He is nearly 80 years old, his face an impenetrable mask, his famous bowling-pin-shaped body wracked by arthritis. But as he moved with the most careful slowness across the hotel ballroom, the elite of Hollywood stood up and roared. Alfred Hitchcock was among friends.
The director whose 53 films have virtually defined the suspense genre was honored Wednesday night with the American Film Institute's Life Achievement Award in A two-hours-plus testimonial that will be edited down to 90 minutes for broadcasting Monday night at 9:30 on CBS.
The master of surprise was surprised himself at the program's finale when host Ingrid Bergman, stunning in a rich blue gown, presented him with the wine cellar key that was crucial to the plot of "Notorious," the film they made together in 1946.
"Cary Grant kept this for 10 years, then he gave it to me, and I kept it for 20 years for good luck and now I give it to you with my prayers," Bergman said, adding "God bless you, Hitch," before walking to his table, kissing the director on both cheeks and enveloping him with an emotional bearhug.
The evening's other high point was Hitchcock's surprisingly moving acceptance speech. Though he stood to receive the award from George Stevens Jr., head of the AFI, and then coyly made as if to hide it under his tuxedo jacket, Hitchcock's arthritis made it necessary for him to speak from his seat.
The speech was marked by Hitchcock's characteristically puckish humor, which led him at one point to call his trophy "the life amusement award" and to read "comma" and "period" off his cue cards as the spirit moved him.
"It has been my observation," he began, "that man does not live by murder alone. He needs affection, approval, encouragementand occasionally a hearty meal. Tonightyou have provided me with three outof four. Anxiety strangled my appetite."
Hitchcock thanked his "co-conspirators inthis bizarre trade of making films" forgiving him "this honor you have nowthoroughly convinced me I deserve," addingdeadpan, "This demonstration of approvaland affection has encouraged me. (Pause) I will go on."
Hitchcock's most affecting tribute wasto Alma, his wife of 52 years. Alma Hitchcock,partially paralyzed by two strokes,sat next to him, and began to cry ashe spoke of her. "If not for her," hesaid, "I might be here tonight not at thistable but as one of the slower waiterson the floor. I share this award, as Ihave my life, with her."
The Hitchcock award banquet was theseventh in the AFI's annual series andwas the hottest ticket to date, selling outits 1,000 seats (at $200 a head) six weeksago.
The guests included friends from Hitchcock'sLondon beginnings, luminariesfrom Hollywood's golden age -- like CaryGrant and Jimmy Stewart, who sat oneon each side of the Hitchcocks andbeamed like proud children -- as well asmore current idols like Robin Williams,Steve Martin, Christopher Reeve andRichard Gere.
Much was made by the night's speakersof Hitchcock's supposed dislike for actors,Jimmy Stewart saying for instance that ifit were true that Hitchcock treated hisactors like cattle, "he belongs in the CowboyHall of Fame." And Bergman, aftercalling the director "an adorable genius... a gentleman farmer who raises gooseflesh,"told this story about the shootingof "Spellbound":
"There was one scene where I told him,'I don't feel like that emotion, I just can'tgive it to you.' And he looked at me andhe said, 'Ingrid, fake it.' It was the bestadvice I've had in my whole life."
The evening held two small surprises. One was Anthony Perkins' revelation thatit was not he but "my stand-in Bert" whodid in Janet Leigh in "Psycho." Perkinswas in New York at the time, rehearsinga play.
The other surprise was a rare Englishlanguagespeech by fellow director FrancoisTruffaut, a fervent Hitchcock admirer. Looking tres francais with a long whitesilk scarf knocked over his tuxedo, Truffautsaid, "In America you respect him forshooting scenes of love like scenes of murder,while in France we respect him forshooting scenes of murder like love."
As always, though, the last word of theevening belonged to Hitchcock. Addressinghimself to the three student winnersof the AFI/Alfred Hitchcock film scholarships,he told the famous story of howwhen he was 6 years old and had donesomething his father had thought worthyof reprimand, the senior Hitchcock had hadhis son locked in a jail cell for five minutesafter which a constable told him,"This is what we do to naughty littleboys."
"My message to these young people,"Hitchcock concluded firmly, "is, 'Stay outof jail.' If you do, someday one of youmight be standing here. That's what theydo to good little boys."