Murder at the Fair

But before I get to it, I must acknowledge the Marnie of Naomi Watts, who impersonates less a still from a Hitchcock film than a glam publicity shot of Tippi Hedren in all her high-haired, high-gowned Camelot-era splendor. Also superb is Charlize Theron’s spot-on Grace Kelly in Dial M for Murder, the most technically accurate impersonation in the bunch.

Theron’s warmth is not an error here, for Hitchcock had not yet made the turn. In Hitchcock’s Grace Kelly trilogy, his women are still women and not disturbed ideas about women. And Theron, like Kelly, conveys a warmly simmering sexuality that is loaded with ’50s propriety and sensual authenticity: it’s all happening just below the skin.

Still, good as the verisimilitude is, it’s an easy job. The Dial M heroine is not jammed up like — and here is my grand exception — Kim Novak in Vertigo , magically and against all odds conjured up — no other word for it — by Renee Zellweger (see below).

I am not alone in treasuring Vertigo as Hitchcock’s most profound and unintentionally personal film. Hitchcock, a mannered director of great high style, steps out from behind the black humor and droll cleverness — almost by accident, it would seem — to create a passionate woman and a male lead who has an unhealthy attraction to her.

Perhaps it was because the director detested working with Kim Novak, felt she was pushed on him by Paramount, that he couldn’t see what his left hand was doing. Here in Vertigo was Hitchcock’s own convoluted sexual history on full Technicolor display: his cloying, suffocating infatuations with leading ladies past. And he showed this infatuation without sympathy, as the unhealthy — literally morbid — thing it was. I won’t be giving anything away but fans of the film will know what I mean when I say: James Stewart can only love Kim Novak when he believes she is a dead woman, whether by ghostly possession or painstaking imitation.

In fact, Kim Novak is fantastic in the role. With the snowy whiteness of her skin and dreamy, somnambulant way of exhaling her role, she gives a beautiful, melancholy performance, all soft and bosomy and troubled. In the middle of Hitchcock’s Ice Age, his era of the shell-shocked albino blond with the blanked-out soul, Kim emerges as a full-blown romantic, spending the first 20 minutes sleep-walking around a quaintly antique San Francisco as a woman under a trance. And then in the second half waking from that trance in all her vulgar, broken humanity. (I can never visit that city without picking up a heavy Vertigo vibe from its Old California streets and strangely malevolent doll-house trappings.)

And it is exactly Kim Novak’s otherworldly essence that Renee Zellweger has captured and distilled in — most amazing of all — a still photograph. Though Zellweger looks nothing like Kim Novak — in fact, in this picture, feature for feature, she reminds me of a leaner Simone Signoret — I feel Vertigo, I feel Kim.

The amazing thing about Renee Zellweger is that she is not, in fact, beautiful. At rest, her face — well, it reminds me of a boiled potato. Yet she has, through some alchemy of the actor’s will, conjured the essence of beauty without really delivering the content. (The only time I can remember this being done before is by the brilliant but staggeringly plain Kim Stanley in The Goddess.)

Renee with a Z serves up the platonic idea of Kim Novak. Just as in Chicago, during a dream sequence when she appears in a spangly gown on a black set, she served up the platonic idea of Marilyn Monroe.

Platonic ideas are what the Vanity Fair spread is really about, conjuring up a sense of the films without doing broad burlesques of them. And for the most part, the photos succeed. Even paunchy Seth Rogan finds an unexpected — one would have thought impossible — point of contact with the sublimely elegant Cary Grant, whom he impersonates running from the cropduster in that famous cornfield from North by Northwest. Certainly, the most avant-garde image of the lot, the Rogan photo is bold in its risk, transcendent in its victory.

The only major stinker is VF’s Strangers on a Train . James McAvoy, who was so attuned to the submerged sorrows of his role in Atonement, is here off the mark, his oiled-back hair doing nothing to help conjure up the special twinkly-eyed madness of Robert Walker.

Much worse is the actor who has stepped into the Farley Granger role. His face is too sensual, too virile to invoke the lush, high-strung Granger, who fit so comfortably into the role of beautiful boy love-object, complete with a certain pre-Stonewall, bottled-up neurosis that was forever leaping, unbidden, from his beautifully lidded but churningly alarmed eyes. (I can never remember Farley Granger smiling in a film or being anything but admired and desired and at the mercy of other people’s neurotic dreams. Rope, anyone?) None of the roaring energy of Walker’s top dominating Granger’s importuning bottom comes though in this sickly sepia-tinted vignette from Strangers on a Train .

That’s the funny thing about platonic ideas: they always promise more than they deliver. And while foreplay is always fun, a little goes a long way. Time to break out the DVDs and watch the originals. Kim, Tippi, and particularly Farley, I’m coming.