Still Alive!
Cover Image for Tippi Hedren

Tippi Hedren

Kate Knibbs

Tippi Hedren shouldn’t be alive. Not because she’s old—although she is objectively very old—but because she’s had the sort of rollicking, risk-taking life one might reasonably associate with a shorter amount of time spent on Earth. The 93-year-old actress’s continued existence is as improbable as a chain-smoking tightrope walker becoming a centenarian. You know when the local news interviews one of those tiny wizened ladies who manages to hit a hundred, and they attribute their longevity to something charming but insane, like eating five hard-boiled eggs every full moon, or drinking a whisky sour at exactly two o’clock? Tippi Hedren’s whole life is like one of those anecdotes. She’s been so weird for so long, she could be immortal.

Level One Hedren fans see her as one of Hitchcock’s famous blondes. Not technically wrong. When she appears on red carpets with her daughter, Melanie Griffth, or her granddaughter, Dakota Johnson, Hedren still embodies the platonic ideal of a glossy Hollywood matriarch: still chic, still leggy, still knife-sharp. And her looks are part of her lore: Hitchcock cast Tippi as the star of The Birds after seeing her in a commercial. Tippi was new, but not an ingenue; a divorced single mother in her thirties, she’d already spent more than a decade modeling professionally. For Hitchcock, her glib, Nordic face more than compensated for a threadbare acting resume. His great stroke of luck was that she could act after all. In The Birds, she plays a Paris Hilton-y socialite who prances around a fishing village in a fur coat trying to impress her crush by pranking him. Unfortunately, her modern, jaunty attitude appears to awaken evil forces, which manifest as aggressive fowl attacking the town. Fortunately, she survives. (The Birds, at its core, is a film about carrying on despite your haters.)

She played the lead in Hitchcock’s next film, Marnie, too, cementing her role as a serious actress in the seriously demanding title role. (Marnie is an enigmatic kleptomaniac coerced into an abusive marriage.) While not as violent as, say, Psycho, the hypnotically nasty sexual thriller is Hitchcock’s most thoroughly black-hearted work. It rules. Marnie should’ve been a launchpad to superstardom. But Level Two Hedren fans know the sad story about why there’s no third Hitchcock film on her IMDB page. The director harassed Tippi, then sabotaged her career when she rebuffed his persistent sexual advances. He refused to release her from a multiyear contract, deliberately extinguishing her career hot streak. Level Twos know Hedren hustled hard for roles after this freeze-out, sometimes appearing in schlock but always doing her best to elevate it. Level Twos know she deserves more than muse status. (She also deserves a better biopic than the forgettable 2012 HBO Original The Girl starring Sienna Miller.)

Level Threes—now we’re getting to the fun stuff—know about the big cats. In 1969, Hedren traveled to Zimbabwe with her second husband, an erratic talent manager named Noel Marshall. They visited game preserves, marveling at the wildlife. Marshall, a maniac, was inspired to make a movie starring big cats, shot at home in California. Nevermind that he’d never directed a movie. Nevermind that big cats don’t know how to act. Nevermind that big cats do know how to kill humans.

Finding a pride of camera-ready lions in North America proved tricky, so Noel and Tippi decided they would simply create their own. According to her 2016 memoir, Tippi, they rounded up “71 lions, 26 tigers, 10 cougars, nine black panthers, four leopards, two jaguars, one tigon, two elephants, six black swans, four Canadian geese, seven flamingos, four cranes, two peacocks, and a marabou stork” to perform in their film. During pre-production, a Life photographer captured images of a 400-pound lion named Neil lounging around their home. One photo shows Hedren swimming in her pool, spitting water into Neil’s open mouth as he sits at its edge. In another photo, Neil takes then-teenaged Melanie Griffith’s leg in his mouth as she leaps into the water. His huge paw curls around her ankle, his round orange eyes stare stonily forward; it’s hard to tell whether he’s playing, or about to maul her.

He was playing, thank God. But another lion eventually attacked Griffith on set. She needed facial reconstruction surgery. Crew members suffered severe injuries, too. Some quit. Others didn’t. Cinematographer Jan de Bont, for example, was scalped … and came back to work once his 220 stitches healed. (His appetite for disaster never went away. He directed Speed and Twister in the 1990s.) Tippi got her leg fractured by an elephant, then developed gangrene. They shot the movie in frantic spurts, whenever they could find financing. A flood destroyed most of the set and killed some of the animals.

After eleven years in production, Roar was finally released. Would all the blood, sweat, and more blood be worth it? Well—no. It flopped, big time. In addition to tearing apart a horrifying amount of human flesh and at least one bank account, Roar also tore apart the Hedren-Marshall marriage. They divorced swiftly after their publicity tour. Tippi kept their property, including the menagerie living on it. She turned the home into a wildlife rescue, and she has spent the ensuing decades lobbying for animal protection laws.

Roar seems like it should be the wildest thing about Tippi’s life, but I’d put it in second place, since she also very randomly played a key but oblique role in transforming a major part of the beauty industry. In 1975, Tippi visited a Vietnamese refugee camp, and volunteered to help some of the women there find work. She brought her personal manicurist—whose name, it must be noted, was Dusty Coots—to the camp to explain how to do nails, and connected twenty of the women with a local beauty school. These new Americans ended up jumpstarting the modern nail salon industry as we know it, lowering the cost of mani-pedi treatments so they became far more accessible. If you ever see a framed portrait of Tippi in a nail salon, that’s why.

The best thing about Tippi, though, has nothing to do with her varied charitable work. It’s her refusal to do the expected. You’d think the person who did the most to glamorize owning big cats in America would feel remorse about it, but she doesn’t appear to regret anything. She’ll admit she was reckless, but she betrays no interest in apologizing. In her memoir, she claims to have been born with incredible willpower, so that when she decides to make radical changes, she’s able to sternly tell herself she must change her behavior. She says this steely will is how she quit both smoking and her third husband cold turkey. One might also think this talent would’ve led her to quit the making of Roar before spending over a decade of her life on it. But part of Tippi’s off-kilter charisma is how she’s always followed her own timeline, from starting in Hollywood late to stumbling onto the forefront of the nail industry. She’s got no conventional sense of when to quit. May she live forever.

Kate Knibbs is a writer on the southwest side of Chicago. Her work is cited on Jeremy Renner's Wikipedia page.