Reccommended to me as the best current Hitchcock biography around. Not having read the others - though of course I knew about Donald Spoto's The Dark Side of Genius (i.e. Spoto is to Hitchcock fans what Albert Goldmann is to Lennon fans) via pop culture osmosis, Spoto having been the one to launch the Director-as-Actress-Abusing-Monster interpretation -, I couldn't say whether or not it is the best, but it's certainly solid, if noticable biased on the pro-Hitchcock side. Some of McGilligan's points against Spoto are well earned, for example, this one about young Hitchcock's school days:
One notorious transgression was the dangerous practical joke presented by Donald Spoto as a tone-setting anecdote of his biography The Dark Side of Genius. As Spoto told the anecdote, Hitchock and an accomplice grabbed a younger student named Robert Goold and hauled him off to the boiler room, immobilizing him for a "carefully planned psychological torture", ending when the two depantsed Goold and pinned a string of lit firecrackers to his underwear. Goold told this story to Spoto and others over the years. Unfortunately, his recollection couldn't possibly be true; admission records show Goold entered St. Ignatius a full term after Hitchcock departed. Confronted with the contradiction in 1998, Goold realized that he was "wrong in ascribing the incident to him (Hitchcock)".
Game, set and match for McGilligan. At other times, though, his defense of Hitchcock isn't nearly as well founded, as when the biography gets to the wretched chapter(s) of Hitchcock's relationship with Tippi Hedren. "What if he was only joking" doesn't quite cut it. (Cunningly, McGilligan quotes previous Hitchcock leading lady Joan Fontaine on that one: "'I was with Tippi Hedren once on a CBS show', recalled actress Joan Fontaine, who could boast of surviving a similarly complicated relationship with Hitchcock, 'when she said he had propositioned her. Well, what he did was to see her Achilles' heel, and, knowing that pretty young actresses wanted to feel that he was a dirty old man, he would play it up. 'Yes, I must get into your bloomers, young lady', he would puff and growl. I can just see him leering at them in jest, but they never realized he was teasing them.' With all due respect to Ms. Fontaine, she wasn't present during the shooting of Marnie, and whether or not Hitchcock was teasing when she knew him, implying that Hedren (or anyone else) should have just handled it with a wink and an "oh that Hitch!" attitude is just wrong.)
What makes McGilligan's biography a great source, though, is that defensiveness of Hitchcock aside, he's thorough, especially with the collaborative process that is moviemaking, and very time, place and period evocative. Because this biography doesn't rush to to get to the point where our hero makes it to Hollywood but goes into great detail about his English youth and silent movie days, I learned a great deal that was new to me. As for example: the first film Hitchcock directed - after working his way upwards from advertising to script lettering to editing and set decorating to assistant director - on his own, The Pleasure Garden, was actually made mostly in Germany, in Munich, 1925, for the Emelka (a production company which tried to be a South German alternative to the Berlin based UFA), with young (as in: early 20s) Hitch, his future wife and life long collaborator Alma Reville (who came along as editor and assistant director, exactly the same age as himself - she was born one day after him, but had started working for the movies at age 15, five years before Hitchcock did) and a handfull others the only Brits involved. McGilligan is great in pointing out how international the silient movie era truly was (and could be because the actors weren't limited to the languages they could speak). So the Hitchcock/Reville team could work with a mostly German crew, Alma could take the actresses to Paris to buy their frocks, and once photography at the Geiselgasteig in Munich was done, everyone was off by train to Genoa, Italy for the outdoor shootings. Bear in mind here this was a first time director and his motley crew with not a big budget, not the later Hitchcock who could command millions from the studio. It must have been an incredibly exciting time for everyone involved, and it was followed up with another German film, The Mountain Eagle/Der Bergadler, where they got snowed in while working on the script in Obergurgl, Tyrolia. (Nice skiing area, btw, I've been there.)
McGilligan is very good throughout the biography in pointing out the importance of Alma's input, whether or not she was officially co-scriptwriting. (She stopped being credited after Capricorn, the failure of which gave her a crisis of confidence, but still mapped out, storyboarded and co-edited the later Hitchcock movies. McGilligan gives us some great examples of how that shared brainstorming of the Hitchcocks worked, because there were peope present to witness it for To Catch a Thief and the original plan for Frenzy, which wasn't the scenario Hitchcock filmed years later.) Which is why the ending for both of them is so heartbreaking to read - Alma suffered a series of strokes culminating in one when they were both 78 which crippled her, took away both her physical ability to move (and unlike her husband, she'd always kept fit) and some of her mind. He'd lost touch with the audience by then and only kidded himself, plotting movies that would never get made anymore, and Freeman with whom he plotted such a never-made-movie once observed them together when he and Hitchcock moved their plotting sessions from the studio to the director's home at Bellagio Road: 'He was showing off for her,' David Freeman recalled. 'Strutting his stuff. He was saying, 'Look, I can still do it. There's a future. There's going to be another movie. It's worth it to go on.'
But there never was, he drank more and more while sliding into senility, she was able to understand the world around her less and less, and then he died, with her surviving him for two more years and not knowing even that he was gone (according to their daughter, Alma would tell visitors "Hitch is at the studio. Don't worry, he'll be home soon".) I must admit that even bearing in mind how flawed Hitchcock was as a person, this made me maudlin and misty-eyed when I had finished the book.
With the decades that Hitchcock's career lasted, there is of course a very huge supporting cast in the book. McGilligan, on a mission to be anti-Spoto, points out that for every Vera Miles and Tippi Hedren, who got bullied and had to deal with a creepily possessive and vengeful director, there were Ingrid Bergmann (who adored him, stayed friends through the decades and was one of the last people to see him before he died), Grace Kelly (mutual adoration society) and Janet Leigh (found his pranks funny and remained fond of him post movie as well). (Also Anny Ondra, who was one of the first Hitchcock blondes and another case of "wow, it was a small movie world" for me because I know her name in completely a different context - she was an Austrian-Czech actress who later married Max Schmeling (he of the Louis/Schmeling boxing match); they were one of the few celebrity couples who never divorced and are in fact buried next to each other. Hitchcock was so fond of her that when the studio decided their next movie would be a sound one, which would have ordinarily cancelled her out because of her accent when speaking English, he insisted on Joan Barry dubbing her instead so he could keep Ondra as the star). Which is worth bearing in mind, but what McGilligan seems to ignore is that kindness to one person doesn't excuse or cancel out cruelty to another. Hitchcock's relationships with his male actors is also interesting to read about. He got along best with those playing villains (Peter Lorre, Claude Rains, and, against type, Joseph Cotten in Shadow of a Doubt) and classified a great deal of those playing heroes in his movies as "too weak" , with the notable exceptions of Cary Grant and James Stewart (not that he was best buddies with either, but he respected them); McGilligan points out, accurately, that Hitchcock got darker performances out of both Grant and Stewart than their usual screen persona allowed in other films. The famous "actors are cattle" quotation is duly examined (it's one of those quotes that everyone is sure the celebrity in question has said but nobody can trace down to a first use and source) and given context; what I hadn't known is that it was already (in)famous in Hitchcock's lfe time so he himself was asked whether or not he had said it, and believed it. With the result of Hitchcock writing an article - in 1940! - titled "Actors aren't really cattle": Silliest of all Hollywood arguments is between the school that claims to believe the actor is completely a puppet, putting into a role only the director's genius (I am, God forgive me, charged with belonging to that school) and the equally asinine school of 'natural acting' in which the player is supposed to wander through the scenes at will, a self-propelling, floating, free-wheeling, embodied inspiration.
(Three guesses as to what Hitchcock's reaction was once method acting got popular.)
Voluminous as it is, the book still leaves open questions, but I think in a fair way, i.e. the author acknowledges they are there but doesn't pretend to have the answers. Alma's whole pov on her marriage, for starters. She only gave a very few interviews in her life, and those almost exclusively dealing with her husband's films. Now, Hitchcock through the decades kept telling all and sunder that not only was their pre-marital relationship chaste (during their first German film, he didn't even know what menustration was until an actress told him she couldn't do a scene in the water because it was her time of the month - apparantly they didn't teach female biology at St. Ignatius) but that once their daughter Pat was born so was their post marital relationship due to him being impotent. ("Hitch without the cock" was a favourite pun.) (Most people McGilligan quotes seem to agree he got his jollies the voyeuristic and gossiping way instead, with the occasional tongue kiss launched at an embarrassed actress thrown in.) But, as McGilligan writes, If Hitchcock was sexually impotent, what about Alma? He could make wisecracks about his impotence, his lack of sexual activity, but what how did Alma feel? He could flirt with or try to kiss an actress, but what about Alma? Wasn't she a perfectly normal woman with a sexual appetite that wasn't satisfied?. In lack of any statement from Alma, McGilligan can only offer her co-writer Whitfield Cook's account who says they had an almost-affair, with their one and only attempt at making love interrupted, true movie style fashion, by a phone call from her husband. As to what she thought about her husband's relationships with actresses, full stop: no quotes exist, and thus McGilligan leaves it at "we don't know".
Other observations: actresses aside, McGilligan's partisanship is also noticable in any Hitch versus writers dispute. Hitchcock filmed a great many books but usually considered them just a springboard on which he build his movie, and the biography gives you the impression that the first thing he and Alma did was to take a few ideas from the book in question and then rewrite the story an dcharacterisations entirely. And McGilligan, being a fan of the end result, always considers whoever objected to this - be it David O. Selznick re: Rebecca where his memos frequently had the refrain of "go back to the book!" , John Steinbeck who wrote an unpublished novella that was to be the basis for Lifeboat (bye, bye, novella) or Raymond Chandler (who was supposed to adopt Patricia Highsmith's Strangers in a Train with Hitchcock; he and Hitchcock ended up developing such an hate/hate relationship that his treatments literally landed in the dustbin while Hitchcock went back to Alma, Joan Harrison and some more of his regular staff writers for the script) as in the wrong and not thinking cinematically enough. In this reader, this evoked a "Yes, but" reaction. I mean, I can see McGilligan's point - a book is not a movie, etc. But speaking as someone who often experienced a favourite book turned into a non favourite movie (not by Hitchcock, though), a little more empathy for the writerly side of things wouldn't have gone amiss!
Lastly, first a quote that amuses me and might you: Cary Grant didn't requite Hitchcock to pick out his wardrobe. Cary Grant gave grooming tips, and Hitchcock usually told him just to "dress like Cary Grant'.
And a favourite bit of trivia: Hitchcock loved the US, loved living there. But he also stood by his inner Englishman: Years later in Hollywood, when the slate board reading 24-1 went up, Hitchcock would murmur, "Hampstead Heath to Victoria", that being the route of the 24 bus in those days.
And with a whistle of "in spite of all temptations, to belong to other nations", I conclude this review.