Tippi Hedren, the lion queen

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Tippi Hedren and friend in a publicity shot for The Birds (1963)
  • Tippi Hedren and friend in a publicity shot for The Birds (1963)
This past Tuesday the Music Box hosted the third annual Chicago installment of "The Road to Hollywood," Turner Classic Movies' touring film festival. Every year the cable channel—which probably accounts for more of my electric bill than the air conditioning—presents screenings in cities across the U.S., leading up to its big four-day blowout in Los Angeles. The Chicago installment was a sold-out screening of Alfred Hitchcock's avian horror flick The Birds (1963), introduced in person by TCM host Ben Mankiewicz and the film's star, Tippi Hedren.

At 82, Hedren looks better than I did at 28, and she climbed onstage wearing a black vinyl suit that seemed like something her daughter, Melanie Griffith, might have worn in Something Wild. Speaking with Mankiewicz for about 50 minutes, she recalled how her career in TV commercials brought her to the attention of Hitchcock, who signed her to an exclusive contract in hopes of turning her into another of his cool blonds like Grace Kelly (Rear Window) or Eva Marie Saint (North by Northwest). But as Hedren described her ordeal in shooting the film, the logic behind her big break became evident: no established star would ever have tolerated what she did to finish the movie.

In one of the most frightening scenes, her character ventures into a second-floor room to discover that the roof has opened up and the crazed birds that have been attacking people throughout the story are massing inside. Hitchcock had assured Hedren that they would film the scene with the mechanical birds used in other sequences, but since then he'd decided that this wouldn't be convincing and they would have to use live birds. "They had built a chain-link fence around—a cage, actually, with a top on it—around the set, and inside that cage there were huge cartons, great big cartons of ravens, seagulls, pigeons thrown in, and bird trainers with leather gauntlets up to their shoulders, which they alternately threw at me for five days."

By the last day, they'd reached the shot in which Hedren's character collapses on the floor and the birds continue to strike. Her costume was full of holes by this time, and nylon cords were threaded through the holes and tied around the birds' legs so they would keep ricocheting back toward her. "Loosely, because you don’t want to hurt the birds," Hedren noted drily. "By three or five or so in the afternoon, the one that was sitting on my shoulder jumped, and of course with the elastic he was able to move around a little bit. And the claw got so close to my eye that I thought, ‘You know what? I’m done.’ So I got all the birds off of me, and just sat in the middle of the set and, just crying from exhaustion." According to Donald Spoto's biography The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock, Hedren was so distraught the following Monday that she had to be sedated and sent home, and production shut down briefly. "It was just . . . it was horrifying, what I'd been through," said Hedren. "And what amazes me now is that I did that.”

Earlier in the day I got a chance to speak to Hedren in person, and though a technical glitch resulted in my losing the audio recording of our interview, we had a fascinating chat about the cause that's defined her personal life for the past 40 years: her Shambala Preserve in Acton, California, which provides a sanctuary for more than 50 big cats that have been cast off by zoos, circuses, or private owners. My curiosity about this endeavor was prompted by the 2011 documentary The Elephant in the Living Room, an expose about the private ownership of deadly exotic animals in the U.S. As it turns out, Hedren is friendly with Tim Harrison, the Ohio public safety officer featured in the movie, who takes it upon himself to find a home for five lions—a male, a female, and their three cubs—that live cooped up inside an old trailer for the pleasure of their owner, a disabled truck driver.

As the movie reveals, some states make it harder to get a dog license than to acquire your own pet tiger. But as Hedren explained, the wealthy owners of big cats have a lot of political muscle, and more recently she's begun to focus her activism on the breeders who sell big cats as pets (or, in some cases, exotic meat). Last month she scored a big victory when the House of Representatives passed the "Big Cats and Public Safety Protection Act," though the deciding factor was probably the nightmarish incident in Zanesville, Ohio, last October when the owner of a sanctuary turned loose 56 wild animals and then killed himself. Forty-eight of the animals, including 18 tigers, were shot down by police before the crisis could be contained.

I asked Hedren if she appreciated the irony of having worked so hard to protect animals when, in the public imagination, she's best remembered for having been attacked by them. She laughed and pointed out that flocks of hopeful ravens are commonplace on the Shambala Reserve because the cats consume about 500 pounds of raw meat every day. The ravens have learned which cats can be trifled with and which can't; I'm guessing they've learned not to mess with her either.


For God's sake, Tippi, don't open that door.


Hedren on the Shambala Preserve and her legislative efforts to protect big cats:

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