NEW YORK — Even 32 years after his death, the name Alfred Hitchcock casts a long shadow in the world of film. And well hidden in that shadow was a tiny, fiercely intelligent woman named Alma Reville, who by all accounts was that time-honored great woman behind the great man.
So, it's the fervent hope of Oscar-winning star Helen Mirren (“The Queen”) that with the release of “Hitchcock,” director Sasha Gervasi's droll, slice-of-life biopic, Reville, the uncelebrated wife, confidante and silent collaborator of the celebrated “Master of Suspense,” will finally get to come out from the shadows.
Reville was an up-and-coming young film editor in 1926 London when she met and married the fledgling director Hitchcock. Over the next 54 years (he died in 1980, she two years later), she played a critical role in his career as his largely uncredited script editor, creative partner, nursemaid and power behind the throne on each of his films. It was famously said that the highest compliment Hitch could render of a potential film project was, “Alma liked it.”
“Hitchcock” focuses on the period of Hitch and Alma's life when the renowned director was casting around in 1959 looking for a new challenge after the success of “North By Northwest” and decided against stern studio resistance to gamble on a self-financed production of the macabre horror story “Psycho.” Despite her misgivings, Alma proved to be a key player in groundbreaking techniques that made the picture one of Hitchcock's greatest triumphs.
The statuesque Mirren portrays this unsung heroine of Hitchcock's life and career with a steely blend of toughness and compassion, but she said during press interviews hosted by Fox Searchlight at Le Parker Meridien Hotel that getting a handle on the role proved to be a challenge. Since there is no surviving film footage of Reville, Mirren said she had little to go on in researching the physical presence of her character.
“My great sadness is that she was tiny,” Mirren said. “Alma Reville was under five foot, and this tiny, birdlike woman with this huge, monumental man, I just loved that image. She was the only one who could control him — this fierce, energetic, amazing little woman. And I couldn't do that because I'm not little. I couldn't even attempt to go there, so I had to try and get it in another way.
“But my way in was the book her daughter wrote,” Mirren said. “Patricia Hitchcock wanted to call her book ‘Alma Reville,' but, of course, the publishers wound up calling it ‘Alma Hitchcock: The Woman Behind the Man.' That was my main resource, and I tried to get to Alma through what I learned in that book — her love of Hitch and her love of film.”
The British actress said she also was touched by Reville's determined willingness to remain in the considerable shadow of her imperious husband. Among Reville's uncredited contributions to “Psycho” were helping persuade the reluctant Hitchcock to use Bernard Herrmann's slashing string score during the infamous shower scene and catching a crucial error in the final shot of that scene in which Janet Leigh's presumed corpse was seen to blink slightly.
“Film scholars are well aware of the contributions Alma made to the creation of some of Hitch's masterworks,” Mirren said. “But I wanted to present on screen someone that the general public would believe had the ability to truly work side-by-side with this incredible filmmaker.”
Additionally, as the wife of a famed director herself (she's been married to Taylor Hackford — of “An Officer and a Gentleman” fame — since 1997), Mirren said she knows firsthand some of the trials of ego that Reville endured.
“I knew there were all these people in Hollywood trying to get to the great and glorious Alfred Hitchcock,” she said. “And I knew what that feels like because that happened to me with my husband when I first came here. I had a freedom with Alma to not attempt any kind of interpretation and to just let her be who she is in the story.”
While Alma Reville again plays a supporting role in this breezy biopic, Mirren said she's pleased with the depiction of the couple's relationship.
“This is a love story,” she said. “I think Alma and Hitch were, in their own funny, unglamorous way, a great kind of Romeo and Juliet partnership. They were amazing partners in life, and I think they could teach us all something about how to make a successful marriage.”
On film, the other half of that marriage partnership is played in a juicy performance by Sir Anthony Hopkins, virtually buried beneath layers of latex padding and makeup. Mirren (who noted this is the first time they've acted together) marveled at the daily transformation “from Tony to Hitch.”
“In a weird way, Tony, in my mind, became Hitch,” Mirren said. “I hated to see him take his face off. At the end of the day he would just rip it off, because he was so sick of it. But I hated that because I'd come to believe him as Hitchcock. So he'd take off the mask, and it was like, ‘Who is that? Why, that's the famous actor Tony Hopkins.'”