The Birds: The Alfred Hitchcock scene that scarred Tippi Hedren for life

Hitchcock once said 'actors are cattle' but this one scene in 1963's The Birds truly crossed the line

British actress Veronica Cartwright, Australian actor Rod Taylor, American actress Tippi Hedren and British Jessica Tandy with director and producer Alfred Hitchcock on the set of Hitchcock's movie The Birds. (Photo by Universal Pictures/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)
Veronica Cartwright, Rod Taylor, Tippi Hedren and Jessica Tandy with Alfred Hitchcock on the set of The Birds. (Universal Pictures/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images) (Sunset Boulevard via Getty Images)

Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds (released 60 years ago this week) was nominated for Best Special Effects at the 36th Academy Awards thanks to its groundbreaking approach to bringing the thriller's vivid bird attacks to life.

However, some were more real than the cast would have liked.

There’s a scene in Julian Jarrold’s 2012 movie The Girl where Alfred Hitchcock (played by Toby Jones) watches on as his leading lady, Tippi Hedren (Sienna Miller), is filmed being savagely attacked by a ravenous flock of birds until she lies sobbing on the studio floor.

In a film chock-full with WTF moments, it’s a scene that seems too fanciful to have really happened. In these days of rigorous health and safety checks and movie stars being handled like they’re porcelain dolls, it seems almost impossible that a director would so carelessly — perhaps even cruelly — risk the life of his lead actor.

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But then this was a director who once said, “Actors are cattle. They should be treated as such.” Yet few of us would even treat an animal like Alfred Hitchcock treated Tippi Hedren on the set of The Birds.

Tippi Hedren and Alfred Hitchcock miming a bird in the Cannes film festival, on the occasion of the presentation of the movie
Tippi Hedren and Alfred Hitchcock miming a bird. (Jean Claude Pierdet\INA via Getty Images) (INA via Getty Images)

There was always a thick vein of cruelty that ran through Hitchcock’s films, and it’s often women who are at the receiving end. But putting a character through a harrowing ordeal is different to subjecting a flesh and blood person to something terrible.

Sixty years on from that five-day nightmare on The Birds, the now 93-year-old Tippi Hedren is still scarred from her treatment at the hands of the world’s then most famous and powerful director.

“Studios were the power,” the actress said in 2012. “And I was at the end of that, and there was absolutely nothing I could do legally whatsoever. There were no laws about this kind of a situation. If this had happened today, I would be a very rich woman.”

The scene which The Girl dramatised so shockingly came towards the end of filming on The Birds. In it, Hedren’s character, Melanie Daniels, hears a fluttering sound in an attic bedroom and goes to investigate, only to find herself trapped there, as the birds begin to violently attack her.

Hedren had no reason to fear the scene. Her character had already been at the receiving end of many an avian attack, but with Hitchcock, up until that point, using mechanical birds, everything felt quite safe. For reasons the director never shared, however, he decided that for this pivotal moment in the movie, he was going to use real birds.

Hitch didn’t deliver the news himself to his leading lady, instead sending his assistant director James H Brown to Hedren’s dressing room. From his sheepish manner, the actress knew immediately something was up.

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“The mechanical birds aren’t working,” Brown told her, “so we’re going to have to use live ones.”

He then, in her words, “bolted out the door”.

A furious Hedren walked onto the set, refusing to look Hitchcock in the face. “As I crossed the set to my mark inside the door and braced myself for whatever was in store for me,” she writes in her book Tippi: A Memoir.

Kino. Die Voegel, Birds, The, Die Voegel, Birds, The, Tippi Hedren Fast wird Melanie (Tippi Hedren) ein Opfer der Moeven, als sie im Haus von ihnen attackiert wird., 1963. (Photo by FilmPublicityArchive/United Archives via Getty Images)
Tippi Hedren in a colourised still from The Birds. (Getty Images) (United Archives via Getty Images)

As Hitch yelled ‘Action!’ a flock of pigeons, starlings, doves and ravens were hurled at his leading lady, an experience Hedren remembers as “brutal and ugly and relentless”. Cary Grant, who was visiting the set that day, told her, “You’re the bravest woman I’ve ever seen.”

The filming for that single scene lasted five tortuous days. In her book, Hedren recalls, “I was never frightened, I was just overwhelmed and in some form of shock, and I just kept saying to myself over and over again, ‘I won’t let him break me. I won’t let him break me.’”

By the final day of shooting Hedren was, by her own admission, “on the verge of collapse”. Earlier, Hitchcock had the actress’ dresser wrap bands of fabric around her dress, so that some of the birds could be attached to the elastic.

“By then I was barely coherent, not sure how much more of this I could possibly take,” she recalls.

Australian actor Rod Taylor, American actress Tippi Hedren and British Jessica Tandy on the set of The Birds, directed and produced by Alfred Hitchcok. (Photo by Universal Pictures/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)
Rod Taylor, Tippi Hedren and Jessica Tandy on the set of The Birds. (Getty Images) (Sunset Boulevard via Getty Images)

After a bird that was tied to Hedren’s shoulder pecked her too close to her eye she finally snapped, telling her director, “I’m done!” before bursting into tears.

“Minutes passed before I looked up to discover that everyone had just left me there in the middle of that vast, silent soundstage, completely spent, empty and alone,” she writes.

In the aftermath, Hedren was signed off work for five days, so traumatised was she.

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Despite the misery of that scene, The Birds made the 23-year-old former model a star, just like Hitchcock had promised.

And when the movie came out, the director went out of his way to lavish praise on his new-found leading lady, even comparing her favourably to his one-time favourite, Grace Kelly.

Actress Tippi Hedren in a scene from the movie
Tippi Hedren in a promotional still for The Birds. (Donaldson Collection/Getty Images) (Donaldson Collection via Getty Images)

"Tippi has a faster tempo, city glibness, more humour,” he said. “She displayed jaunty assuredness, pertness, an attractive throw of the head. And she memorised and read lines extraordinarily well and is sharper in expression."

“It was a thrilling, amazing time,” Hedren states in her book.

“I never forgot for one moment that it was all happening because of Alfred Hitchcock, and I never forgot for one moment that I’d earned it.”

The Birds is available to rent or buy on VOD.