The Gentleman Preferred Blondes
The films directed by Alfred Hitchcock are known for many things: the suspenseful plots, the gallows humor, even the cameos made by the famous director in each movie. There is something else for which Hitchcock films are just as renowned, and that is the breathtaking but icy blonde female stars in the lead roles. This is a look at the best-known “Hitchcock blondes,” as well as the way in which Hitchcock's leading ladies have become an iconic fashion style all their own.
Hitchcock directed a remarkable number of Hollywood's top actors and actresses. Leading men Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart were two of “Hitch's” most famous casting choices, but it is his female leads that have created the most interest over the years. The stable of Hitchcock blondes includes a bevy of beauties: Ingrid Bergman, Tippi Hedren, Madeleine Carroll, Kim Novak, and Eva Marie Saint. Without a doubt though, the most iconic of all the Hitchcock blondes is Grace Kelly, who personified the cool, patrician blonde type that Hitchcock preferred.
Hitchcock Blondes Were Beautiful, But Not Bombshells
Perhaps one of the most interesting things about the Hitchcock blonde is that they went against many of the popular female stereotypes of the 1940s–1960s. It is important to notice that some of the most famous blonde actresses of the era were not ever cast in a Hitchcock film. Sultry sex symbols such as Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield were far too overt in their sexuality for the Master of Suspense.
In fact, the costuming of Hitchcock's leading ladies was typically buttoned-up and restrained, doing everything to minimize the curves of the woman within. Compare the classic Hitchcock blonde attire as was worn by Tippi Hedren in The Birds (1963)—a prim tweedy sheath dress with a high neckline and a matching jacket—with Marilyn Monroe's alluring white halter dress in The Seven Year Itch; it is no wonder that Hitchcock avoided the Hollywood bombshells like the plague.
Clearly, Alfred Hitchcock's casting of icy blonde female leads was partly a matter of his personal taste in women, but there is much more than that to it. What makes the Hitchcock blondes so compelling is that underneath their cool and lovely exteriors lives women who are bold and passionate when faced with dangerous situations. Hitchcock once said that the appeal of these characters and the actresses who played them was that a restrained sensuality was lurking under their polished and coiffed facades, just waiting to emerge in the right situation.
More graphically, Hitch once made a rather vulgar remark about his cool blondes reminding him of proper English ladies who appeared distant and prim, but once in private would take a man's trousers down without warning. Hitchcock's formative years were spent living in England, which is perhaps the basis for his fantasy. Despite some aggressive advances, however (particularly on Tippi Hedren), it appears that his leading ladies never indulged this particular fantasy.
Film critic Roger Ebert once observed that Hitchcock's leading ladies "reflected the same qualities over and over again: They were blonde. They were icy and remote. They were imprisoned in costumes that subtly combined fashion with fetishism. They mesmerized the men, who often had physical or psychological handicaps." Something that Ebert did not mention is that the Hitchcock blondes were true lead characters; never did he relegate one of his beautiful leading ladies to arm candy for the handsome male lead. They were dynamic and were not afraid of taking action. This is a look at the most iconic Hitchcock blondes.
Madeleine Carroll Was the First
Madeleine Carroll was the first of Alfred Hitchcock's beautiful blonde stars. She played the role of Pamela in The 39 Steps, which was directed in 1935 by Hitchcock while he was still living in London. The lovely Pamela is a bystander who is unwittingly sucked into a suspenseful spy story. She eventually rises to the occasion, helping the leading man (played by Robert Donat) to expose a spy ring. It was on this prototype that subsequent “Hitchcock blondes” would be based.
Ingrid Bergman: Cool Intelligence
Ingrid Bergman, the cool Swede, was another of the Master of Suspense's iconic leading ladies. She was the female lead in three of Hitchcock's films: Spellbound (1945), Notorious (1946), and the lesser-known Under Capricorn (1949). Besides her cool, reserved manner and natural beauty, one of the things for which Bergman was best known as an actress was her obvious intelligence. This made her a perfect candidate for Hitchcock to cast as a leading lady, as she had the combination of restrained elegance with a deeper underlying passion which set her apart from some of the more bubbly 1940s stars like pin-up girl Betty Grable.
In Spellbound, Bergman's character was a psychoanalyst who fell in love with one of her patients during the course of treatment. Only an actress with such clear poise and intelligence could have played a doctor in the 1940s, while at the same time retaining a beautiful appearance and a cool detachment (with the passion lurking under the surface, as always).
In 1946, Bergman starred in Notorious alongside Cary Grant. In this thriller about espionage and Nazis, Bergman is tapped to play a seductress spy who ends up marrying her target (played by Claude Rains) to better spy on him. All the while, Bergman's character was really falling for Grant, and they shared a famous on-and-off kissing scene (to circumvent restrictions on the allowable length of on-screen kisses). Once again, it was a case of a gorgeous blonde who was hiding secret passions and who was not what she appeared at first glance (as the subject of her spying found out at the end of the film).
Notorious was one of Hitchcock's most highly regarded films, and also began his collaboration with legendary Hollywood costume designer Edith Head. Having found the right costume designer to bring his vision of the perfect cool and proper blonde leading lady to life, Hitchcock stayed with her. Head went on to design the wardrobes for the female leads in Rear Window, To Catch a Thief, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Vertigo, Marnie, The Birds, and Topaz.
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Grace Kelly Was the Ultimate Hitchcock Blonde
After Bergman moved back to Europe, it was time for Hitchcock to find another leading lady. He could hardly have done better than the one he found: Grace Kelly. Beautiful, blonde, and cool, Kelly had the perfect combination of untouchable polish and poise with the underlying taste for passion. The elegant Grace Kelly played the character Francie in the 1955 romantic thriller To Catch a Thief opposite Cary Grant, a retired jewelry thief. Though aristocratic and proper at first glance, the well-to-do Francie was more than willing to join forces with a man she believes to be a thief; more than that, a thief intent on robbing her!
The stylish Kelly epitomized the combination of cool beauty and daring that epitomized Alfred Hitchcock's blondes in two other movies, both released in 1954. In Dial M for Murder (remade as A Perfect Murder in 1988 starring another patrician blonde, Gwyneth Paltrow), Kelly plays Margot, a wealthy socialite who is cheating on her retired tennis player husband. As the plot twists and turns, Margot's husband becomes involved in a scheme to murder her and collect her fortune, but in a dramatic cinematic moment, Kelly's character kills her would-be attacker with a large pair of scissors. This is a wonderful example of the steely determination which lives under the polished exterior of a Hitchcock blonde; when push comes to shove, she will fight for her life, and will usually win (Janet Leigh in Psycho excepted, of course).
In her other starring role of 1954, Kelly played Lisa in Rear Window, yet another pampered wealthy blonde beauty, who was the girlfriend of Jeff, a photographer played by Jimmy Stewart. Jeff has a broken leg which has left him confined to his home with little to do besides watching the activities of his neighbors out the window. To his shock, amongst all the mundane comings and goings, Jeff becomes convinced that one of his neighbors has violently murdered his wife.
With the photographer immobilized in a cast, the lovely Lisa steps in to help satisfy her boyfriend's curiosity. Despite her appearance as a fashionable social butterfly, Kelly's character proves to have the bravery and resourcefulness that is the trademark of a Hitchcock blonde. Naturally, she did it all with inimitable panache and style. It is said that Kelly was Hitchcock's all-time favorite leading lady and that the director was very disappointed when she moved to Monaco to marry Prince Ranier.
Kim Novak Followed Grace Kelly
The departure of his second blonde star for Europe left Hitch to seek a suitable replacement. Kim Novak starred in one of Hitchcock's most classic films: Vertigo (1958). A psychological thriller, Vertigo is believed by many to be the one film which reveals the most about the director's innermost obsessions. In the story, Novak plays a woman named Jude who was hired to pretend to be Madeleine, the wife of a man whose wife is already dead. She fakes her death, with a detective played by Jimmy Stewart as the witness. When Stewart's character later sees the actress on the street, she reminds him so much of Madeleine that he falls in love with her, as he had been falling for Madeleine before he witnessed her “suicide”. The fascinating part is watching how Stewart's character endeavors to turn Judy into Madeleine. It is widely believed among film critics that Stewart was a sort of proxy for Hitchcock himself, and that the concept of a man crafting a woman into his ideal vision is exactly what the director himself did with his succession of Hitchcock blondes.
Eva Marie Saint Was a Gorgeous Double Agent
Hitchcock followed Vertigo with another of his best known films, North by Northwest, a thriller starring Eva Marie Saint and Cary Grant. The lovely blonde Saint played a double agent assigned to seduce Grant and set him up, but in the end, she fell for him and saved him from the foreign agents who were out to get him. As a double agent, Saint held her own, and fit well into Hitchcock's mode of cool women with nerves of steel. Throughout the cross country chase, Eva Marie Saint remained polished and well-put together, even running across the face of Mt. Rushmore. The actress was styled directly by Hitchcock; he did not care for the wardrobe chosen by the studio for his female lead, so he went dress shopping with her and together they selected her attire for the film. That is certainly a clear example of just how specific an image Alfred Hitchcock had of his female stars.
Tippi Hedren: The Last Hitchcock Blonde and the Worst Off
The final iconic Hitchcock blonde is Tippi Hedren, who starred in The Birds (1963) and Marnie (1964). The director certainly worked with other well-known fair-haired actresses, including Doris Day and Janet Leigh, but they did not fit into his archetypal mode. Hedren is the actress with whom Hitchcock is believed to have had the most complicated and ultimately difficult relationship, perhaps owing to his unrequited infatuation with her. She is certainly the actress who took the most abuse during filming. Despite promises to the contrary, the Master of Suspense released live birds on Hedren while filming the scenes with the apocalyptic bird attacks.
As Melanie Daniels, the tweed-suited beauty in The Birds, Hedren became an icon of the meticulously groomed self-possessed WASP for which Hitchcock films are famous. The clothing worn by Hedren in the film has become symbolic of an entire way of dressing: tailored, expensive, polished, with not a blonde hair out of place. Until the swarm of birds arrives, of course. The images of Melanie Daniels in her perfectly prim suit with her coiffure picked apart by the wicked black birds are among the most instantly recognizable in American film history. To show how famous Hedren became for being attacked by birds while still looking fabulous, the proof is that Mattel actually made a Barbie doll replica, complete with a prim suit and flock of birds.
Marnie followed The Birds and was a different genre of film from the horror/thriller that Hedren had starred in the year before. There is speculation among film analysts that Hitchcock's increasing antagonism towards Hedren is evident in the title role of Marnie. The story is that of a beautiful but troubled blonde kleptomaniac. Unlike most of his previous Hitchcock blondes, Marnie is not a socialite; in fact it eventually becomes revealed that her mother had been a prostitute. So fetching was Hedren's character that after an employer (played by Sean Connery) caught her stealing from his company, rather than turn her over to the authorities, he blackmailed her into marrying him!
On the honeymoon, though, he discovers that in addition to being a compulsive thief, his new bride has many emotional problems, including frigidity (which he attempts to “resolve” by raping her, which is followed by Marnie's unsuccessful suicide attempt). Ultimately, Marnie and her husband began to delve into her traumatic past, discovering the reasons for her troubled nature, and by film's end, she has decided to stay with her husband and try to make a go of it.
According to Tippi Hedren, the filming of Marnie turned out to be even worse for her than The Birds, thanks to the unwelcome advances of the corpulent (and married director). After refusing to allow him to void her contract during production of Marnie, Hitchcock threatened to ruin her career, which he did by keeping her under contract for a small sum to prevent her from taking lead roles with other directors while her fame was at its peak following her two hits.
Hedren is considered the last of the true “Hitchcock blondes," and it is very interesting that he moved away from this idealized, almost fetishistic concept of the cool blonde with a passionate interior life after the director was romantically rejected by one of his creations.
The Hitchcock Blonde as Style Inspiration
Nonetheless, the Hitchcock blonde lives on as a style icon. The dispassionate perfection of these fair haired beauties has served as style inspiration for many fashion designers and lifestyle magazines. In 2008, the magazine Vanity Fair used modern actresses to recreate many of Hitchcock's best known scenes for its annual Hollywood issue. Charlize Theron was Grace Kelly in Dial M for Murder , Scarlett Johansson portrayed Kelly in Rear Window , Naomi Watts took on Marnie , Renée Zellweger made a convincing stand in for Kim Novak in Vertigo , and Jodie Foster made a less convincing stand in for Tippi Hedren in The Birds . One of the best cast photographs in the Vanity Fair feature was Gwyneth Paltrow starring as Grace Kelly in To Catch a Thief . Paltrow had already tackled one of Kelly's Hitchcock blondes in the remake of Dial M for Murder , and she had the “indirect” sexual appeal that drew Alfred Hitchcock to Grace Kelly. The director believed that “sex should not be advertised”, and Paltrow's cool elegant demeanor makes her very much an actress in the Hitchcock blonde mode.
Alfred Hitchcock was once famously quoted as saying, “Blondes make the best victims. They're like virgin snow that shows up bloody footprints.” Misogynistic quote aside, what makes Hitchcock's blonde leading ladies so potent is that beneath their prim suits and flawless hairdos are women with inner determination and boldness. It is that powerful combination of external beauty and haughty polish with a genuine person on the inside that makes the Hitchcock blonde such an enduring legacy. We admire the iconic Hitchcock blondes for not only their their impeccable fashion sense, but also their unflappable nature and willingness to face a call to action. He may have been a misogynist, but Alfred Hitchcock certainly knew how to create films with powerful female roles.
Savana on October 19, 2016:
You forgot the iconic 'Psycho'. Marion Crane, the woman in the shower? Owns the screen for the first hour? She was played by Janet Leigh.
susan burn on November 04, 2014:
Jayne Mansfield starred in Alfred Hitchcock film called hangover,it is a good film showing Jayne can do serious roles very well.
AJ Long from Pennsylvania on December 10, 2013:
What a pleasurable penchant he possessed Seabastian!
Carlo Giovannetti from Puerto Rico on September 02, 2013:
I usually don't care about blondes, but Grace Kelly was gorgeous in Rear Window. Also, just last night I saw The Birds for the first time, and Tippi Hedren was one pretty lady.
dawnowens from Jersey Girl on October 19, 2011:
Great hub & wonderful analysis! I've always loved Hitchcock and his blondes; they were classy, elegant, smart, bold and passionate. Thanks for sharing!