Not to take any attention away from Heath Ledger, who was a fine actor and surely would have gone on to inestimable heights, but I have to admit—the death of Suzanne Pleshette last week, relatively untragic though her passing may be (she died last week at 70 of respiratory failure), affected me more.
People in the North Bay no doubt know Pleshette as the husky-voiced schoolteacher Annie Hayworth in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, filmed locally in Bodega and Bodega Bay. In contrast to the oafish Mitch Brenner and the vapid Melanie Daniels (characters nonetheless expertly played by Rod Taylor and Tippi Hedren), Pleshette’s hypnotic Annie Hayworth completely steals the film for me. I was so struck with her performance upon first viewing, in fact, that I scrawled “I Love Annie Hayworth” in messy ball-point pen on my high school book bag, successfully confusing my Piner High classmates.
There’s a lot of great stories about the filming of The Birds, some of which can be found on the website for the Inn at the Tides and many of which involve Hitchcock’s attention to local detail. You can hear a news report in the film from real-life radio station KSRO; in it, the radio announcer mentions the real-life Bay Hill Road. Hitchcock wanted a realistic classroom in the Bodega schoolhouse, so he hired my mom’s math teacher to write some realistic-looking math equations on the chalkboard.
But my favorite story involves the time a real-life school bus stopped near the film site to drop off some local schoolchildren during filming of the scene when Annie Hayworth’s pecked and bloodied body is discovered. Some of the young kids, instantly horrified at what they thought was surely a dead woman face-down in the front lawn, started crying. To assuage their fears, Hitchcock halted the filming for over an hour, removing and then reapplying the makeup to Pleshette’s face over and over to sufficiently demonstrate the make-believe world of movies to the local kids. Pretty great.
Pleshette’s brilliant detachment shines brightest in what to me is the film’s best scene: when Annie’s explaining to Melanie why she’s stayed in Bodega Bay all these years—to be close to Mitch. “You see, I still like him a hell of a lot,” she says, with all the cool demeanor that a years-long flame shouldn’t rightfully come close to having. It still floors me, and it’s the first thing that went through my mind when I’d read that Suzanne Pleshette died.