Scarlett Johannson is clearly glad to be filling Janet Leigh's shoes — and it's fun to watch her screaming in the shower, fake-driving a car nervously, and flirting openly with the portly director in her meeting to nab the part. But let's face it — she and Leigh look nothing alike; one all curves, the other all angles. The film barely has a moment for James D'Arcy, a much closer match for Anthony Perkins, but the making of Psycho is not the film's true subject matter despite the name of the book it's based on.
Helen Mirren plays Alma Reville Hitchcock, the auteur's wife and collaborator, with her usual commanding verve and killer line readings. Alma worked continuity on Hitchcock's very first credited feature The Pleasure Garden (1925) and her largely unsung contributions to the editing, continuity and scripts of ALL of his features are, some historians would argue, invaluable. (It would be inaccurate to say that Mirren steals the film as Alma; the film all but flings itself at her feet voluntarily, to argue this very point.)
The Hitchcocks were married at 27 and remained so until his death at the age of 80. Hitchcock reveals its hand quickly that its true subject is their enduring marriage, which survived endless obsessions with his leading ladies (talked up frequently but not-so well dramatized here) box office hits and the usual ups and downs of Hollywood careers, and Alma as Hitchcock's secret weapon… the wind beneath his wings. Though I would have preferred a picture that was more focused on Psycho than their marriage, it isn't a bad move. Mirren, unencumbered by prosthetics or the need to imitate a familiar persona outshines Hopkins, who has a somewhat slippery grasp on Hitchcock's familiar tics and vocals.
Despite the film's myriad problems, I tend to love the Hollywood-centric subgenre of biopics for their nostalgic recreations of Old Hollywood and their associative joy. As a lifelong Hitchcock fanatic (I freely admit that it was the evil homos of Rope that really hooked me) I had a ton of fun thinking about Vertigo, North by Northwest and The Birds (all directly referenced) as well as Psycho (my personal favorite of his filmography) while watching it. But if you're looking for a deep portrait of one of the cinema's true giants or a you-were-there visit to the set of one of the most influential films ever made, you'll be disappointed.
Hitchcock plays fast and loose with some facts but it's nothing to get worked up about as some cinephiles undoubtedly will. Alfred Hitchcock has been dead for 32 years but Hollywood is always trying to exhume his corpse. There's been an unusual degree of grave robbing lately. A few years ago the award winning out writer Manuel Muñoz used Psycho as the voyeuristic backdrop and thematic skeleton for an excellent novel called "What You See in the Dark" about a murder in a small town that Hitchcock and Janet Leigh passed through during production (I highly recommend it). This year HBO premiered a film about the making of The Birds (1962) called The Girl. Psycho has survived endless ripoffs, parodies, sequels and even that "recreation" Gus Van Sant's Psycho (1998). In 2013 it will survive "The Bates Motel" a serialized television drama about the Bates family before mama was a corpse. Psycho will even survive playing second fiddle to Vertigo now that the latter has been named the greatest film ever made. It will also survive Hitchcock, this lightweight dramedy about the Hitchcock marriage.
OSCAR BUZZ OUTRO
Alfred Hitchcock famously never won the Best Director Oscar (Hitchcock even takes snarky jabs at his Oscar losses) so it would be odd to see Anthony Hopkins nominated for playing him. Though I wasn't particularly taken with Hopkins' performance, I'm not blind to the facts: prosthetics and biopic mimicry go a long long looooooong way with Oscar's acting branch. In point of fact, they often go all the way with them. But this year's BEST ACTOR RACE is enormously competitive.
Daniel Day-Lewis is virtually the only lock at this writing for Lincoln. It's tough to think of any of the other main contenders as certain nominees when only four spots remain and there are six men with significant prospects still: John Hawkes as a charismatic paraplegic in The Sessions (Oscar loves disabilities); Joaquin Phoenix who is phenomenal as the alcoholic id of The Master (Oscar loves a drunk); Denzel Washington has another hit with Flight (Oscar loves a drunk and Oscar loves Denzel); Bradley Cooper as a man struggling with mental illness in the crowd pleasing Silver Linings Playbook (Oscar loves mental illness); Anthony Hopkins as Hitchcock (Oscar loves biopic mimicry); and then there's Hugh Jackman who is, I am wildly happy to report, an absolute sensation in Les Misérables (Oscar loves men in musicals — oh sh*t, they don't!!!)
…if Hugh Jackman isn't nominated I'll be Misérable myself and forced to build my own revolutionary barricade outside the Kodak Theater in February ♪ Will you join in my crusade? ♫ Who will be strong and stand with me?