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Written by Timothy Sexton
Tippi Hedren became the latest in a long line of coolly beautiful blonde actresses to achieve or cement stardom as a result of starring in an Alfred Hitchcock film. Unlike most of the others, however, who were already huge stars or at least had significant roles under their belt by the time Hitchcock came calling, Hedren was thoroughly inexperienced. This lack of experience was viewed by the director only in terms of presenting him with the perfect opportunity to completely mold a new star out of unformed clay. And so, like a Svengali, Hitchcock set to work on The Birds proving his particular style of directing actors had reached such a point of perfection that he could wrest a performance from a total novice that would be the equal of performances given by the blonde legends and award-winners who had preceded Tippi Hedren.
Australian actor Rod Taylor was three years past the biggest role of his career in The Time Machine when Hitchcock cast him as the male lead in The Birds. Although he had significantly more experience than Hedren, the two actors would prove to one of the least interesting couples in the entire Hitchcock filmography. While Hedren capably fulfilled the role of blank canvas upon which Hitchcock could paint a performance through his directorial authority, Taylor wound up merely proving that he was hardly worthy of following in the footsteps of such glamorous legends as Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart and Laurence Olivier. Or did he? The passage of time has infused what many originally viewed as a rather lackluster performance by Taylor with the quiet strength and subtly subversive romance of one of the few Hitchcock male protagonists who actually seems like a real person rather than a movie star playing a real person.
In just about any other Hitchcock movie, Jessica Tandy’s character would have been one of the movie’s villainous characters. Her character is the mother of Taylor’s Mitch Brenner and became the latest in a long line of dominant maternal characters that populate Hitchcock’s films and usually cast their authority over the other characters with a much longer, darker and more sinister shadow. It’s not hard to predict that if the characters do ever escape the inexplicable attack by Mother Nature that Mother Brenner is going to cause serious trouble in any relationship between Melanie and her son. One cannot be completely confident just how much of Lydia’s darker aspect is the result of Hitchcock and how much was due to Tandy deciding to have a little fun with her characterization.
If there is a cool blonde in a Hitchcock movie—and there almost always is—chances are there will be a major supporting character who is a female with dark hair. In The Birds, that role falls to Suzanne Pleshette. Pleshette seems to have never been out of work between her TV debut in 1957 and being cast as the schoolmarm forced to be content with loving Mitch from afar in 1963. Hitchcock was clearly at the top of his game in his role as casting director for The Birds because Pleshette is nearly the exact opposite to Tippi Hedren in ways that go well beyond mere difference in hair color. In fact, one can make quite a strong argument that Hedren’s ability to project that cool demeanor Hitchcock demanded is facilitated quite robustly by Pleshette’s natural gift for ingratiating any character she plays with the audience in record time.
Contrary to what some may misremember if they haven’t seen The Birds in some time, Veronica Cartwright plays the younger sister of Mitch and not his daughter. Cartwright was one of the few child actors to have a major role in a Hitchcock film that went on to enjoy a long acting career as an adult.
Ethel Griffies had been steadily acting in the film since 1917, but probably no other role brought her as much instant recognition as the irritatingly narrow-minded ornithologist inside the diner whose assurances about bird behavior come crushing down around her amid a flock of a psychotic seagulls. Few actors have ever so much with so little in a Hitchcock film and even though Griffies has precious little screen time, she certainly makes the most of it.
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