10 Fascinating Facts About The Birds

Universal Pictures
Universal Pictures

There’s an old saying in Hollywood: You’re only as good as your last movie. In 1960, Alfred Hitchcock unleashed Psycho, his most financially successful film and a trendsetting horror classic. Just when it seemed as though there was nothing left for him to prove, he climbed right back into the director’s chair. Hitchcock’s next picture was The Birds, a technical marvel against which all creature features—from Jaws to Cujo—are now measured.

1. IT WAS THE THIRD DAPHNE DU MAURIER STORY THAT HITCHCOCK ADAPTED.

Daphne du Maurier's work has been adapted dozens of times for film and television projects, and Alfred Hitchcock was a particular fan of the London-born author and playwright. Over the course of his career, he adapted three of du Maurier's stories, beginning with his 1939 film version of her thrilling novel Jamaica Inn. In 1940, he took Rebecca—du Maurier’s gothic masterwork which continues to sell 50,000 copies a year—and converted it into an Oscar-winning drama starring Laurence Olivier.

In 1952, du Maurier published The Apple Tree: A Short Novel and Some Stories. One of the book’s highlights is a chilling tale called “The Birds.” An environmentally-conscious fable, it’s about a population of birds who start attacking humans after a harsh winter depletes their natural food supply. Hitchcock liked the basic premise and wanted to put “The Birds” on film. However, his adaptation would not be a faithful retelling.

Once Hitchcock bought the rights to du Maurier’s avian yarn, he hired screenwriter Evan Hunter to pen a script. Hunter remembered that, during an early telephone conversation, the director told him “We’re getting rid of the du Maurier story entirely. We’re just keeping the title and the notion of birds attacking people.” The result was a screenplay Hunter described as “a screwball comedy that turns into terror.”

2. AN AVIAN HOSPITAL WAS BUILT ON THE SET.

A scene from The Birds (1963)
Universal Pictures

Through a meticulous positive reinforcement process, animal handler Ray Berwick trained hundreds of live birds for use in Hitchcock’s movie. Most of these were wild-caught crows, ravens, seagulls, and sparrows. Berwick oversaw an entire bird-wrangling team whose members spent a huge amount of time corralling their feathered co-workers between takes. To ensure that none of the animals was harmed, the American Society For the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) assumed an active role in the production. Under their watchful eye, the crew set up a makeshift avian hospital.

“We actually built an aviary onto the set for birds that had been hurt or injured,” Veronica Cartwright, who played Cathy in the film, said. Another measure taken in the name of animal welfare was the construction of a large net, which the special effects team draped over the living room set; this kept the birds from flying haphazardly through the rest of the studio.

The wrangling team had plenty of other tricks up their sleeves as well. Sometimes, to get their feathered friends to fly toward a camera, the crew would suspend a hunk of meat beneath the lens. In one interview, Hitchcock noted that a lot of prep work went into the shot in which a seagull latches onto a girl at a birthday party, harassing her as she tries to run off. “[We] built a little platform on her shoulder and a gull was put there,” Hitchcock explained. For safety reasons, its beak was bound shut with wire.

3. ONE RAVEN STRONGLY DISLIKED ROD TAYLOR.

Like everyone else in the film, Rod Taylor’s character—Mitch Brenner—had to withstand a barrage of avian attacks. One particular bird really had it in for Taylor. There was a captive raven named Archie who seemingly went out of his way to attack the actor, even when the cameras weren’t rolling.

“Every morning, if we were on the set together, he’d come over and … bite me," Taylor revealed in Universal’s DVD documentary All About the Birds. "I hated him and he hated me.” It got to the point where Taylor started making inquiries about Archie’s whereabouts as part of his daily, on-set ritual. “I’d walk in and say, ‘Is Archie working today?’ And they’d say, ‘Uh, I don’t think so Rod. I think we’re working with seagulls.’ And out of the rafters would come Archie. [He] hated me and would lie in wait for me.”

4. HITCHCOCK’S DOGS MADE A CAMEO.

He’s remembered as both the master of suspense and an early adopter of cinematic Easter eggs. Alfred Hitchcock loved to make brief, on-screen appearances in his own films. By 1963, audiences had come to expect these little cameos. The Birds throws one at us when Melanie (Tippi Hedren) ducks into a pet store near the beginning of the picture. As she enters the place, you can see Hitchcock leading a pair of small dogs out. These pooches were Stanley and Geoffrey, the director’s lovable Sealyham Terriers. (An admirer of this breed, he’d previously owned another male named Mr. Jenkins.)

5. ONE OF MICKEY MOUSE’S CO-CREATORS WORKED AS A SPECIAL EFFECTS SUPERVISOR.

Real, flesh-and-blood birds share the screen with a few mechanical ones in the film. Additionally, the movie relied heavily on matte work, a process whereby images from two separate reels of film are combined. This enabled footage of angry birds to be paired with separate shots depicting frightened actors. To help execute these effects, Hitchcock reached out to Ub Iwerks, an animator who’d been working for Walt Disney since 1924 and had helped create the Mickey Mouse character in 1927.

Renowned throughout Hollywood as a visual effects wizard, Iwerks was a self-taught expert on matte techniques. Disney agreed to hire him out to Universal so that he could put his knowledge to good use for Hitchcock’s The Birds. Iwerks was rewarded with an Oscar nod when The Birds was nominated for Best Special Effects in 1964. (It lost to the big-budget epic Cleopatra.)

6. A RESTAURATEUR IN NORTHERN CALIFORNIA LET THE CREW USE HIS BUILDING—ON TWO SMALL CONDITIONS.

While much of the movie was filmed on studio lots, Hitchcock also filmed a large percentage on location in scenic Bodega Bay, California. Located 65 miles north of San Francisco, the small village offered some big advantages. “In order to get the photography of the birds in the air, we needed an area with low land, not high mountains or a lot of trees,” Hitchcock told Cinefantastique. “In a pictorial sense, it was vital to have nothing on the ground but sand, so that we had the entire sky to play with.”

Bodega Bay and the neighboring communities of Bodega and Bodega Head had everything the director was looking for, so Hitchcock employed all three places as locations. Several of the diner scenes were filmed at a Bodega Bay eatery called the Tides Restaurant. Then-owner Mitch Zankich struck a bargain with the filmmakers. “[He] told the locations manager that he would let them film his place for free if they would call the community in the movie Bodega Bay and if the hero was called Mitch,” Hazel Mitchell, who’d worked at the Tides as a waitress in those days, claimed. Zankich’s wishes were granted, and to sweeten the deal, he was given an on-screen appearance with a line of dialogue. “In the scene on the dock, when Tippi Hedren is attacked by the bird when she is in the skiff, a man asks Rod Taylor, ‘What happened, Mitch?’ And that was Mitch Zankich,” Mitchell said.

7. AN ALTERNATE ENDING WOULD’VE INVOLVED THE GOLDEN GATE BRIDGE.

Genre films have been unkind to the California landmark: A giant octopus attacked the Golden Gate Bridge in It Came From Beneath The Sea (1955); Magneto ripped the bridge off its foundation in X-Men: The Last Stand (2006); and a simian revolt broke out on its pavement in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014). If Hitchcock had more money or time at his disposal, The Birds might have subjected the bridge to yet another indignity. Early in pre-production, Hitchcock entertained the idea of closing his film with a shot of several hundred birds perching on the Golden Gate. However, he quickly realized that this proposed visual would have been way too costly to shoot. Hunter’s script also called for a horde of birds to attack the roof of Mitch and Melanie’s car as they drive away from Bodega Bay at the end of the film. That concept was abandoned, too. 

8. THE ATTIC SCENE TOOK AN ENTIRE WEEK TO SHOOT, AND PROVED TO BE TOO MUCH FOR TIPPI HEDREN.

When Cary Grant visited the set, he called Hedren the bravest lady he’d ever met. To put it mildly, she had a rough moviemaking experience. During the telephone booth scene, a pane of so-called “safety-glass” that shattered in her face turned out to be real glass; its shards were then painstakingly extracted from her nose and left cheek. And then there was the attic attack. Hedren’s character in The Birds is Melanie Daniels, a confident blonde who courts Mitch Brenner. One of the movie’s most shocking moments comes when Melanie takes a peek inside the Brenner family’s attic and finds a small army of birds hiding out. The second they see her, they charge Melanie, who’s rendered unconscious by their violent onslaught.

It’s a brutal scene that’s hard to watch and was a nightmare to film. Since this was a complex and emotionally taxing scene, Hedren spent a full week working on it. Hitchcock spent much of it ordering his crewmen to hurl live gulls at her from behind the camera because he thought this would intensify Hedren’s performance. Also, at regular intervals, there’d be a pause in the shooting so the makeup team could apply some new faux injuries. But she also received some real ones; Hedren’s willpower finally collapsed when a bird ripped a hole into her lower eyelid. The injury provoked a full-blown nervous breakdown and, at her doctor’s insistence, production was forced to shut down for a week to allow her to recover.

In the years since the film's release, Hedren has also spoken openly about being subjected to yet another harrowing experience while The Birds was being filmed: According to the actress, she was sexually harassed by Hitchcock. "I think he was an extremely sad character," Hedren said in 2012. "We are dealing with a brain here that was an unusual genius, and evil, and deviant, almost to the point of dangerous, because of the effect that he could have on people that were totally unsuspecting." Hedren's allegations were later dramatized in The Girl, a controversial biopic that premiered in 2012.

9. MATTEL CELEBRATED THE FILM’S 45TH ANNIVERSARY WITH A BARBIE DOLL.

In 2008, the toy company unveiled a commemorative Barbie doll based on Melanie Daniels. The figurine was a dead ringer for Hedren, right down to the green Edith Head suit. It also came with some unusual accessories: Three detachable crows, each one posed in an “attack position” in the original packaging.

10. A MADE-FOR-TV SEQUEL CAME OUT IN 1994.

The Birds II: Land's End premiered on Showtime on March 14, 1994, more than 30 years after the original film debuted in theaters. Hedren makes an appearance in this low-budget sequel, but instead of reprising the role of Melanie, she’s cast as an entirely new character named Helen. Unlike the original film, which took place in California’s Bodega Bay, the setting of this installment is a fictional island on the east coast. It was directed by Rick Rosenthal, who was so dissatisfied with the end product that he used the pseudonym Alan Smithee in place of his real name during the opening credits. Hedren isn’t too crazy about The Birds II either; "It's absolutely horrible," she once said of the film. "It embarrasses me horribly."

10 Things You Might Not Know About Robert De Niro

RALPH GATTI, AFP/Getty Images
RALPH GATTI, AFP/Getty Images

Robert De Niro is part of the pantheon of independent-minded filmmakers who cut through Hollywood noise in the 1970s with edgier fare to create what became known as “The New Hollywood.” Following stints with Brian De Palma and Roger Corman, De Niro teamed up with Martin Scorsese for the first time with 1973's Mean Streets, which launched a fruitful artistic collaboration that has produced some of the best movies of the past half-century.

Even after his shift into commercial comedies like Meet the Parents, “dedication” has remained De Niro’s watchword. The two-time Oscar winner has earned Hollywood legend status with panache and bone-deep portrayals. Here are 10 facts about the filmmaker on his 75th birthday. (Yes, we’re talkin’ to you.)

1. HIS FIRST ROLE WAS IN A STAGING OF THE WIZARD OF OZ—AT AGE 10.

Robert De Niro got bit by the acting bug early. He threatened to thrash a hippopotamus from top to bottom-us as the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz at the tender age of 10. (This is the remake and casting the world needs right now.)

2. HE DROPPED OUT OF HIGH SCHOOL TO PURSUE ACTING.

Robert De Niro arrives at the UK premiere of epic war drama film 'The Deer Hunter', UK, 28th February 1979
John Minihan, Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

De Niro’s mother, Virginia Admiral, was a painter whose work was part of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, and his father, Robert De Niro, Sr., was a celebrated abstract expressionist painter. So the apple falling into drama school instead of the art studio still isn’t that far from the tree. Having already gotten a youthful dose of stage life, De Niro quit his private high school to try to become an actor. He first went to the nonprofit HB Studio before studying under Stella Adler and, later, The Actors Studio.

3. HE’S A DUAL CITIZEN OF THE UNITED STATES AND ITALY.

De Niro is American, Italian-American, and, as of 2004, Italian. The country bestowed honorary citizenship upon De Niro as an honor in recognition of his career, but it wasn’t all smooth sailing to the passport office. A group called the Order of the Sons of Italy in America strongly protested the Italian government’s plan due to De Niro’s frequent portrayal of negative Italian-American stereotypes.

4. HE GAINED 60 POUNDS FOR RAGING BULL.

Preparing to play the misfortune-laden boxing champ Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull required two major things from De Niro: training and gaining. For the latter, De Niro ate his way through Europe during a four-month binge of ice cream and pasta. His 60-pound-gain was dramatic enough that it concerned Martin Scorsese. It was one way to show dedication to a role, but the training element was even more impressive. De Niro got so good at boxing that when LaMotta set up several professional-level sparring bouts for the actor, De Niro won two of them.

5. HE AND MARLON BRANDO ARE THE ONLY ACTORS TO WIN OSCARS FOR PLAYING THE SAME CHARACTER.

De Niro won his first Oscar in 1975 for The Godfather: Part II, for portraying the younger version of Vito Corleone—the wizened capo played by Marlon Brando, who also won an Oscar for the role (Brando’s came in 1973, for The Godfather). No other pair of actors has managed the feat, although Jeff Bridges came close in 2010 when he was nominated for playing Rooster Cogburn in Joel and Ethan Coen's True Grit (a role originated by John Wayne in Henry Hathaway’s 1969 movie of the same name). Oddly enough, Bridges was in contention for the role of Travis Bickle, the role that earned De Niro his first Oscar nomination for Best Actor in a Leading Role.

6. HE DROVE A CAB TO PREPARE FOR TAXI DRIVER.

If you’re looking for commitment to a role, ask Hack #265216. De Niro got a taxicab driver’s license to study up to play Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver and spent several weekends cruising around New York City picking up fares. It’s possible that having his teeth filed down for Cape Fear is the most intense transformation he’s undergone for a role, but picking up a part-time job to live the lonely life of Bickle is more humane.

7. ONE OF HIS FILMS POSTPONED ONE OF HIS OSCAR WINS.

The 53rd Academy Awards—where De Niro won for playing Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull—were originally scheduled for March 30, 1981 but were postponed until the following day because of an assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan. The would-be assassin, John Hinckley, Jr., claimed the attack was intended to impress Jodie Foster, who Hinckley grew obsessed with after watching Taxi Driver.

8. HE LAUNCHED THE TRIBECA FILM FESTIVAL IN THE WAKE OF 9/11.

Robert De Niro and Jane Rosenthal speak onstage at the 'Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives' Premiere during the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival at Radio City Music Hall on April 19, 2017 in New York City
Theo Wargo, Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival

Producer Jane Rosenthal, philanthropist Craig M. Hatkoff, and De Niro founded the Tribeca Film Festival in 2001 as a showcase for independent films that would hopefully “spur the economic and cultural revitalization of lower Manhattan” after the devastation of the 9/11 terror attacks. With its empire state of mind, the inaugural festival in 2002 featured a “Best of New York Series” handpicked by Martin Scorsese and drew an astonishing 150,000 attendees.

9. HE WAS ONCE INTERROGATED BY FRENCH POLICE CONCERNING A PROSTITUTION RING.

One of the most bizarre chapters in De Niro’s life came when he was publicly named in the investigation of a prostitution ring in Paris. The 1998 incident included a lengthy interrogation session (De Niro filed an official complaint) and a pile of paparazzi waiting for him when he left the prosecutor’s office. De Niro railed against the entire country, vowing to return his Legion of Honour and telling Le Monde newspaper that, "I will never return to France. I will advise my friends against going to France.” (He had cooled off enough by 2011 to act as the Cannes Film Festival’s jury president.)

10. HE LOVED THE CAT(S) IN MEET THE PARENTS.

Meet the Parents’s Mr. Jinx (Jinxy!) was played by two Himalayans named Bailey and Misha, and De Niro fell in love with them. He played with them between scenes, kept kibble in his pocket for them, and asked director Jay Roach to have Mr. Jinx in as many scenes as possible.

National Portrait Gallery Celebrates Aretha Franklin With Week-Long Exhibition

Courtesy of Angela Pham BFA
Courtesy of Angela Pham BFA

With the passing of Aretha Franklin on August 16, 2018, the world has lost one of its most distinctive voices—and personalities. As celebrities and fans share their memories of the Queen of Soul and what her music meant to them, the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery will pay tribute to the legendary songstress's life with a week-long exhibition of her portrait.

Throughout her career, Franklin earned some of the music industry's highest accolades, including 18 Grammy Awards. In 1987, she became the first woman to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Nearly 30 years later, in 2015, the National Portrait Gallery fêted Franklin with the Portrait of a Nation Prize, which recognizes "the accomplishments of notable contemporary Americans whose portraits reside in the National Portrait Gallery collection." (Madeline Albright, Spike Lee, and Rita Moreno are among some of its recent recipients.)

Milton Glaser's lithograph of Aretha Franklin, which is displayed at The National Portrait Gallery
© Milton Glaser

Franklin's portrait was the creation of noted graphic designer Milton Glaser, who employed "his characteristic kaleidoscope palette and innovative geometric forms to convey the creative energy of Franklin's performances," according to the Gallery. The colorful lithographic was created in 1968, the very same year that the National Portrait Gallery opened.

Glaser's image will be installed in the "In Memoriam" section of the museum, which is located on the first floor, on Friday, August 17 and will remain on display to the public through August 22, 2018. The Gallery is open daily from 11:30 a.m. until 7 p.m. and admission is free.

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