavior. Nita Naldi was too overtly sexual, Madeleine Carroll was too professional, Theresa Wright was adorable but too innocent... Grace and Ingrid possessed certain qualities that made them perfect fits. They remained Hitch's trusted friends and allies, yet were smart enough to maintain enough distance and independence to keep from getting caught in his web. Most importantly, they both entered his life at the right time: before he completely went off the deep end, and his obsession with his leading ladies turned to madness-- can I get an "Amen" for Tippi Hedren!

The first obvious commonality was their legendary beauty. Both women were arguably at the peak of their careers when they worked with Hitch-- extremely gorgeous and widely adored. He knew just how to present them to make them look their best. He put special attention into wardrobe and color, particularly with Grace, and in them he created the most flawless images possible. They were also equally talented, proving to be strong in their convictions to their characters but also very open and cooperative with Hitch's very specific ideas. Having kind natures helped them to patiently adhere to his shot-by-shot instructions without complaint, and because they trusted in his judgment, so too did he come to trust them when they posed objections. Normally, he wouldn't take advice from anyone, let alone an actress, but with Grace and Ingrid he took into consideration their own ideas, wardrobe suggestions, actions, etc. It was a rarity indeed. This give and take was a phenomenon rarely repeated with other performers under his tyranny.

In private, the same professionalism and genuine sentiment the women had on the set was presented off camera as well. They both indulged Hitch in his school-boy crushes, accepting flowers and invitations to dinner (with him and the Missus), enduring long conversations in which they diplomatically confided in him the personal matters of their lives and listened to his own opinions on art, travel, and above all food. Ingrid in particular would recall the feeling of being trapped in her dressing room at the end of the day, barraged with Champagne and forced to undergo a lengthy tete-a-tete when all she wanted to do was go home and rest! They were both "ladies," tolerating while not inviting his advances so as not to appear rude. Equally light-hearted, they both got and accepted his raunchy jokes and limericks, proving that while they were classy, they were also far from prudish.

Most importantly, they were unattainable. At least by Hitch. Both women had rocky love lives, often clouded by rumors of extra-marital affairs. Hitch loved indulging in the scandalous stories of their lives, which he followed closely in all the papers. But while they were both human, sexual creatures, prone to flaw or being swept away by romance, so too they maintained their pristine images: Grace- ever composed, ever in control, never showing her cracks, and Ingrid- perpetually vulnerable and innocent, never stained by her private indiscretions (at least until Roberto Rossellini). Hitch found these women fascinating-- wolves in lamb's clothing. He likewise found their inner eroticism much more exciting than the explicit sexiness of someone like Dietrich or Monroe. As he himself would say, when it came to sensuality, he liked to "find it out," and the search and questioning with regard to Grace and Ingrid was intoxicating. But as much as he yearned, these two divas remained on pedestals, never to be touched. They symbolized to him the perfect women: sexual dynamos that somehow came off smelling like roses. They had class and carriage, and so, in his mind's eye they remained unsullied by whatever alleged infidelities they did or didn't do. Onscreen, they emerged as perfect visions of femininity-- adored and dreamed, but never had.

 Ingrid with Greg in Spellbound, her first Hitch piece.

But too, these ladies had differences, most particularly in the way Hitch chose to present them. A lot of this had to do with simple timing. Ingrid came first. She was Hitch's first true "love" and thus the unwitting recipient of his school boy crush. His adoration of her was therefore less invasive, more distant and adoring. She was the graceful and beautiful goddess of his dreams whom he admired from afar. Thus, in his film-making, he would reach out to her, embracing her with his camera, which delicately loved and cradled her. With Ingrid, he lived out fantasies of being the in-control male hero. She is often portrayed as a weak, broken woman or a victim. In Notorious she is a recovering alcoholic betrayed by love; in Under Capricorn she is a sick woman terrorized by the thin line between truth and insanity. In all of her Hitch films she is a martyr for love, submitting herself to complete torture at times for the man she desires. Whether she is knowingly venturing into danger by falling for possible mad man Gregory Peck, suffering in a tragic marriage to Joseph Cotten, or whoring herself for and in spite of Cary Grant, she is always trapped in romantic limbo-- enraptured, frightened, and at the mercy of her attackers. Behind his camera, Hitch was her savior.

Ingrid, lost in love to Cary in Notorious

Ingrid is always captured in an embracing light, inviting viewers to wrap their hearts around her. Despite her characters' flaws, her weakness and innocence always beckon to even the coldest of hearts. Ingrid meekly evades, enticing us to follow her further into her destructive journey, using mystery and compassion to reel us in. As Donald Spoto points out in his book Spellbound by Beauty, Hitch didn't love anyone with his camera like Ingrid. That being said, no one gave love to Hitch's camera like Grace Kelly.

Originally, Hitch had wanted Ingrid to star in his first collaboration with Grace, Dial M for Murder, however, Ingrid was in professional exile after her torrid affair with and marriage to Rossellini. She was on the Hollywood blacklist and thus was hiding out in Europe to avoid an American hate-fest. Knowing this information provides a clear explanation for Grace's first adventure with the "Master of Suspense." Her role in Dial M is very different from her future Hitch parts because it was specifically built for someone else. Her place within it is precarious. She does, of course, an incredible job, but Grace Kelly as a victim is hardly as believable as Grace Kelly as an impassioned heroine. Hitch saw this. Grace was contained, proper, but not mild. Her strength always wins out over her placidity. She isn't as acceptable as an un-savvy adulteress being  framed by her malicious husband as Ingrid would have been, who was led blindly by love numerous times. Grace was never prey to ignorance. Grace is, however, entirely believable as a woman who would bravely stab an intruder to save her own life. After making this film with her, Hitch knew he had found someone with guts, and he was ready to put her to use.

Thus, Hitch realized that his old, suffering female storylines amidst dangerous men would not do. He built Grace from the ground up in her next two pictures, Rear Window and To Catch a Thief. The end result was something quite different from what he had produced with Ingrid, who was already an established star when Hitch found her. Ingrid's "type" was already known to audiences, so Hitch merely played with an established image when working with her. Her casting in his films would be similar to that of her roles in Gaslight or Intermezzo: A Love Story. Her extreme gift for tragedy and pain followed her from role to role. Grace, on the other hand, was brand new, untainted, and fairly unknown. People had seen her in her handful of movies- Fourteen Hours, High Noon, Mogambo -- but the world wasn't in love with her yet. Her primness and reserve had been firmly captured but not the passion underneath. Hitch utilized this "snow-capped volcano" and eventually kept audiences on the edge of their seats waiting for her to explode.

 Going in for the kill: a lady waits for no one.

His smartest move was making Grace the sexual aggressor in his films. Whereas Ingrid quietly willed the public to her with longing and sympathy, Grace would come right at ya'! Hence, her dreamlike and fantastical entrance in Rear Window (above) when she is first seen crawling toward the camera to seductively plant a kiss on the lucky Mr. Stewart. This is the great divide in Hitch's career: he would spend three of his films chasing Ingrid and another three letting Grace come after him. After losing Ingrid, he was betrayed in a way-- dare I suggest, brokenhearted. So, this time around, he would allow the object of his desires to make love to him and not the other way around. Grace was the personification of the sexual hellcat in white, and he willingly submitted himself as prey. When Grace shockingly pulls Cary Grant to her for an unexpected kiss in To Catch a Thief, or nuzzles a nonchalant Stewart in Rear Window, she is brazenly making love to not only her leading man, but her director as well.

 Cary, reluctantly receiving the attentions of Hitch's dreams.

In her Hitch movies, Grace is daring. She risks her life to retrieve the wedding ring of Mrs. Thorwald, she engages in an affair with a known burglar because it turns her on, and even in Dial M she engages in an affair about which she only feels kind of bad. The reason she got away with these erotic and questionable moral behaviors on the screen is because she carried them off with such ease. Her demeanor and delivery saved her from the "tramp" label, a fact Hitch loved. In her, there was a perfect marriage of the Madonna and the Whore-- the immaculate, immaculately dressed, dream girl.

Then, Hitch lost Grace too. But, while he was secretly offended that Ingrid had left him for another man, another director no less, and while he would say that he would forever mourn the movies that he and Ingrid didn't get to make, he was not upset with Grace when she left him for Prince Rainier III. Not overly, anyway. She had reached the pinnacle of all he could have wanted her to be-- a Princess, for God's sake! He would say that it was a role finally worthy of her. However, he did miss her, and he would spend the rest of his life trying to recreate her through Vera Miles, Tippi Hedren, and Kim Novak, who quite literally represented this yearned for metamorphosis in Vertigo-- a film about a man who is obsessed with recreating a former lover in the body of someone else. Grace saw the movie and thought it was brilliant... And sad.

 Classic Grace, far more interesting than the 'window.'

Both women forever remained ideals to Hitch, and as ideals they were able to escape him unscathed. (Ironically enough, they both evaded their most ardent lover by getting married to other men). In our minds, so too are they ideals. Ingrid is our feminine, vulnerable side-- a slave to desire-- and Grace is our calculating sex-kitten-- satisfying her own desires (with impeccable fashion, of course). It is perhaps fortunate that these ladies made no more movies with Hitch than their classic trios. Had they stayed longer, the lines between artistry and control, imagination and dementia, may have become blurred. As it is, their films remain clean, precise, tantalizing, and classic. We continue to love and be loved by them... and love being loved by them. This is why we remain transfixed by Hitchcock, for by interpreting his own fantasies, he equally painted vivid portraits of our own. We all love, we all fear, we all desire, we all go a little mad sometimes, and it was Hitch's mad love of I and G that enhanced and solidified our own attachment to them. But hey, it's a lovely way to go.


  1. Another name for this post could be titled Hitch’s Bitches. I agree. Why would Stewart be looking out the window at Raymond Burr with Grace lying there? I enjoyed your explanations of Hitchcocks relationships with his female stars.

  2. Excellent post. Hope you get a chance to do more on Madeleine Carroll.
    Interesting film and private career. From British silents to sound. 2nd marriage to Sterling Hayden (not so cold after all?). Foregoes career when her sister killed in blitz to work with Red Cross under dangerous conditions.