Vera Miles was beautiful. Vera Miles was talented. Vera Miles was not to be messed with. The only reason why Vera Miles never became a household name is because the man that intended to make her such, Alfred Hitchcock, demanded her complete loyalty and admiration. Unlike other Hitchcock blondes, however, Vera was not one to take any shit from the director. That is, not in the copious amounts he piled onto his other actresses with impunity.
If you mention Vera Miles today, most people will need context to remember this blonde beauty. That comes in one tidy, six letter word: PSYCHO (1960). Vera played Marion Crane’s (Janet Leigh) concerned sister who helps track down her killer in easily one of the most shocking film reveals of all-time. The role is iconic today, but back in the day it was a thankless role for an actress who was a star in her own right. Vera was simply fulfilling her contractual obligation to Hitchcock, who no doubt cast her as a way to rub salt in any wounds left over from their meteoric fallout. Ironic, then, how it is the role that Vera is best remembered for to this day.
Very came to attention in John Ford’s THE SEARCHERS (1956) and was a minor revelation in the movie. But again it wasn’t a major role that would jettison Vera to stardom. Those opportunities were to come, however, after Hitchcock saw some early footage of the movie and likened the statuesque blonde with a strong constitution and a magnetic screen presence to his ideal of a leading lady.
Here’s Vera and the ever stoic John Wayne from THE SEARCHERS.
THE WRONG MAN (1956) was Hitchcock and Vera’s first movie together. She was fantastic opposite Henry Fonda in the documentary-style suspense movie. But it was only to be a testing-ground for Hitchcock to groom is bombshell protege into the kind of movie star he envisioned for all his female leads: Blonde, virtuous, always standing by her man and, ultimately conforming to his egomanical will. The fact that Hitchcock misjudged Vera Miles so badly in regards to his domineering ways is curious. Of course, she was an actress with great looks and talent. But she also had brains and willpower to resist his creepy advances and perverted sense of entitlement. It was only a matter of time before the two would come to blows, metaphorically-speaking.
A fairly-silly publicity shot for THE WRONG MAN with Fonda and Miles.
Vera and Hitch on the set of THE WRONG MAN, circa 1956. Their professional relationship would deteriorate from here on.
Hitchcock never spared any expense when it came to his leading ladies and Vera was no exception. Though she was married by 1958 to Gordon Scott and already had two children, Hitchcock still considered her his property. He obsessed over her looks both in public and private and determined that she should only ever be clothed in White, Black or Grey tones. This was recorded for posterity in the production stills for VERTIGO (1958) in which Vera was to star opposite Jimmy Stewart. For anyone who has ever seen the movie, the role required Vera to be the focus of an obsessive man who would ultimately lead to her death. A smart woman who didn’t need to be told how autobiographical the material was for Hitchcock, Vera either consciously or unconsciously decided to become pregnant with her third child before production could begin. Enraged, Hitch had to recast the role, finding Kim Novak at the last moment. I have to confess that Kim Novak is one of the best casting choices in all of film when it came to VERTIGO. I can’t imagine anyone else playing the role so well and that includes Vera. Funny how everything worked out for the best but Hitch would never forgive Vera for her transgression.
When it came time for Vera to fulfill her contract with Hitchcock it was for easily his most iconic and successful film, PSYCHO (1960). What I love is that Vera considered the role a walk-on part to get Hitch the hell out of her life. Still very beautiful and at the top of her game, she underplayed the role brilliantly – making her scream at the end when she finds MOTHER in the fruit-cellar all the more horrifying. Vera is perfect casting and will always be remembered for this reaction. Once again, fate played a hand in making film history. It would be the last time actress and director would work together. And both of them can thank each other for cementing their places in cinematic and pop culture history.
Interestingly enough, Vera’s blonde locks were already shorn for another production when Hitchcock beckoned her to play in Psycho. She had to wear a wig in addition to frumpy clothes that Hitchcock no doubt tried to humiliate the actress with. But true to form, Vera rose above petty grievances and turned in a pivotal performance, grounding the second-half of the film after Janet Leigh’s untimely departure ala the famous shower scene.
Very would go on to play opposite Jimmy Stewart in WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE (1962). A classic western, she turned in another sympathetic performance that would further confirm her acting chops in addition to beauty.
Vera Miles roles in Hollywood productions took their natural course for actresses of a certain age, though she would continue to work in smaller pictures and television over the ensuing decades. But what I love about Vera as much as her beauty and talent is her strong spirit and ability to take and ultimately leave Tinseltown on her own terms. She never regretted losing the role in VERTIGO because she said she got a son out of the bargain. She was too grounded, too smart it seemed to take the kind of crap megalo-manical directors like Hitchcock required their actresses take in return for becoming immortal on film. But in her own way, Vera Miles did become immortal, albeit in a smaller-role that was her way of fulfilling a contract to a man that gave her the creeps. And now that everyone knows, thanks to Tippi Hedren another Hitchcock blonde, just how creepy and abusive Hitch was to his talent – it seems like a very smart proposition indeed for Vera to have vamoosed when she did from the director’s grasp. Vera is a testament to women who work on their own terms and take their lumps, succeeding in the face of adversity in an old boy’s club that exists to this day.
One more look at that class act in the fruit-cellar about to scream her brains out. It doesn’t get any better than this, does it?