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

No comments: