Research Cycle

  Vol 9|No4|April |2013

Unmasking Iconic Figures

Benedict Arnold

Matthew Flinders

Alfred Hitchcock

Watching the new movie about Alfred Hitchcock — Hitchcock — I was struck by the difference between my iconic image of the man on the one hand, and the character who appeared on screen in this movie on the other hand. Anthony Hopkins is impressive as Hitchcock and was a brilliant casting choice given his persona in movies like Silence of the Lambs.

Image courtesy of Fighting-Wolf-Fist on Deviant Art

When our students learn about important people in history as well as figures from their own times, we would expect them to scratch away at the superficial, iconic images easily at hand to learn more about the person behind the mask.

Changing Research Rituals

In many schools, research about important people usually requires little more than hunting and gathering, scooping and smushing. The student is expected to gather key factoids.

    1. When was she born?

    2. Where was she born?

    3. Where did she go to school?

    4. What were her accomplishments?

    5. What is she best known for?

    6. Where did she go wrong?

    7. How will she be remembered?

This search for basic information requires little time, skill or thought. The student ends up with an iconic view of the person.

Google quickly directs the student to a Hitchcock biography where all the answers can be found. There is little mystery or drama. And the biography is silent on Hitchcock's many flaws and possible sexual harassment of actresses. Nothing is said about drunken behavior or poor treatment of those who worked with him. The image of the man is incomplete and false.

Alfred Hitchcock Biography - Facts, Birthday, Life Story - Biography ...
Alfred Hitchcock, known as the 'Master of Suspense,' is deemed by many as the most renowned English film director of the 20th century. Learn more at ...

Biography Questions of Import

In contrast, when students are asked to explore questions of import, the research is much more engaging, challenging and rewarding.

  1. In what ways was the life remarkable?

  2. In what ways was the life despicable?

  3. In what ways was the life admirable?

  4. What human qualities were most influential in shaping the way this person lived and influenced his or her times?

  5. Which quality or trait proved most troubling and difficult?

  6. Which quality or trait was most beneficial?

  7. Did this person make any major mistakes or bad decisions? If so, what were they and how would you have chosen and acted differently if you were in their shoes?

  8. What are the two or three most important lessons you or any other young person might learn from the way this person lived?

  9. Some people say you can judge the quality of a person's life by the enemies they make. Do you think this is true of your person's life? Explain why or why not.

  10. An older person or mentor is often very important in shaping the lives of gifted people by providing guidance and encouragement. To what extent was this true of your person? Explain.

  11. Many people act out of a "code" or a set of beliefs which dictate choices. It may be religion or politics or a personal philosophy. To what extent did your person act by a code or act independently of any set of beliefs? Were there times when the code was challenged and impossible to follow?

  12. What do you think it means to be a hero? Was your person a "hero?" Why? Why not? How is a hero different from a celebrity?

The Biography Maker

The above questions can be found embedded in The Biography Maker - a Web-based learning resource I developed nearly twenty years ago to help students change the way they approach the research and the writing of biographies. Updated in 2005, The Biography Maker takes students through a sequence of that begins with questions and then ends with synthesis and effective writing.

1. Questioning | 2. Learning | 3. Synthesis | 4. Story-Telling
Six Traits of Effective Writing

The Importance of Unmasking

Image courtesy of Fighting-Wolf-Fist on Deviant Art

In learning about figures like Alfred Hitchcock, it helps to acquaint students with the role of publicists. According to The Encyclopedia of American Cinema, Hitchcock hired his first publicist in 1926 while enjoying early success directing films in Great Britain.

What does a publicist do? He or she helps the celebrity or the politician to create favorable images with the media. Sometimes called a "spin doctor," the publicist works with the client to decide which masks to share with the public.

As the director of many horror films, Hitchcock actively cultivated an image that accentuated the bizarre and the horrific. Peeling away layers of purposeful image making proves difficult. The Hitchcock movie purports to give us an inside view of Hitchcock's life and marriage at the time he was filming Psycho, but how much of this is speculation? Once students have scoured online biographies, they are faced with what might be an impossible task. Hitchcock's internal life is not well documented. And because many of his relationships with actors were intense, they are surrounded by rumors and innuendo.

The movie explores the issue of his leading ladies without ever taking a clear stance. Reading through other sources, one finds charges, complaints and allegations of misconduct, but one also finds conflicting testimony.

How credible is the movie? One need only read one interview with the actress playing Hitchcock's secretary to learn that there was very little factual information upon which to base her interpretation of the character. (Interview: Toni Collette)

On that “free spirit” note, did you prepare at all to become Peggy?
A lot of it was imagined, because there was very little information about her. Not as much as the more famous elements in the movie, in Hitchcock’s life. I watched a couple of interviews with her, read as much as possible, looked at a few photos.

When we are allowed to listen to conversations between Hitchcock and his wife or various other characters, it is unlikely that a tape recorder was present to capture the actual words, so those dialogues are Hollywood creations about the conversations of Hollywood creations. Students must learn to see these movies as impressionistic. When there is scant factual evidence upon which to base scenes and conversations, the imagination is allowed to fill in the blanks. This is a form of poetic license that makes for great stories and movies but may distort the truth in dramatic ways.

Upon the release of another Hitchcock movie in 2012, The Girl, new allegations surfaced as actress Tippi Hedren, blond star of The Birds, accused Hitchcock of sexual harassment

    “I think he was an extremely sad character,” she said on an MTV panel. “We are dealing with a brain here that was an unusual genius, and evil, and deviant, almost to the point of dangerous, because of the effect that he could have on people that were totally unsuspecting.”

    Interesting to contrast these recent claims with her words in a 1963 interview that can be seen on YouTube.

She is asked if Hitchcock was a difficult man to work with, and she answers, "Not at all. I've never heard him raise his voice, or . . . temperament. He has no great show of temperament. whatsoever. He's wonderful to work with."

After the release of The Girl in 2012 Hedren spoke bitterly of Hitchcock in an interview with Huffington Post. "Tippi Hedren: Hitchcock Ruined My Career."

According to the biography upon which the movie The Girl was based, Spellbound by beauty: Alfred Hitchcock and his leading ladies by Donald Spoto, Hedren recalls a conversation with Hitchcock during which he demanded sexual favors in exchange for continued star roles. She claims that he threatened to ruin her career if she refused and did just that, holding her prisoner to her contract when she turned him down.

We were ready for the scene when Hitch called me into his office on the set. He stared at me and simply said, as if it was the most normal thing in the world, that from this time on, he expected me to make myself sexually available and accessible to him—however and whenever and wherever he wanted. That was the moment, after three years of trying to cope, when I finally had enough—that was the limit, that was the end.

Spoto, Donald. Spellbound by Beauty: Alfred Hitchcock and His Leading Ladies

In those days there was no real way to report sexual harassment or sue the person using power to get favors. Victims were faced with difficult choices. Fifty years after these events, the allegations are finally surfacing. Spoto does a convincing job of documenting Hitchcock's longstanding difficulties with actresses.

The Girl begins with a scene showing Hedren in her first interview with Hitchcock during which he invites her to join him for lunch in his office, pours her a glass of pinot noir and shares a limerick that is heavily laced with sexual innuendo. Did this conversation ever take place? How would we know? Can we take Hedren's word for it? Or should we give Hitchcock a chance to defend himself? Is this a case of "He says — She says?" Is the scene apocryphal?

fictitious, made-up, untrue, fabricated, false, spurious; unverified, unauthenticated, unsubstantiated; bogus

Spoto documents that Hitchcock's use of sexual limericks were reported by quite a few of the young women who he had under contract. So while the specific limerick may be unsubstantiated, his offensive pattern has been substantiated. A boss in the current American workplace would face severe consequences for such behavior.

A bit later in the movie we hear Hitchcock directing Hedren in what seems like the screen test for The Birds. But you can see the real screen test on YouTube and The Girl changes it dramatically to make Hitchcock seem quite strange, giving him far more lines. He is heavy handed in the screen test, directing her every move. In the actual screen test he says little, and Hedren is a very impressive, charismatic young woman strutting her stuff with great élan. Considering she had not acted previously but was a successful fashion model, her performance is very strong.

In the movie she is a bit bewildered and tossed about by his commands — a victim, an innocent. Here we have a case of historical fact standing alongside an HBO dramatization. Students should be able to see the contrast between fact and fiction.

Sorting through claims and counter claims is necessary whether we are looking at the life of Joan of Arc, Benedict Arnold, Bill Clinton or Alfred Hitchcock.

The Power of Triangulation

Triangulation is a powerful technique that facilitates validation of data through cross verification from more than two sources. In particular, it refers to the application and combination of several research methodologies in the study of the same phenomenon.

Bogdan, R. C. & Biklen, S. K. (2006). Qualitative research in education: An introduction to theory and methods. Allyn & Bacon.

One of Hitchcock's biographers, Patrick Mcgilligan, points out that illusion was Hitchcock's forte:

As he made a game of identity in his wrong-man movies, Alfred Hitchcock made a game of his identity in life.

(2010-10-19). Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light (p. 4). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

Short biographies of Hitchcock tend to paint his childhood in broad, mostly dark strokes relying for evidence upon a story Hitchcock repeated hundreds of times over the years about being sent at the age of five to the local police station as a warning about what happens to bad boys.

Born in London on August 13, 1899, Alfred Hitchcock was raised by strict, Catholic parents. He described his childhood as lonely and sheltered, partly due to his obesity. He once said that he was sent by his father to the local police station with a note asking the officer to lock him away for 10 minutes as punishment for behaving badly. He also remarked that his mother would force him to stand at the foot of her bed for several hours as punishment (a scene alluded to in his film Psycho). This idea of being harshly treated or wrongfully accused would later be reflected in Hitchcock's films.

From Biography.Com

Patrick Mcgilligan devotes several pages to a more balanced view of Hitchcock's early family life.

Although maybe it was both: a boyhood not all darkness, nor all sunshine, but like a Hitchcock film, a constant interplay of shadow and light.

Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light (p. 11). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

Middle and high school students are capable of digging past the short biographies and using triangulation to compare versions of various stories. Knowing that Hitchcock was an inveterate story teller who took pride in embellishing and amplifying the original events and circumstances to create the impression (or illusion) that served his career purposes, the students consult a half dozen or more sources to see whether they are consistent.

Patrick Mcgilligan does this when he compares the household descriptions of Donald Spoto, in his “dark” biography of Hitchcock, with the descriptions offered by Hitchcock's authorized biographer, John Russell Taylor.

Taylor said that Hitchcock’s childhood entailed mostly cozy memories. Pride of hard work and ownership, family togetherness, stockings at Christmastime that bulged with tangerines and nuts—characteristic of English Christmases.

Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light (p. 11). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

A student does not have to read all of the biographies to get a taste of the inconsistencies. He or she can select one aspect of Hitchcock's life like his childhood and compare what the various sources say. Perhaps they will examine the claim that he treated actors poorly. Maybe they will look at allegations of sexual misconduct. Whatever slice they select may leave them shaking their heads in confusion.

Spoto's book presents a strong case against Hitchcock, but others like Ron Miller offer conflicting evidence. In "Alfred Hitchcock: Did He Really Treat Actors Like Cattle?" he quotes many actors who told him mainly positive things about Hitchcock. The contrast with Spoto's book is dramatic.

Despite all the nice things most of his actors have said about him, it's likely people still will believe the few who say nasty things. That seems to be the way of our world. On the other hand, even the actors who don't remember Hitchcock fondly probably would have to admit people seem to remember the films they made with Hitchcock long after they've forgotten all the others they made.

Who are we to believe? Who is the most credible? Who presents the most telling evidence?

Veracity: Learning to appreciate ambiguity, enigma, and complexity

Ironically, when the researcher leaves the safety and simplicity of the iconic biography, he or she will find the character enigmatic. The clarity of icons is replaced by fog, ambiguity and conjecture. The student learns that no person matches his or her publicity releases. The student sees that even regular folks conceal much of their inner lives even from those people closest to them. They come to see that iconic images are false. While this is disillusioning in some ways, it is also liberating. In their reading of novels like Heart of Darkness, The Great Gatsby and Jane Austen, they see that human character is multi-layered and complex. In their study of figures from Hollywood, they learn that masters of suspense and mystery often apply their dramatic skills to the way they project themselves to the public.




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