LOS ANGELES — "Behind every great man is a great woman," goes the old adage.
Women today are more likely to pursue their own careers rather than stand behind their husbands, but how do you assess someone who did stand behind her man?
In the early 1920s, when Alma Reville and Alfred Hitchcock met in Berlin, she had been in the film business three or four years longer than he had. Reville even was Hitchcock's boss briefly, but by 1923 he was beginning his directing career and hired her as his assistant.
In 1926, they married, and Reville would become chief collaborator on all of his films, as story consultant, script editor and arbitrator of the public's taste.
But few people outside of Hitchcock's circle knew of her influence.
Finally, after years in her husband's enormous Hollywood shadow, Reville is getting some screen recognition, first in HBO's recent movie The Girl, in which she was played by Imelda Staunton, and now in Hitchcock, where she is portrayed by Helen Mirren.
What would Hitchcock's movies have been like without Reville? Mirren says she has been pondering the question.
"I think Hitch would have been a great film director either way. But it's really impossible to tell. They shared in their obsession for film very early on, ... and they lived in and through movies for the rest of their lives together."
He was born Aug. 13, 1899; she, one day later. He died in 1980; she in 1982. They were married for nearly 54 years.
Hitchcock director Sacha Gervasi (Anvil: The Story of Anvil) says he thinks Reville understood that the director was a genius.
"I think it may be an overstatement to say that he would never have been the artist he was without her, but she made significant contributions," Gervasi says. "What we're saying is that it was not just a marriage but a collaboration that was immensely fruitful."
The Girl is a dark portrait of the filmmaker's relationship with actress Tippi Hedren during the making of The Birds and Marnie, but Hitchcock is based on Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of "Psycho" by Stephen Rebello. Gervasi says his film, with a script by John J. McLaughlin, clearly involves fact and fantasy.
"We wanted it to be a bit tongue-in-cheek but also show the darkness of Hitchcock," he says.
Hitchcock also stars Anthony Hopkins as the famed director, Scarlett Johansson as Janet Leigh, Toni Collette as Hitchcock's longtime assistant Peggy Robertson, Danny Huston as writer Whitfield Cook, Jessica Biel as Vera Miles, Michael Stuhlbarg as agent Lew Wasserman, James D'Arcy as Anthony Perkins and Michael Wincott as Ed Gein.
Gein is the serial killer whom Robert Bloch used as the basis for his novel Psycho. Hitchcock opens with a scene of Gein and Hitchcock that could have been right out of one of Hitchcock's amusing macabre spots for his television series, which helped, along with the cameos in his films, make him the most famous director in the world.
"It's clear that they were having fun and were exploring what might have been in Hitch's psyche," Gervasi says.
Mirren recalls meeting the larger-than-life director when she was a very young actress.
"He was in London to make Frenzy, and I had a sort of meeting with him. He was very unimpressed with me, and I was arrogant and idiotic enough to be unimpressed with him," she says, laughing, adding that she was glad he didn't offer her a part because "there wasn't the role I would've wanted to play."
Mirren says her biggest challenge in playing Reville was that there wasn't much to base it on. "Even many film buffs are unaware of her," the actress says.
Despite her longtime presence in Hollywood and her contributions, the only available footage of Reville was from the 1979 American Film Institute's Lifetime Achievement Award ceremony, where she sat with her husband during the tribute.
Upon accepting the award, Hitchcock dedicated it to his wife, "without whom I probably would have ended up at this banquet as one of the slower-moving waiters," he commented in his droll style.
Though she watched the tape repeatedly, Mirren says, there was "very little I could glean from that." But, she says, Alma Hitchcock: The Woman Behind the Man, the biography by Patricia Hitchcock, the couple's only child, written with Laurent Bouzereau, was "a fantastic source for me.
"It just shows that without that book her life could so easily have been fogged out by history," Mirren says. "So it's important for people to bear witness because things get forgotten about very quickly."
The actress is quick to state that she's not taking anything away from Hitchcock's genius, but Reville allowed him to create. She also says she thinks Reville understood that her husband was a brilliant marketer with his "'good evening' voice" and silhouette. For her "to step forward and say it wasn't just him would have messed up the brand."
No one will ever know how much Reville affected Hitchcock's filmmaking, but Gervasi points to one key moment in Psycho as an example: the famous shower scene with Leigh, where Hitchcock gave the illusion of gore, violence and nudity using more than 70 cuts.
There is a well-known story of how Reville spotted Leigh swallowing after her character was killed. Maybe no one else would have noticed.
What was more crucial was that Hitchcock didn't want any music in the scene.
"But Alma insisted that he listen to Bernard Herrmann's cue, and he finally saw sense," Gervasi says. "He trusted her."
Looking at it now, it would be impossible to imagine one of the greatest scenes in the history of cinema without those shrieking violins.
"For that alone," Gervasi adds, "it was worth shining the light on that story. I think it only deepens your interest in Hitchcock."