Nathalie Tippi Hedren was born in New Ulm, Minnesota in 1935. She moved to New York to begin her career as a fashion model. While shooting a commercial for Pet Milk Sego Diet Drink on The Today Show, she was spotted by enigmatic filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock (Psycho, Vertigo, North by Northwest).
He immediately noticed the valuable potential of this Scandinavian beauty and then later cast her in two of his films, the classic horror thriller The Birds and the psychological sex thriller Marnie.
Despite winning The Golden Globe for Most Promising Newcomer for her role as Melanie Daniels in The Birds, Tippi Hedren's acting career never really took off the way one might have expected. Their next collaboration Marnie, in which Tippi costarred with Sean Connery, was at that time unfairly labeled "idiotic", "trashy" and "a disgrace by Hitchcockian standards." Humanities professor and author Camille Pagila purports, "It's so unfair that Tippi Hedren has never received the credit she deserves for the two films she did with Hitchcock. I think the reason critics did not take her seriously was because she was too fashionable and therefore not serious." The fact that The Birds was a huge box office success and Marnie won critical favor over time proves that she is a great actress. Tippi Hedren is more captivating than any of Hitch's pool of cool blonde actresses: Janet Leigh, Kim Novak, Eva Marie Saint and Grace Kelly. The lack of cinematic triumphs and "sexy" roles is difficult to explain for one so strongly imbued with looks and talent. Perhaps Hitchcock's controlling behavior and rumored sexual obsession with her put her off accepting any more difficult or controversial roles.
(We did not get the opportunity to discuss the vicissitudes of working with Hitchcock. Neither did I get confirmation that he gave her daughter, Melanie Griffith, a custom-made doll of her, dressed as the character she played in The Birds and enclosed in a pine coffin!)
After her seven-year contract with Hitchcock Tippi continued to act, but the films became more obscure. The most successful were probably Charlie Chaplin's A Countess from Hong Kong with Marlon Brando and Pacific Heights with Melanie Griffith. The more forgettable ones include, Satan's Harvest, Tiger by the Tail, Return to Green Acres, and a silly sequel of The Birds for the television market.
Or maybe activism replaced acting as her real passion. Today, Tippi Hedren is known worldwide for her efforts to save wildlife, especially large felines. She first became interested in the wildlife cause while filming Satan's Harvest in Africa in 1969. After filming Roar in 1981, a film which she produced and starred in, Tippi founded The Shambala Preserve (a retirement facility for animal performers) and the Roar Foundation.
Fortunately, her humanitarian endeavors do not appear to be affecting her recent screen work. In fact her acting career has recently been revitalized with two best actress awards and a number of features in the works.
At a packed New York International Film and Video Festival screening of Tea with Grandma, Tippi was presented with a Best Actress in a Short Film award by Estelle Harris (George's mother on Seinfeld). Audience members included her fiancé Martin R. Dinnes, Melanie Griffith, Katherine Helmond (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) and Alison Arngrim (Nellie Oleson). At the after-party, which took place at the stylish Hollywood and Vine Diner, actress Vanessa Marsot and myself spoke with her briefly.
IFQ: So even though you have a full time job running the Shambala Foundation, we're delighted that you still have time for films.
TH: Well, I never really stopped. This festival has given me a wonderful accolade for this wonderful little film Tea with Grandma.
IFQ: How did you become involved with Tea with Grandma?
TH: The director Jonathan and his wife Jennifer came to the conservatory to talk to me and they presented me with the wonderful script. They left it with me and I read it. I really enjoyed it. There were so many layers to the character (Grandma Rae) that I couldn't possibly have turned it down.
IFQ: Are dark thrillers your favorite genre?
TH: I'm so thrilled to a whole variety of films. I just did Bathroom Boy, a comedy with Shirley Jones and Wendy Malick, which was great fun. It's based on real story about a young man who was supposed to be graduating from high school, has a dysfunctional family, is valedictorian, a mathematical genius and he can't handle the whole thing. So he takes his computer and all of his math books and he locks himself in the bathroom and he's been in there for three months. It's a dark comedy and it's done in a very funny way. But the whole situation is really quite serious. The part I play is a grandma, so it's fun and entirely different from the grandma I played in Jonathan's film.
IFQ: Any advice for independent filmmakers?
TH: Well I say go for it!! I think shorts are the best way to portray your filmmaking talent in a situation of financial capabilities. You can be capable of making a short film, whereas with a feature you are getting into a lot more money. Short films at every phase can give the producer, the director opportunities to show off their talents. They're perfect. I love doing the shorts and very often the scripts are really good.
IFQ: So you'd consider doing another independent film if you really liked the script?
TH : Yes. This is my third short. I did Mulligans! and I won an award for that. (Best Actress) And another one that I did with a German writer/director Desiree Nausbaum, called Ice Cream Sundae, is apparently winning all kinds of awards in Germany. It's fantastic
IFQ: Is there any particular director with whom you would love to do a feature film?
TH: (Long pause, laughs) I hate when this question is asked to me!! I would love to work with Ron Howard. I think he is brilliant. I love the stories that he chooses. They're always very personal and intense. He loves a lot of emotion, and he's so well equipped to pull all of that out of the actors. I really love that kind of thing and I think that's what movies should be about. The action films and swashbuckling film are fun, but emotion and learning about each other and what life is all about is much more appealing to me.
IFQ: What would be your dream role?
TH: Actually it would be a Katharine Hepburn sophisticated comedy role. I would just love to do that. She is my idol. I never met her. I used to live in a place in Beverly Hills. She and Spencer Tracy would drive down to watch the deer. It was the most beautiful place and the deer would come down. Very often I wanted to run out onto the street and say hi.
IFQ: What is your favorite film?
TH: Wellll... I kinna go for the Jane Eyre type of film. I am fascinated by classics. Joan Fontaine is such a great actress. Actually when I did my screen test for Hitch, I read scenes from Rebecca, Notorious and To Catch a Thief - three entirely different women!
IFQ: I always read that Hitch's favorite film of his own works was Shadow of a Doubt. What's yours?
TH: Well you can read a lot! I guess my favorite is Spellbound. What a fabulous psychological film that was.
IFQ: Hitch saw you on a commercial, right? It must have been exciting to suddenly be working with the best director on the planet?
TH: Absolutely! I was filming a commercial. The whole thing was amazing. Before he signed me to a personal contract, I did an incredible screen test that took three days-a full color crew, all of his favorite people, and Edith Head did my wardrobe. It was awesome. I thought I was going to be doing something on his weekly television show so that I would get my feet wet as an actress. I did a lot of commercials so I had a good techical background.
IFQ: So you had no idea you were being considered for a big feature
TH: Not at all. I probably would have been more nervous! It wasn't until after they assembled all of the different scenes in the screen test. Then Mr. and Mrs. Hitchcock took me to dinner at Chasen's and they placed a beautifully wrapped package in front of me from Gumps in San Francisco, a very elegant shop. I opened it and it was a gold pin (made of three birds in flight), and Hitch said, "We want you to play Melanie Daniels in The Birds." I almost lost it. I was in total shock. I remember looking over at Alma (Mrs. Hitchcock), and she had tears in her eyes and Hitch was sitting there looking very pleased with himself.
IFQ: I think it was your look and your voice and he loved those elegant blondes, right?
TH: (smiles) I suppose so. I have been very fortunate.
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