Old Hollywood Book Reviews looks at a recent book detailing one of the great directors Alfred Hitchcock. Spellbound By Beauty by Donald Spoto is interesting in all fervant rants that have been unleashed on its Amazon page. I’ve read (and own) quite a few of Spoto’s books and I don’t begrudge authors who write books about deceased stars, that seems to be the majority of biographies these days anyway. Be that as it may Spoto does contradict himself and lower his credibility in creating a fairly disturbing view of Hitchcock in this book, especially in his treatment of actress Tippi Hedren, only to praise the director in a previous biography (the previous book was written when Hitchcock was alive, this wasn’t). With all that I still found Spellbound by Beauty interesting, albeit lacking in focusing on ALL Hitchcock’s beauties, and worth a read to see how the women liked working with the dark genius.
Spellbound by Beauty details the relationships Alfred Hitchcock had with his leading ladies going from his silent films all the way to his final ones. Audience generally know Hitch as the creator of the “cool blonde” but within the book’s 352 pages all manner of women are encountered from the cool blondes to the fiery brunettes. As Hitchcock rose to prominence his relationships became more convoluted and depending on where they stood, some women weren’t praised highly by the director.
As with the countless books already stacked in my room, I’ve had Spellbound by Beauty for a while and only now decided to finish it. Spoto is knowledgeable about the subject as he’s written a previous book on Hitchcock and other celebrities. Each chapter is divided into a chronological style by year and details one or two films at a time. Considering I know Hitch’s famous works (generally later in his career) the early section is fascinating for detailing his silent pictures and the ladies there, many of whom praised the director.
Within the book it becomes obvious that Hitchcock was plagued by problems, in being constrained by the studio system and within his own mind. Regardless of whether you believe Spoto is only comfortable saying “Hitchcock was a dick” now that he’s dead, I’ve always assumed the director was difficult due to the numerous stories that have always swirled. You get some stories that are well-documented like Tippi Hedren having to film the bird attack sequence in The Birds several times but there’s also sweet stories about the discovery of Teresa Wright for Shadow of a Doubt.
Sadly since audiences are knowledgable about the blondes that’s where the majority of the information is centered. While Spoto does give brief biographies on the ladies and does fall back on discussing their relationship with Hitch, some are given only passing paragraphs for no reason. It would have been better to give each female equal time because it seems heavy-handed on big stars like Grace Kelly, Ingrid Bergman, and Hedren. There’s only a paragraph or two given to Julie Andrews, Doris Day, and Kim Novak.
It’s obvious that the three bigger names above are given the majority of the pages due to how much they influenced Hitch; almost all of them were obsessed over by the director and where Spoto is the cruelest is in detailing Hitch’s growing obsession and eventual sexual harassment of his stars. Seeing as how beloved Hitchcock is by many, it’s easy to understand why reviews are so negative against this book but Spoto gives plenty of evidence to play devil’s advocate about the director’s intentions whilst condemning him at the same time. The relationships between Hitch, Kelly and Bergman are seen as tragic because while the ladies didn’t feel anything but respect for the director, Hitch suffered from a slew of neuroses from his need for control to his weight. Sadly this goes to the limits in his relationship with Tippi Hedren in which Spoto includes a story where Hitch asked Hedren to sleep with him in exchange for roles. Spoto acknowledges that the only verification is Hedren herself, who was subsequently blackballed after the making of Marnie, but since Hitch was at the end of his career and ill, it wouldn’t surprise me that his need for control would be pushed to the limits.
Sadly that seems to be the only “lurid” element of this book which works both for and against Spellbound by Beauty. I enjoyed the encyclopedia element of each movie having a section but I would have preferred information on the lesser known actresses as opposed to include a few small, “never before heard” stories about the bigger actresses. The running theme of these reviews is seen here: if you don’t know much about the women in Hitch’s films check it out. It provides decent back story on the women of Hitch’s films but never seems to go in-depth into how these women felt. There are interviews but they just seem to pad the straight-forward narrative Spoto is already creating. It’s a good book but not given the treatment it deserves.
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.