Hitchcock’s Blondes: The Unforgettable Women Behind The Legendary Director’s Dark Obsession by Laurence Leamer
G.P. Putnam’s Sons (October 2023)
335 pages; $21.10 hardcover; $14.99 e-book
Reviewed by Haley Newlin
Alfred Hitchcock’s legacy has, until recent years, mostly been portrayed through the rosy lens of Hollywood. Many consider Hitchcock one of the fathers of horror and a worthy contender amongst the greatest directors of all time. He’s remembered for his brilliance and astute demeanor, evoked throughout the evolution of cinema-from silent films to “talkies” to color to the big screen.
The women who starred in Hitchcock’s films, including Janet Leigh (Psycho), Grace Kelly (Dial M for Murder, Rear Window and To Catch A Thief), Kim Novak (Vertigo), and Tippi Hedren (The Birds and Marnie) often are lost in the looming shadow of the director. Laurence Leamer’s Hitchcock’s Blondes attempts to dissect the lives, performances, and impact of the blonde stars of what are now considered some of the most praised films, commercially and critically.
Leamer succeeds in spotlighting “Hitchcock’s blondes” and unwrapping the director’s dark obsession with women. Hitchcock was a voyeur who, even at a young age, saw women like he did a vintage red or expensive merlot. Only he knew when to pair which women with what project, and he’d groom them to fit into “his vision.”
The director and production team pushed Kim Novak, born Marilyn Pauline Novak, to change her name so as not to compete with Marilyn Monroe. She colored her hair blonde, with a signature tint of lavender, and was ordered to go on a diet. This modus operandi of control arose and intensified with each of the actresses.
“Men so often seek to remake the women they love,” Leamer says. Then, they pout when they’re reluctant.
Hitchcock beamed at his infamous Hollywood dinners, with celebrity guests like Frank Sinatra in attendance, that he humiliated Novak until she became more docile. Hitchcock and the production company also forbade Novak’s relationship with Sammy Davis.
Novak played dual roles in Rear Window, worthy of the highest accolades. Still, Hitchcock publicly dismissed and belittled her performance, saying, “She doesn’t ruin the story” and “She was hopelessly inept before I started with her.”
Leamer notes here that many of Novak’s interviews focused on her romances, interracial dating, and sexual exploitation. I appreciated insights like this throughout the book but found that despite the author’s best efforts to portray the women through a “thoroughly modern look,” he focused too much on their sex lives and romantic partners or kept their stories tightly packaged around their interactions with Hitchcock.
There’s an underlying juxtaposition in Leamer’s writing. On the one hand, he creates sympathetic autobiographical accounts of Ingrid Bergman and the other seven women in Hitchcock’s Blondes. On the other, he discredits their accounts of abuse and harassment, especially Hedren’s revealed in her autobiography.
Readers who love cinema, especially thrillers and horror, will enjoy this read. The summaries of Hitchcock’s most beloved films and his commercial flops were well-done and loaded with colorful behind-the-scenes tidbits. This reviewer, regrettably, longed for a woman’s voice in this narrative.