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Hitchcock exemplifies the pitfall of biopics



You've heard of Alfred Hitchcock, I presume, and seen at least a couple of his movies. His suspense films have aged better than the horror movies (Psycho is less scary than a "Simpsons" Halloween episode) but still, his best known works are undeniably masterpieces and examples of pioneering cinema.

Since our society isn't content these days to just admire talented artists for their work, two films this year have tried to imagine what Hitchcock was like in person, based on varying degrees of truth.

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The first, a BBC-original flick called The Girl, first aired in the United States in October. The Girl was thoroughly unsettling in its depiction of a brief period of Hitchcock's life. Toby Jones played the director as a one-note controlling creep who abused Tippi Hedren (Sienna Miller) on the set of The Birds, demanded sexual favors and eventually ruined her career. The Girl is based on testimony from Hedren herself, who's now in her 80s and mother to Melanie Griffith. Hedren said in a Huffington Post story that Hitchcock was brilliant and creative, but "evil."

The Girl wasn't very good, but in some ways the unambiguous depiction was more satisfying by the time the credits rolled than Sacha Gervasi's new film, Hitchcock. Here, Anthony Hopkins plays the director, with awkward mannerisms and a fat suit that make him look more unpleasant than the real-life Hitchcock did. The film follows the making of Psycho and the tension between Hitchcock and his wife. It creates and resolves some drama, but for the most part, it seems like the filmmakers are Hitchcock fans who couldn't bring themselves to be mean to the guy.

Hopkins plays the director as a mostly simple man who's mothered by his wife and likes to flirt with pretty blondes. We see hints that he can be creepy, and Jessica Biel's character Vera Miles complains that he's controlling, but if you're waiting for something squirmy or gross to happen, it doesn't. The film is so sexless, Hitchcock and his wife sleep in separate beds (which, by the way, was a production designer's choice and not based in reality.)

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I should note that Hopkins is barely recognizable when he's slathered in prosthetics and using Hitchcock's accent, which of course is the point, but his fat suit looks fake to the point of distraction. Are there really no talented actors out there who are already overweight? Hopkins' look stands out when every other character in the film is portrayed by stunningly beautiful people, like Scarlett Johannsen and Helen Mirren.

Johannsen plays Janet Leigh, the star of Psycho, as a one-dimensional sweetheart. I don't like to talk about the comparative attractiveness of women in movies, because you can find that basically everywhere else on earth, but it's clear that Johannsen is meant to be eye candy. She's introduced into the film with a shot of her ass. I kept waiting for something interesting to happen with her character, and it didn't.

Mirren, as Hitchcock's wife, Alma Reville, steals the show. As documented in real life, Reville fixes scripts, suggests edits and gives the final say on shots. In the film, Gervasi gives Reville a very credible dilemma: She sacrifices endlessly for her husband while getting little of the public's adulation, but when she helps a male friend with his script and gets some much-needed attention, Hitchcock gets jealous. When things finally bubble over into a fight between Reville and Hitchcock, Mirren totally destroys. She's compelling, interesting and easy to identify with.

Biopics can be hard to pull off, in part because the audience likely knows the outcome of the story. Does Psycho become a success? Did Hitchcock and Reville stay married? Well, you already know the answers. The fun is in watching how the problems get fixed. Hitchcock's other satisfying plot is the behind-the-scenes making of Psycho. Watching old-school movie-making tricks and film splicing is neat, and often far more engaging than watching Hitchcock bumble awkwardly about his office with a drink.

So what do we know, really, about the man? In real life, Alfred Hitchcock was known to have been abusive to an actress, but he also seemed to respect his wife as a work partner and gave her utmost credit.

In real life, people are complicated. It's too bad neither recent film about the director could capture that complexity.

Hitchcock continues at the Wilma Theatre.

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