Camille Paglia’s book on Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (published by the British Film Institute in 1998) focuses, not surprisingly, more on the women in the movie than on the birds.
This approach is I think quite justified. It’s easy to get carried away by the technical achievements of the film (which were mightily impressive in 1963) but given Hitchcock’s obsession with women and his famously ambivalent attitudes towards them it makes sense to concentrate on the fascinating dynamics between the various female characters.
There’s certainly a power struggle going on between Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) and Mitch’s rather possessive mother Lydia (Jessica Tandy), and of course there’s the rivalry between Melanie and Annie (Suzanne Pleshette) for Mitch’s affections.
Paglia also notes the gradual disintegration of Melanie. She starts out as confident and assertive, perhaps even aggressive. Her pursuit of Mitch is certainly aggressive. She has the self-confidence that money brings, but as is often the case with inherited rather than earned wealth it’s a rather superficial self-confidence. By the end of the movie she’s down, if not quite out. And Lydia has reasserted her power.
Paglia sees a parallel between the remorseless and mysterious power of nature and female power. Paglia has never subscribed to a view of women as powerless and this sort of parallel not surprisingly appeals to her.
She also makes a strong case that Tippi Hedren’s performance has been under-appreciated and I think she’s right. Considering her inexperience her roles in the two movies she made with Hitchcock, The Birds and Marnie, were both very demanding and in both cases she acquitted herself well.
I’ve always considered The Birds to be one of Hitchcock’s masterpieces and Paglia’s book makes me want to watch this movie yet again, even though I’ve seen it at least a dozen times. The book is typical Paglia - provocative and amusing and idiosyncratic. I highly recommend it.