Exceptional actress best known for the black and white trilogy Psycho, Touch of Evil, and The Manchurian Candidate, extraordinary beauty, and the mother of Jamie Lee Curtis, Janet Leigh died Sunday at her home in Beverly Hills at 77.
She will always be remembered for Psycho, of course, as the embezzling office worker who is stabbed to death in the shower by cross-dressing madman Anthony Perkins. The role earned her an Oscar nomination as best supporting actress:
- Hitchcock compiled the shower sequence in 70-odd takes of two and three seconds each, for which Leigh spent seven days in the shower. Rumors circulated that she was nude, but she wore a flesh-colored moleskin.
Although tame by today’s standards, the scene was shocking for the time for its brutality.
Leigh wrote in her 1995 book “Psycho: Behind the Scenes in the Classic Thriller” that the filming was easy until the last 20 seconds when she had to express total horror as her character was being slashed to death.
She often said she hadn’t been able to take a shower since the movie. “It’s not a hype, not something I thought would be good for publicity,” she insisted. “Honest to gosh, it’s true.” [AP]
Leigh’s entry into showbiz seems a scripted miracle:
- Born Jeanette Helen Morrison in Merced, Calif., on July 6, 1927, she was a college student when retired star Norma Shearer saw her photograph at a ski resort. Shearer recommended the teenager to talent agent Lew Wasserman, who negotiated a contract at MGM for $50 a week.
Dubbed Janet Leigh, she starred in 1947 at 19 in her first movie, “The Romance of Rosy Ridge” opposite Van Johnson. Her salary rose to $150 a week. She became one of the busiest stars at MGM, appearing in six movies in 1949.
Among her films: “Act of Violence” (with Van Heflin), “Little Women,” “Holiday Affair” (Robert Mitchum), “Strictly Dishonorable” (Ezio Pinza), “The Naked Spur” (James Stewart), “Living It Up” (Martin and Lewis), “Jet Pilot” (John Wayne), “Bye Bye Birdie” (Dick Van Dyke), “Safari” (Victor Mature).
Leigh had been married twice before coming to Hollywood: to John K. Carlyle, 1942, annulled; and Stanley Reames, 1946-1948, divorced. In 1951 she married Tony Curtis when their stardoms were at a peak. Both their studios, MGM and Universal, expressed concerns that their immense popularity with teenagers would be hindered if they were married.
Aided by a splurge of fan magazine publicity, their appeal rose. They appeared in four films together, including “Houdini” and “The Vikings.” The “ideal couple” divorced in 1963. In her 1984 autobiography, “There Really Was a Hollywood,” she refrained from criticizing Curtis.
“Tony and I had a wonderful time together; it was an exciting, glamorous period in Hollywood,” she said in an interview. “A lot of great things happened, most of all, two beautiful children (Kelly Curtis and Jamie Lee Curtis).” Leigh’s 1964 marriage to businessman [Robert] Brandt was longer lasting.
The BBC has more:
- her big screen pulling power faded later in the 1960s, with TV roles mixed with supporting movie parts in the 1970s.
Her “scream queen” status also led to cameo roles in Jamie Lee Curtis’ 1998 horror sequel Halloween H20: 20 Years Later and A Fate Totally Worse Than Death in 2000.
“She was aware that she was a horror icon and had fun with it,” said Empire’s Ian Freer.
Leigh’s scene from Psycho was named the best death in screen history by Total Film magazine in May.
“She will probably always be known for the Manchurian Candidate and having an unfortunate shower,” said Nev Pierce, Total Film’s reviews editor.
He added: “But it would not be fair to say that the scene’s success was just because of Hitchcock. Other Hitchcock actresses, such as Tippi Hedren, did not go on to become such big stars as Leigh.”
BBC Radio 4 critic Quentin Cooper said Leigh was expert at playing characters “of dubious morality”.
“A lot of people only remember her from Psycho’s shower scene, rather than the sexy, independent and slightly criminal character she played from the first scene of the movie,” he said.
“”She had a great face, a slightly cheeky look, and she tended to wear very clinging costumes.”
Cooper said her role alongside Charlton Heston in 1958 thriller Touch of Evil helped it become arguably Orson Welles’ greatest movie.
“There was always a sense with Janet Leigh that there was more going on than met the eye,” he said.
“Thanks to Psycho she was perhaps cinema’s most famous victim, but she deserves to be remembered as a much more dynamic and subtle actress than that.”