Hitchcock: Performances Surpass Thin Script

Directed by Sacha Gervasi
Fox Searchlight Pictures, 
98 minutes, PG-13
* * *

The first thing you should know about Hitchcock is that the film is not a biopic. It takes place entirely during the shooting of Hitchcock’s shocking masterpiece, Psycho. And it’s not really about that either; it’s really about how the distracted auteur comes to appreciate and cherish his long-suffering wife, writer/director/film editor Alma Reville. It is, in essence, a domestic drama that just happens to involve very famous people. Call it the latest installment of Tolstoy’s famous dictum: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” 

The story is set in 1959, shortly after Hitchcock’s North By Northwest had done well at the box office. A handful of critics, though, gave the film respectful-but-tepid reviews, and several openly questioned whether the then 60-year-old Hitchcock was past his prime and had recycled ideas. (Those reviews are now dismissed as absurd, and North By Northwest is universally regarded as a great film.) That criticism–and the outsized ego it bruised–forms the central existential crisis of Hitchcock.

Credit Anthony Hopkins for an astonishing portrayal of Hitchcock. Thanks to prosthetics, makeup, and a “fat suit,” Hopkins inhabits the role of Hitchcock physically as well as emotionally and intellectually. You can gift-wrap the makeup Oscars now, and in a normal year–read: one in which Daniel Day-Lewis hasn’t played Lincoln–Hopkins would be a strong candidate to win the Best Actor Academy Award. He plays Hitchcock as a tempestuous mix of egoism, jealousy, voyeurism, genius, stubbornness, insecurity, bombast, and tenderness; in other words, a walking contradiction. He has a thing for blondes, crosses the line between observer and Peeping Tom, manipulates his intellectual inferiors, drives himself relentlessly, over-fuels his various appetites, and only considers consequences when they slap him in the face. Psycho is now considered such a classic that we forget that the film only got made because Hitchcock mortgaged his mansion and funded it himself–his studio, Paramount, wanted no part of a movie based on the deeds of the Oedipal serial killer Ed Gein and only allowed Hitchcock to make it because they couldn’t figure out how to break his contract.

The second thing you need to know about Hitchcock is that even though it’s based on Stephen Rebello’s book The Making of Psycho, it’s really about Hitchcock’s relationship with his wife, Alma Reville (Helen Mirren). As Hitch grows more obsessed with his film, he also further neglects Alma, whom he comes to suspect is having an affair with half-talented writer Whitfield Cook. Do you need me to tell you that Mirren is good in the role? Of course she is, even though her part is a tad underwritten. Mirren plays Alma as the woman behind the throne–the foundation that shores up her husband’s self-doubt and the stitcher who makes random great ideas appear as seamless genius. The film plays a bit like how pundits described Bill and Hillary Clinton: you get two for one. Mirren isn’t afraid to appear mousy, and few do fierceness as well as she on the screen.

The third thing to know is that Hitchcock only works because the performances are so good. You could fly a flock of birds (get it?) through the holes in John McLaughlin’s script and, though there are snippets of witty dialogue, the film also resorts to some very cheap tricks–including insider Hitchcock jokes and contrived Ed Gein visitations–itchcok jokes–Hitto advance the story.  Luckily the cast transforms the thin (just 98 minutes) script. Hopkins and Mirren are fabulous, but most of the secondary performances are equally solid–Danny Huston as the obsequious Whitfield Cook; Scarlett Johansson as a star-struck Janet Leigh; Toni Collette as Peggy Robertson, Hitchcock’s secretary, gopher, sounding board, and sometime scapegoat; and Jessica Biel in a surprisingly controlled performance as Vera Miles. I found James D’Arcy’s portrayal of Tony Perkins a bit cartoonish, but he certainly had Perkins’ neurotic energy down.

Make no mistake; this film is no Psycho. In the hands of lesser actors, it’s probably not a very good film at all. Luckily Sacha Gervasi struck casting gold for his directorial feature debut. And it’s lucky for us as well; much like the 2008 film Me and Orson Welles, we see how powerful performances magically transform middling material into small gems.
--Rob Weir


Gun Control that Makes Sense

And so it shall be until we take logical steps.

The funerals continue and I’m already sickened by media coverage of the Newtown, Connecticut carnage. The schtick-of-the-day is for radio and TV personalities to read the roll of the dead whilst shedding tears on air. I’m sure some of them are deeply moved and maybe even think they are helping heal wounds. How trite. If the media wants to perform a true act of community service, how about beating a relentless drum for meaningful gun control until the voices of all Second Amendment Freaks drown in a pool of shame?

Instead we’re told that change is unlikely given that there are already 300 million guns in private hands. Nonsense! I agree that there are no magic or political wands we can waive to make guns disappear. This does not ipso facto mean that we can’t reduce the likelihood of a future Adam Lanza. (In the name of decency, spare me sanctimonious bullshit about arming school principals and teachers as a deterrent. That doesn’t work very well for liquor and convenience stores, does it?) Here are some steps we can take:

1. Ban all high-capacity, automatic, multi-clip weapons. The biggest load of hooey in the gun control debate is that any Second Amendment restrictions would penalize “law-abiding hunters.” So exempt deer rifles and shotguns already. But nobody who’s not in the military or on a police SWAT team needs an Uzi or any other assault weapon. For heaven’s sake if a hunter can’t bring down Bambi with a shot of two, it’s not hunting, it’s butchering.

2. Ban all future sales of handguns. Another bĂȘte noir put out by the NRA and the gun industry: Isn’t it reasonable to allow Americans to arm themselves against home intruders? You can count on your fingers the numbers of intruders stopped by gun owners during a given calendar year, but technology has rendered this debate obsolete. Ban future handguns and make it easier to buy a Taser. I’d even support easing concealed weapon laws for Tasers. Electronic stun guns occasionally kill, but mostly they don’t. Handguns are so last century.

3.  Ban Internet, catalog, gun show, and mail order gun sales. This should be a no-brainer. The intent of the Brady Bill is to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill, felons, addicts, and domestic abusers. For background checks to work, they must be kept local. Non-local checks are roughly as effective as keeping minors off of porn sites because they have to check a box saying they are over 18.

4. Sell collectors non-working guns. I’m really get sick of the puffed-up claims of “serious collectors” that they collect exotic weaponry as part of their “right” to pursue their “hobbies.” Fine. Let them buy an Uzi for the wall, but make it non-functional and non-repairable.

5. Restrict ammunition. This is an angle of gun control that should be explored seriously. We now have the ability to trace ammunition by coding each round. How about background checks for ammo as well? Nobody–and I mean nobody–needs to have hundreds of rounds of ammo on hand. Restrict ammo buyers to no more than a dozen rounds at a time and require them to turn in spent cartridges before buying new rounds. You go to Wal-Mart, ask for bullets, and within seconds a national database tells the clerk how many rounds you still own. Let’s sell marked ammunition by the piece, not by the box–sort of like how most macho boys buy cigars! Hold buyers responsible for crimes committed with ammunition purchased in their name (unless reported as stolen). That would cut down on black market ammo sales.

6. Set up gun and hunting clubs. This is a very successful model in Germany. Target shooters and gun fans like the experience of firing a weapon. I don’t understand the fascination, but who can explain another’s passion? But it’s just not a good idea to be shooting dozens of rounds at tin cans in the backyard as if it were still the Wild West of 1880. So let’s set up clubs where shooters can indulge themselves safely. (There is such an establishment near me though-–frighteningly–it’s pretty close to an elementary school and it’s hard to dismiss the pop-pop-pop sounds these days.) Make entrance free and charge for the ammunition used. Account for every round, as they do in Germany. Hell, allow them to keep assault rifles-locked in vaults in off hours–for the testosterone poisoned that must shoot one of these weapons. But rule one is that no gun and no round leaves the premises.

7. Change police deadly force rules. Gun owners have a point when they say that criminals give guns a bad name. One way to reduce gun crime in America is to allow police to have a shoot-first policy when a firearm is presented. Enough with all the police tribunals… if a gun is brandished, police should take out the perp. No more kid gloves for teen gangbangers, organized crime figures, or drug dealers. If you want to play thug, be prepared to go down like one.

8. NC-17 for movies and video games featuring gun violence. One way to reduce violence is to deglamorize it. Culture takes a long time to change, but I’ve seen attitudes about gender, race, and sexual preference change dramatically in my lifetime. One of the greatest things to come out of feminism was the message–that drumbeat again–that women can do anything a man can do. It sounded odd in 1966, but at some point it sounded right! We need to tell Hollywood, TV, and game-makers that products featuring gun violence is cordoned off from the oh-so-lucrative adolescent market. Let me repeat a glib phrase I’ve used for decades: a loaded gun ought to face at least as many restrictions as a loaded penis.

9. Ban the NRA from schools. There was a time when the NRA was local guys showing teenaged boys how to handle a deer rifle safely. That was decades ago. The NRA is now simply a lobby group. Let’s treat them the same way we’d treat any other advocacy group and ban them from schools. This too would have a long-term effect in changing the culture.

10. Tell liberal weenies to get real. Violence is pervasive in the USA and there is no quick-fix that will transform society into a Kumbaya utopia. Stop proposing non-starters such as outlawing all guns. It’s an obstacle to substantive change.


Margo Rey's Bad Habit

Organica Music Group

Margo—aka/ Margo Rey, born Mararita Reymundo—has a fabulous voice. Alas, she’s not much of a singer. The Mexican-born singer wants to be a pop star in the worst way, and Habit suggests she’s succeeded. Though she’s 46, she sings with the breathless slightly nasal tones of dozens of other flavor-of-the-month “girly” Los Angeles studio singers that haunt the pop charts. Her material falls into that not-quite-R & B, not-quite-jazz, and not-quite-standard gray seam that showcases the voice, not the song. It’s the sort of look-at-me music I label diva-pop. There’s nothing inherently wrong with showcasing God-given talent, but the net effect of spotlighting vocal pyrotechnics at the expense of thoughtful interpretation is akin to watching a world-class athlete do calisthenics—you keep waiting for practice to end and the real performance to begin. By the time you’ve wended your way through the album’s 13 tracks, not a single one will stand out and Margo could have been singing about algorithms for all you’ll recall. In fact, I sort of wondered if the studio did employ algorithms during the production; the aptly named Habit uses every LA studio clichĂ© imaginable—atmospheric guitar filler, cool-toned vibes, horn rhythm sections, vanilla bridges, and instrumentation that ascends and descends with the vocals. It’s too bad, because Margo has serious chops. I’d love to hear what she could do with a distinctive song and a demanding producer. Until that happens, toss this one in the same bin as all the other generic one-named divas—Beyonce, Brandy, Rihanna, Shakira—but toss it you should.—Rob Weir