Ladies We Love: Tippi Hedren

3.18.2011

By Aaron Hicklin

Unlike the menacing ravens in Bodega Bay, the flock at Shambala, a 72-acre wildlife sanctuary in the Mojave Desert, knows its place. It is late afternoon, feeding time for the reserve's 61 big cats, including Michael Jackson's tigers Thriller and Sabu, and the ravens follow the progress of the meat with meticulous respect for the natural pecking order. "They know exactly which cats they can steal from and which ones they wouldn't dare go near," says Tippi Hedren, den mother to this strange menagerie.

Inside the lodge in which 81-year-old Hedren lives, kitty motifs dominate, from leopard prints on the fabrics to a carved wooden tiger. A plaque on the wall reads: a home is not a home without a cat. This home has five, each named for different men in Hedren's life. There's Antonio Banderas (also the husband of her daughter, Melanie Griffith), Marlon Brando (her costar in Charlie Chaplin's A Countess from Hong Kong), Johnny Depp (just because she loves him), and Rod Taylor and Sean Connery, named after the leading men in her Hitchcock movies, The Birds and Marnie.

Ah, yes, those two legendary movies. It's tempting to see the feline supremacy of Shambala as Hedren's revenge on Alfred Hitchcock for the indignities she suffered during the making of The Birds, one of the most analyzed films in movie history. For many critics, The Birds has come to stand as a metaphor for Hitchcock's complicated view of women, in which not just the ravens -- but the entire womenfolk of Bodega Bay -- turn on the perfectly coiffed, immaculately dressed, trespassing blond in their midst and bring her down. For Camille Paglia, in her famous 1998 essay on the movie, Hedren's Melanie Daniels "has the arrogant sense of entitlement of all beautiful people who sail to the top' Nature gives to them, but then nature takes away."

For Hedren, it was Hitchcock who did the giving and the taking, plucking the model from relative obscurity (he saw her during a commercial break on the Today show) and then hamstringing her career when she rejected him. "It's not a good thing to be the object of someone's obsession if you're not interested. He told me, 'I'll ruin your career,' and he did," recalls Hedren. "He kept me under contract and paid me $600 a week, but I couldn't do anything else." Hitchcock eventually gave her contract to Universal, who let her go after she declined to be in a TV Western, but the momentum of those first two movies had evaporated.

It turns out that Hitchcock's sadistic technique for The Birds'he used elastic bands to tie real birds to Hedren for one climactic scene -- was just a dress rehearsal for Hedren's 1981 movie, Roar, a labor of love made over five years at a cost of $17 million. If the plot was simple -- a pack of lions invade a family home -- the logistics were anything but. Told by professional animal trainers that it was impossible to work with so many wild animals, Hedren and her film producer husband, Noel Marshall, decided to go it alone, shipping in more than 100 lions, tigers, and elephants and settling them at an Acton, Calif., ranch (now Shambala). Almost no one escaped the shoot unscathed, including Melanie Griffith, who needed plastic surgery after being mauled, and cinematographer Jan de Bont, who required 200 stitches when his scalp was nearly severed by a lion's bite.

The experience launched Hedren on a crusade to rescue big cats from roadside zoos and the deluded citizens who keep them as pets. In 2003, she succeeded in getting Congress to pass the Captive Wildlife Safety Act, outlawing the interstate transport of big cats for the pet trade. "They are apex predators, top of the food chain, one of the four most dangerous animals in the world," she says.

Well, yes, and she has 61 of them in her back yard.

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