Spellbound by Beauty: Alfred Hitchcock and His Leading Ladies by Donald Spoto

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Spellbound by Beauty: Alfred Hitchcock and His Leading Ladies by Donald Spoto

Category: Biography
Rating: 3/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A look at the director's professional and personal relationships with the actresses with whom he worked on his films, with his wife Alma and daughter Pat.
Buy? No Borrow? Yes
Pages: 256 Date: June 2008
Publisher: Hutchinson
ISBN: 978-0091797232

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I came to this biography knowing very little about Alfred Hitchcock, and with only a fairly skeletal knowledge of his films. In itself, that was probably an advantage, as I had no preconceptions about the man and therefore hardly knew what to expect.

As the sub-title indicates, this does not aim to be a rounded biography. The author has already provided us with a full life, published three years after 'Hitch's' death in 1980. This looks at his professional and personal relationships with the actresses with whom he worked on his films, and along the way, with his wife Alma and daughter (in fact, only child) Pat.

It doesn't make particularly happy reading. Hitchcock not only professed to hate the sight of actors (rather unfortunate for a man who made his career as a film director, surely), but was also clearly a Grade 1 mysogynist, admittedly in an age when men tended to be thus as a matter of course. Whether the rather cruel or embittered streak had its roots in his childhood or adolescence, the author makes no attempt to suggest, although he does put forward an argument that Hitchcock, for all his fantasies, was not sexually active and perhaps halfway along the road to homosexuality. In a homophobic age, he seems to have been remarkably free of anti-gay prejudices.

Most of his leading ladies, a long list of actresses from Jessie Matthews and Madeleine Carroll to Doris Day and Grace Kelly, he treated like a bullying sergeant-major might have treated army cadets, teasing them and telling them dirty jokes merely in order to make them feel uncomfortable. Occasionally he came across one or two who were unshockable, proving that the only way to deal with him was to stand up to him.

There were so many, that the author does little more than skim through their (usually brief) careers with Hitchcock. Because of this, much of the book seems rather superficial, lacking in depth. Even his relations with his wife and daughter merit little more than a page each, though maybe this indicates there is little to be said on the subject. Only when he looks at Hitchcock's working relationship with Tippi Hedron, quite late in his career, does the text really come alive. The portrait of what she had to endure while filming 'The Birds', culminating in one of the birds that was tied to her jumping from her shoulder and landing near her eye, scratching her lower eyelid, gives us some idea of what it meant to be on his payroll.

Overall, this is a sad book. Hitchcock's last few films were failures, apparently pale echoes of what had gone before, and he evidently did not believe in quitting while he was still ahead. His wife had already suffered the first of several strokes before he slipped into a twilight world of loneliness, pain and alcoholism, dying in his bed. As a text on film studies, it makes a useful volume, particularly for some of the insights into the making of 'Rebecca', 'Psycho' and 'The Birds', for instance. As a work of biography, even given its rather limited frame, I found it somewhat lacking.

Our thanks to Hutchinson for sending a copy to Bookbag.

Further reading: If you enjoyed this title, you might also enjoy Branson by Tom Bower.

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Buy Spellbound by Beauty: Alfred Hitchcock and His Leading Ladies by Donald Spoto at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Spellbound by Beauty: Alfred Hitchcock and His Leading Ladies by Donald Spoto at Amazon.com.


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