The Birds

Sweetback Productions

at the Berger Park Cultural Center

Almost 40 years after its release, The Birds remains a head scratcher. Though the film is a technical masterpiece, Evan Hunter’s screenplay is completely off-kilter. The monolithic yet skimpy plot is appropriate to Hitchcock’s themes but impossibly stupid, its climactic moments terrifying at an instinctual level yet otherwise bizarrely funny. Together the film’s weirdnesses make it among Hitchcock’s best or worst, but it’s hard to tell which.

Central to this mystery is Tippi Hedren, the last of Hitchcock’s blond bitch goddesses, a model who effectively made her acting debut in the film. Though undeniably flat, her portrayal is suffused with fashion-ad grace, both poised and blank, distant and engaging. She’s a good fit for the role–Melanie Daniels is supposed to be a socialite–but then it’s not much of a stretch either. Throw in the fact that much of the emoting Hedren did was tortured out of her and that she’s essentially martyred on-screen, and you can see why this material lends itself to what Sweetback Productions is calling a “feminist drag deconstruction.”

The mock-pretentious description is reasonably accurate–if you consider Camille Paglia a feminist, which of course many don’t. True, this production does level the standard assaultive-gaze, speculum-of-the-other criticisms at Hitchcock, but Paglia’s exuberant postfeminist (or whatever) defenses of the filmmaker, film, and Hedren herself in her monograph on The Birds determine the show’s overall tone.

In fact Paglia is a character here (and the program includes the real Paglia’s endorsement). Her goofy presence holds together David Cerda and Pauline Pang’s ingenious bilevel story, which alternates between Hedren’s on- and offscreen tribulations with the bewildering logic of a dream. Hired as “therapist” to the leading lady, Paglia gives a guided tour of the film’s symbolism–birds as women, birds as social construction of the feminine, birds as sexual tension and/or fear of abandonment, birds as brutal chthonic nature, and her characteristic synthesis of these ideas–while helping shepherd along the parallel plot of Hedren’s abuse at the director’s hands, famously detailed by Donald Spoto in The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock.

According to Spoto’s account, the making of The Birds was emotionally bruising for Hedren from beginning to end. Something of an interloper in the first place, she was further isolated from the trained professionals of the cast by Hitchcock, who often kept her long after shooting was over, giving their working relationship a creepy datelike tenor. Once he’d transformed her into his Grace Kelly ideal, his Svengali-like control devolved into pure obsession–extending to who she saw and what she ate and wore on her own time. He even briefly put her under surveillance. And while all the scenes in which children were attacked used mechanical birds, animation, and trick photography, when the awful attic scene at the end of the movie was shot, “Miss Hedren was placed daily in a cage-like room on the soundstage, an opening was made for the camera, and two men, with heavy gauntlets protecting them from fingertips to shoulders, opened huge boxes of [live] gulls which they threw directly at her, hour after hour….Eight hours daily, for an entire week, she was subjected to this nerve-racking experience.” (She’d been told mechanical birds would be used.) Eventually Hedren broke down, hysterical, injured, and exhausted, and shooting was suspended for a week while she recovered.

The darkest implication of this story is that not just the scene but the entire filmmaking process was designed to elicit credible terror in a beautiful but monotone actress. Depending on your view of such sadistic audacity–and what can reasonably be expected of actors (and nonactors)–this approach can also be seen as darkly hilarious. Sweetback takes this angle and runs with it, pushing its star through a drag queen fun house ruled by an omnipresent but invisible Hitch, with Paglia a leering metacheerleader. Obviously this is pretty involved humor and as such requires two things: a perfect Hedren and an audience deeply familiar with the film and its legendary production.

Director Kelly Anchors has certainly been blessed with the former. Tracy Repep is uncanny, the absolute likeness of Hedren in appearance, accent, and bearing. It helps that Sweetback has managed to perfectly replicate Melanie Daniels’s outfit, makeup, and hair, but Repep’s performance is still more masterful. Capturing the mixture of phony bravado, likable amateurishness, and spacey elegance that made Hedren entrancing, Repep is also sympathetic, conveying the talent and pluck that this somewhat underrated but definitely in-over-her-head star had to offer. It’s a rare kind of parody, insanely fond of what it ridicules.

The rest of the show is a similarly loving close reading of the film. Though sometimes excessively esoteric, it can be terrific if you’ve got the background. Scenes are meticulously re-created line for line, then veer off into embellishments, then cut to behind-the-scenes intrigue informed by the auteuristic patterns of the whole Hitchcock oeuvre. But for the most part a simple cultural awareness of The Birds suffices, and Sweetback’s punchy, focused portrayals of the rest of the film’s cast are funny in themselves.

Overall Anchors and her cast and crew have done a marvelous job. Hitchcock’s stagy dialogue and rendering of actors as objects are naturals for caricature, as are his frequent Disney-villainess depictions of femininity, which almost demand the specific caricature of cross-dressing. More than half the cast take roles their genders would predict, but most of the key female characters are played in drag, which leads to silly stuff like Cerda as the Suzanne Pleshette character getting it on with Paglia and a scene of classic Hitchcockian mother hatred being reduced to a livid slap from Steve Hickson’s Jessica Tandy. The giddiness of the comedy is abetted by campy but jarring “special effects” and the imaginative use of 16-millimeter film projections, sound and light cues, and the lakeside performance space.

When they need to be, the characterizations are precise. Kurt Kolar, Merrie Greenfield as Paglia, and Hickson all do solid work. And when the broader–or queenier–the better makes more sense, the cast also rises to the occasion, especially Cerda, Ed Jones, and Todd McConville. Their efforts help produce a show as seamlessly strange and fundamentally ambiguous as the movie, building to a final, breathtakingly executed identification of the murderous birds that decisively resolves both story lines. Jaw dropping in its sudden poignancy, accusatory but still utterly insouciant, it’s a fitting end to a thoughtful, refreshingly risky production.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Rick Aguilar.