Brave things don’t often happen on the stage at the Television Critics Association press tour. Executives come on stage and insist that they’re incredibly excited about sitcoms about men cross-dressing to find work in the bad economy, or to praise the creative direction of critically panned dramas. Every actor insists the creators are the best they’ve ever worked for. But occasionally, as has happened twice this press tour, an actor will be bracingly honest about working conditions and creative opportunities in Hollywood. And when they do, the stories they tell are striking.
Yesterday, it was Tippi Hedren, the star of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds and Marnie. Signed to a seven-year contract with Hitchcock, Hedren’s working relationship with Hitchcock was initially a positive and beneficial one. But the director was extremely controlling and harassing,, and ultimately gave Hedren an ultimatum: she make herself sexually available to him, or he ruin her career. Hedren refused, and Hitchcock held onto her contract, preventing her from working on other projects, and substantially curtailed her movie career. Now, that story’s being made into an HBO movie, The Girl, premiering in October, starring Sienna Miller as Hedren and Toby Jones as Hitchcock. It’s a movie that gives a sexual harassment victim rather than her harasser the last word. And at a panel presenting the movie, Hedren spoke movingly about the impact Hitchcock’s obsession and harassment had on her personal and professional life.
“People have said, ‘Was he in love with you?’ No, he wasn’t. When you love someone, you treat them well,” she said. “I certainly am not capable of discerning what was going through his mind or why. I certainly gave no indication that I would ever be interested in any kind of a relationship with him.” The trauma of Hitchcock’s harassment had lingered, Hedren said, and her position relative to the director was heightened by her legal powerlessness. “Actually viewing the film, I have to say that when I first heard Toby’s voice at Alfred Hitchcock, my body just froze,” she said. “I had not talked about this issue with Alfred Hitchcock to anyone. Because all those years ago, it was still the studio kind of situation. Studios were the power. And I was at the end of that, and there was absolutely nothing I could do legally whatsoever. There were no laws about this kind of a situation. If this had happened today, I would be a very rich woman.”
And while Sienna Miller, asked about harassment in Hollywood today, suggested that conditions had improved, Hedren acknowledged that sexual quid pro quos might not be a thing of the past. “I hope that young women who do see this film know that they do not have to acquiesce to anything that they do not feel is morally right or that they are dissatisfied with or simply wanting to get out of that situation, that you can have a strength, and you deserve it,” she said. “I can look at myself in the mirror, and I can be proud. I feel strong. And I lived through it beautifully. He ruined my career, but he didn’t ruin my life.” That such a warning is still necessary is a reminder that while a contemporary Hitchcock might not be able to sell his actress’s contract without her consent, the different toll booths to enter the entertainment business charge rather different prices.
Once you’re in the business, of course, the opportunities available to an actor can be limited, and if present, fraught, as actor Lance Reddick reflected during a panel to kick off the final season of Fringe. Asked to reflect on the opportunities available to black actors, he gave a rich, and complex answer.
“It’s a tricky thing when you talk about stereotypes because there’s always you know, for me, there’s in addition to stereotypes there’s also, in my opinion, the whole issue of tokenism,” he said. “I was concerned about falling into the stereotype of the stoic black commander or the angry black commander.” And he said he felt torn about the opportunities he wished were available to them and the fact that he’s had a comparatively rich career. “I feel like I’ve had kind of particularly as a black actor, I’ve had kind of a charmed career because I’ve kind of gone from one kind of great character piece and great shows to another,” he reflected. “So I haven’t really even though I’m always complaining about having fewer opportunities than my white counterparts, I feel like I’ve had kind of a charmed career. So I’m very grateful.”
To say that crumbs, even delicious ones, don’t constitute a full dinner is a brave act in Hollywood. Reddick’s talent is undeniable, and exposing his frustrations with the limitations of his ability to use them is an important thing to tell the very critics who would love to see him work more. And both Hedren and Reddick are a reminder that Hollywood is in the business of illusion, and that sometimes includes self-deception.