I have seen reviews that focus on the film only as satire or as a Cronenberg film. It’s as much Bruce Wagner’s (who wrote the screenplay) but it feels as if Cronenberg has subtly channeled his great visceral sensibility into this story of people’s suffering. I agree with Roy, the characters are no ghastly types and are realised with great feeling, not least because the actors knew when to exercise restraint. It might not be the kind of body horror of his earlier career. Flesh, however, seems still of central importance.
After Shivers (1975), one’s sense of bodily integrity lives in constant threat in a Cronenberg film. This latest film was reminiscent of Dead Ringers (1988) in its air of tangible menace that fearsome (Freudian) drama of male dominance of female reproduction sustained. People kept their clothes on in A Dangerous Method (2011), and Cronenberg moved the conversation to desire (in our minds) rather than pure body invasion, although Keira Knightley’s Sabine Spielrein begged for mortification at the hands of Michael Fassbender’s Carl Jung. This creates a neat lead into Maps to the Stars and Bruce Wagner’s insider script. Havana’s visceral healing sessions with John Cusack – her crying out as he touches her ‘healing’ points – seems to develop that idea (from Keira Knightley’s Sabine Spielrein) that mental torture is expressed and expunged through the body – with complex results. In Existenz (1999), Cronenberg explored a world where his characters could jack into various games and experiences through portals inserted into their physical bodies. As the gamers found an increasing difficulty in distinguishing what was real or not, there is the same confusion for characters here. Compared to Existenz, this Hollywood world – with pills etc – means the jacking-in is cleaner, less messy physically whilst still devastating mentally.
This is, however, as much Bruce Wagner’s film, who explains his concept (in relation to ghost stories) in an interesting article here. There has been great focus on how all the dialogue is drawn from situations in real life and the publicity has played up its ‘Hollywood Babylon’ credentials. Sunset Boulevard (1950) is an obvious reference, in Gloria Swanson’s representation of a life that’s moved beyond reality and into the realms of fantasy. In that film, we watched people being eaten alive (not least Erich von Stroheim in being cast at all) and felt ourselves separate from what Hollywood does to people. In A Star is Born (1954) we celebrated the resilience (and loyalty) of Mrs Norman Maine in Judy Garland’s public declaration, rejecting the superficiality and callousness of Hollywood. The Player (like Maps to the Stars) draws on a noir-ish air of the 1940s. Mulholland Drive (2001) (the road itself appears in this film) returns us to psychology in its descent into Naomi Watts’ subconscious – a piece of ‘dreamwork’ set in the dream factory.
Maps, though, felt more grounded than this. By chance, I watched Hal Ashby’s great satire, Shampoo (1975), again this week, just after the Cronenberg. Somehow Warren Beatty’s guru-hairdresser, finding his world unravelling at breakneck speed becomes a very ordinary man caught up in an unreal spiral. Ashby’s context of Nixon’s election, his use of a clearer political context for the film, made an interesting contrast to the other-worldliness of Cronenberg-Wagner’s film. And Maps does present its characters as a kind of freak show, sitting somewhere between the surreal fantasy of Lynch’s film and the debunking of Ashby’s. But maybe more interesting (and relevant) questions spill out from this film – about worlds where youth, constant self-representation, the need to sustain a profile – and their potential dehumanising effects – and how these aren’t (now) only the stuff of Hollywood nightmares.
I was quite surprised by how much I enjoyed Hitchcock. It isn’t any kind of rigorous analysis of the man or of filmmaking as a process and it has one major miscalculation in the script from my perspective. But for what it is – essentially a romantic comedy drama (definitely a Hitchcock category) about a long-married couple – I think it works very well and I laughed many times as well as once feeling quite emotional. In other words, my reactions were rather different to those I experienced with The Girl.
Hitchcock is based on the book by Stephen Rebello, Alfred Hitchcock and the making of Psycho. The book was published in 1990 and it has taken 12 years to get to the screen. The film focuses on the marriage of ‘Hitch’ and Alma Reville and his struggle to make the film that he wanted to make for his own artistic reasons – but which eventually turned out to be his biggest money-spinner. Scriptwriter John J. McLaughlin sticks fairly close to what I assume is the material from the book except for two inventions. The first is a recurring nightmare that Hitchcock has about Ed Gein, the serial killer who was the real life model for Robert Bloch’s story of Psycho. There was too much of this for me and I think the idea of Gein ‘haunting’ Hitchcock could have been done differently and certainly more economically. Secondly, McLaughlin invents a close writing relationship between Alma and the screenwriter Whitfield Cook. Cook did indeed have a relationship with the Hitchcocks and in the 1940s he wrote an unsuccessful Broadway play in which Patricia Hitchcock featured as a teenager. In 1949-50 he worked at various times with Alma on the scripts for Stage Fright (1950) and Strangers on a Train (1951). These are the last two mentions he gets in Donald Spoto’s The Dark Side of Genius. I don’t think it really matters that McLaughlin resurrected Cook as a ‘player’ in 1959. I take it that Alma was having one of what I suspect were many little spats with Hitch and that Cook is offered here as a diversion for her before she gets back on board with Psycho.
My feeling is that the film was very well cast. Scarlett Johansson and Jessica Biel as respectively Janet Leigh and Vera Miles are very good. All the other supports are good too especially Toni Collette as Hitchcock’s PA and James D’Arcy as Anthony Perkins. Hopkins, for me, ‘inhabits’ Hitch more successfully than Toby Jones – but then the script is more friendly than in The Girl. It requires Hopkins to be more playful and he enjoys himself. The crunch for most audiences will come with Helen Mirren’s performance as Alma. Clearly, she is too tall and too glamorous. I’m not intending to be mean to Alma, but in 1960 women over 60 rarely looked as svelte as Ms Mirren. Several people have echoed the line about Mirren suddenly becoming (her best-known character) Jane Tennison from Prime Suspect whenever she has to act decisively. I can see this, but I have to be honest and say that it didn’t occur to me at the time. I accepted that she was Alma and I’m pleased that she was seen to contribute so much to the production of Psycho. Everything I’ve read suggests that Alma was a very bright woman who knew the industry well. I was pleased to hear the dialogue line when she reminds someone that when Hitchcock started working in the industry, he was her junior. I was able to forget that Mirren didn’t look like Alma and I enjoyed her verbal exchanges with Hopkins.
The real problem is not with the film but with the distribution and promotion and the audience expectations. In the US this was a ‘small film’ with a budget of $15.7 million (I’m using this Hollywood Reporter article for background). It was given a limited platform release in November 2012, presumably to have a stab at Oscar nominations. It only managed one technical nomination but Mirren and Hopkins got acting noms from several other awards panels. In the UK, however, it got a full ‘saturation’ release to all multiplexes – a big mistake in my view since I think this is a conventional genre film skewed towards older audiences who will probably be entertained much as they have been by other titles with similar ingredients. I was more entertained by this than by The King’s Speech or The Exotic Marigold Hotel. Hitchcock has got little to offer to audiences under 35 and many of the references in the parts dealing with Paramount in 1960 will mean nothing. Does anybody under 50 remember much about Jerry Lewis now?
The major problem that the producers had, according to the Hollywood Reporter article, is that they couldn’t use any material from Psycho itself because Universal, who own the rights (Psycho went to Universal when Hitchcock joined Lew Wasserman in buying a stake in the studio following MCA’s purchase) refused to have any dealings with the Hitchcock production. This was because Patricia Hitchcock, who still controls the Hitchcock estate, didn’t want to support a film about her parents. Universal still have an interest in some of Hitchcock’s best-known films and didn’t want to offend his daughter. All Hitchcock’s TV shows had been made for Revue Studios, owned by MCA and subsequently part of Universal. All of this means that Hitchcock is ‘light’ on many aspects of the filmmaking process in those Revue Studios where Psycho was shot. Consequently, the film will probably disappoint hardcore fans. But if you just want to watch something entertaining, I think the film is fine. I should mention the director Sacha Gervasi, a Brit previously known for directing the heavy metal doc Anvil: The Story of Anvil (Canada 2008). I thought he supported his actors well and the film looks good in what Jeff Cronenweth has referred to as a bright Technicolor look created by shooting on a ‘RED Epic’ digital camera.