This story first appeared in the Nov. 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
For most of his Hollywood career, Alfred Hitchcock might as well have been the Rodney Dangerfield of directors — when it came time to hand out Oscars, he just got no respect. Hailed as the master of suspense, he was a virtual brand: Arguably, more moviegoers recognized his name than any other filmmaker of his era, save for Walt Disney. (It certainly helped that the avuncular Disney and the sardonic Hitchcock fronted TV shows in the 1950s and ’60s.) But the England-born Hitchcock, who moved to Hollywood in 1939, continually was shortchanged by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
“The lack of respect from the Academy pained him,” says Stephen Rebello, author of Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho. “He felt they resented him for being an entertainer and working in genres that weren’t perceived as worthy.” It’s a Hollywood bias that, even if it’s not as powerful as it once was, still affects some of today’s most popular directors, those whose movies might not be “serious” enough for Academy tastes.
In the years since, Hitchcock’s reputation has undergone a major overhaul. He’s now regarded as a serious artist. In September, when Fox Searchlight announced that Sacha Gervasi’s Hitchcock, based on Rebello’s book, would be finished in time to qualify for this year’s awards, handicappers immediately put it near the top of their lists. Not only does it star Oscar winners Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren as Hitch and his wife, Alma, but it’s being pitched as a love story, which is much more in the Academy’s wheelhouse. Underscoring a resurgence in all things Hitchcock, Universal has released a Blu-ray collection of 15 of his films, and HBO is airing The Girl, which focuses on the director’s difficult relationship with Tippi Hedren, star of The Birds and Marnie.
Hollywood never actually ignored Hitchcock, of course. His first American movie, Rebecca, starring Joan Fontaine as a new bride trapped in a spooky marriage to Laurence Olivier, was crowned best picture of 1940. But it would be the only best picture Oscar winner among his many movies. Hitchcock’s films eventually would collect dozens of nominations -- he was nominated for best director five times, though he never won -- but some of his greatest movies were given remarkably short shrift. The exhilarating North by Northwest scored just three noms -- for editing, art direction and Ernest Lehman’s screenplay. And Vertigo -- Hitchcock’s sublime study of obsession that this summer edged out Citizen Kane in the Sight & Sound magazine critics’ poll of the greatest films of all time -- was nominated only for sound and art direction. The Academy finally rectified the oversight by honoring Hitchcock with its Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award in 1968. After a slow march to the podium, Hitchcock simply intoned, “Thank you … very much indeed,” which some interpreted as a passive-aggressive knock at the Academy for taking so damn long.
Hitchcock had several strikes against him. His TV success would have been considered déclassé back when the film industry looked down its nose at the upstart medium. And his famous remark that “actors should be treated like cattle” didn’t endear him to the actors’ branch. Fontaine complained that he was “divisive” on the set of Rebecca. Promoting The Girl, Hedren recently called him “evil and deviant, almost to the point of dangerous.” But he had his loyal supporters, too, like James Stewart, who was at his side when the director was honored by the American Film Institute in 1979.
However, the biggest obstacle that Hitchcock faced was that he dealt in genres -- mysteries, romantic thrillers, psychological suspense -- that just weren’t considered respectable. And despite a few exceptions -- most notably, The Silence of the Lambs’ best picture win in 1992 and the occasional crime picture such as The Departed or No Country for Old Men -- the Academy’s prejudice against genre movies persists.
A few rowdy filmmakers, like Quentin Tarantino, first with Pulp Fiction and then Inglourious Basterds, have grabbed the Academy by its collective lapel and forced it to take notice. But consider some others: Brian De Palma, who often has paid homage to Hitchcock, never has been nominated (though his Carrie earned two acting noms). Tim Burton, who puts as much of a personal stamp on his films as Hitchcock ever did, has been nominated just once, for the animated Corpse Bride. And while Christopher Nolan, who commands as much mastery of the medium as Hitchcock himself, was nominated for writing Memento and Inception, he has yet to receive a directing nomination. Could Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises or Sam Mendes’ Skyfall make the cut this year despite their genre roots? It’s a tall order.
Hitchcock might be greeted with applause, but Hitchcock’s heirs are treated with, shall we say, suspicion.