Hitchcock and the pitfalls of the artist biopic

Hitchcock and the pitfalls of the artist biopic

There’s a scene in Hitchcock, a new biopic about Alfred Hitchcock and the making of Psycho, where the director’s devoted wife and collaborator, Alma Reville (Helen Mirren), peels away from the chaos engulfing her husband’s latest production and meets a dashing screenwriter (Danny Huston) at his beach house. Despite having a hand in all of Hitchcock’s films since the ’20s, Reville feels like she’s never gotten the chance to emerge from his shadow and stake her own claim as a creative genius. As she sits on the porch with her collaborator, both clacking away in the ocean breeze, she no doubt imagines a different life for herself—less stifling than the one she has, and certainly more romantic. 

My thought during this entire sequence: Why am I watching this? 

With respect to Reville—who represents a particularly acute case of an auteur getting credit over his collaborators—Hitchcock is about Hitchcock, and any minute we spend away from him in this movie is a minute squandered. Whatever excitement the film generates owes entirely to the process of bringing Psycho to the screen, and everything else, from their domestic squabbles to her dalliances with the screenwriter, are totally useless. Sometimes Reville plays an important role, like when Hitch turns to her for vital feedback about the material, or when she serves as a liaison for him on set. But it’s a sad fact of history that she isn’t Alfred Hitchcock, and a plain fact about artist biopics that any scene that fails to illuminate the creative process is more banal than trivia. 

And yet artist biopics like Hitchcock are more rule than exception, which is why so few of them are any good. The conventions of the biopic alone encourage mediocrity: Lives rarely unfold in a tidy three-act structure, and beyond that, the details of a figure’s personal history are not always adequate in explaining their public actions. For example, I love The Social Network and consider it a model biopic—structured around a set period of time, focused intently on creative (and diabolical) innovation—but framing Facebook as an epic act of petty resentment against an ex-girlfriend lands it squarely in the realm of pop psychology. Even though Mark Zuckerberg’s social inadequacies are an unavoidable irony in the story of Facebook, it’s reductive to think his motives can be accessed through this skeleton key. 

Artists are even trickier. The creative process is a mysterious one—personal to be sure, but also responsive to culture, politics, the history of the medium, and the more ineffable, spontaneous gifts yielded by the act itself. In other words, you can’t Rosebud that shit up. H.G. Clouzot’s documentary The Mystery Of Picasso understood that perfectly: Rather than speculate, it chose only to observe as Picasso painted on one side of a glass canvas and the camera watched from the other. In its best moments, Hitchcock tries at least to provide the context that gave rise to Psycho: concern about a generation of imitators, a desire to embrace the modern and avoid sinking into obsolescence, the impulse to spend his capital from North By Northwest on a darker, less commercial project. But then it’s back to the Hitchcock abode, where we learn that one of the greatest filmmakers of all time was not also the greatest life partner of all time. Will audiences ever be able to watch Psycho the same way again? (Answer: Yes.) 

The cold truth is that an artist’s legacy rests entirely in his or her work, and the biopics that understand that most acutely are the most successful. To that end, the gold standard in recent years is Mike Leigh’s Topsy-Turvy, which covers the making of The Mikado by Gilbert and Sullivan with Leigh’s typical scrupulousness. Their personal relationship and the stresses that bleed into their home lives are all on display in the film, but they arise from a top-down understanding of how a production comes together: the “eureka” spark of inspiration, the tension between art and business, the grueling work of rehearsal and stagecraft, and the various ways the culture feeds into it, from the extremely British take on Japanese exoticism to the emergence of late-19th-century technology. By the end, the audience gets two well-defined characters in Gilbert and Sullivan and insights aplenty about the minds of collaborative artists, but it all comes from the work, not some flashback of young Gilbert getting whipped with a belt. 

Another route is to admit tacitly that biography is inadequate and find some original angle into a subject, like Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould. Rather than try accessing the reclusive and eccentric classical pianist, François Girard and Don McKellar opted instead to throw a bunch of different impressions of Gould against the wall and see what stuck. A few of the shorts are documentaries, other re-create scenes from Gould’s life, and still more try to channel his brilliance in a more abstract form. It’s not wholly successful—best of luck finding an anthology of any kind that is—but it’s the ultimate meta-commentary on the artist biopic: Genius is irreducible and often unknowable, and it’s a folly to try to account for it. 

Which brings us back to Hitchcock. Other than touching on some basic facts about the making of Psycho—a practice A.V. Club contributor Mike D’Angelo has dubbed “the Wiki-movie”—what do we really learn about Alfred Hitchcock? That he was temperamental and uncompromising? That he possessed a mordant wit? That he was kind of a jerk to his wife sometimes? The last part may be the only revelation. And it’s an astonishingly feeble one at that.

More For Our Consideration