BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. -- After a private screening of HBO's "The Girl" held for Tippi Hedren, her friends and family, including daughter Melanie Griffith, the reaction was silence.
Make that stunned silence, as the room took in the film's depiction of a scorned, vindictive Alfred Hitchcock physically and emotionally abusing Hedren during production of "The Birds."
"I've never been in a screening room where nobody moved, nobody said anything," Hedren recounted. "Until my daughter jumped up and said, `Well, now I have to go back into therapy.'"
Hedren, 82, as polished and lovely as she was taking her turn as a rarified "Hitchcock blonde" in "The Birds" (1963) and "Marnie" (1964), tells the story with a casual smile.
But her experience with Hitchcock, as detailed in "The Girl," debuting 9 p.m. Saturday, is as jarring to watch as one of the master's own dark suspense dramas. Sienna Miller ("Layer Cake," "Factory Girl") plays model-turned-actress Hedren, with Toby Jones ("The Hunger Games," "Infamous") as Hitchcock.
In one horrific sequence, the filmmaker withholds from Hedren that real birds, not mechanical ones, will be used in a scene in which she'll be attacked at close quarters. Then he subjects her to five days of shooting, take after take, leaving her injured and distraught.
A physician forced Hitchcock to suspend production for a week to allow Hedren to recover.
"Hitch said we had to keep filming," the actress recalled. "The doctor said, `What are you trying to do, kill her?'"
Hedren, who regrouped and worked with the British filmmaker again on "Marnie," said the HBO film shows only a slice of what was also a rewarding period and relationship.
"There wasn't time to show the wonderful people I met, the wonderful discussions Hitch and I had, the great gift he gave me being not only my director but my drama coach," she said.
But she lost her admiration for the man, if not the artist, when Hitchcock punished her for rebuffing his advances.
"I think we're dealing with such a devious mind, one of genius, of incredible creativity," she said, adding, "there is so much wrong with that mind. ... He was evil."
With the pair's irrevocable rift after "Marnie," Hitchcock refused to let her out of the seven-year contract she'd signed. That allowed him to quash her shot at other big films, including Francois Truffaut's "Fahrenheit 451" in 1966, Hedren said.
She insists, credibly, that she's never played the what-if game. While she couldn't capitalize on being a hot property post-Hitchcock, Hedren channeled her energies into family and her dedication to helping animals, including founding the Shambala wildlife preserve in Southern California.
"He ruined my career, but he didn't ruin my life," Hedren said, who has worked regularly in TV and appeared in some films.
Jones, who donned elaborate prosthetics and a fake belly to simulate Hitchcock's distinctive profile and girth, said the filmmaker can't be forgiven for behaving "appallingly" toward Hedren.
"But I also think he was very naive emotionally and I don't think it was sexual. There was something so beautiful and radiant about her that he worshiped her," the actor said.
Jones cautioned against making one chapter into a biography: "We're not saying this is Hitchcock. This is a section of Hitchcock's life based on verified, carefully research facts."
Director Julian Jarrold said Hitchcock biographer Donald Spoto, along with Hedren, were the main sources for screenwriter Gwyneth Hughes. Hitchcock died in 1980 at age 80.
Hedren, who offered high praise for Jones, Miller and "The Girl," said she never discussed Hitchcock's behavior with his other famous leading ladies, who included her friend, Kim Novak ("Vertigo"), Eva Marie Saint ("North by Northwest") and Grace Kelly ("Dial M for Murder," "Rear Window" and "To Catch a Thief").
She first brought herself to talk about it two decades afterward, Hedren said, and she's now counting on "The Girl" to carry her story further.
"I hope that young women who do see this film know that they do not have to acquiesce to anything that they do not feel is morally right or that they are dissatisfied with," she said. "I can look at myself in the mirror, and I can be proud. I feel strong. And I lived through it beautifully."
EDITOR'S NOTE – Lynn Elber is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. She can be reached at lelber(at)ap.org.
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