Janet Leigh Psycho star
Janet Leigh, born Jeanette Helen Morrison on July 6, 1927, in Merced, California, would have turned 85 today. Despite a film and television career spanning more than five decades, Leigh is chiefly remembered for one role: the greedy (and unlucky) real-estate office worker Marion Crane, whose shower is cut short by a big, pointed knife in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho. (Image: iconic Janet Leigh Psycho shower scene.) [See – and hear – also: “Janet Leigh Psycho Scream.”]
But her getting bumped off 40 minutes into the film wasn't for naught: Psycho was a major box office hit in 1960, and Janet Leigh ended up earning both a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award nomination (losing out to fellow good-girl-gone-bad Shirley Jones in Elmer Gantry) and a lasting place in cinema's pop iconography.
Janet Leigh MGM movies
The change in perception brought about by Psycho was quite remarkable. After all, Janet Leigh has been almost invariably cast in innocuous parts in equally innocuous films following her discovery by former MGM Queen Norma Shearer at a California ski lodge in the late '40s. While at MGM, those included the Lassie flick Hills of Home (1948); the all-star musical Words and Music (1948), in which Leigh plays the wife of Tom Drake's Richard Rodgers; the musical comedy Strictly Dishonorable (1950), opposite an unlikely leading man, opera singer Ezio Pinza; and light comedies with titles such as Fearless Fagan (1952) and Confidentially Connie (1953). In those movies, Leigh was required to look either very blonde or very bland – sometimes both.
Admittedly, during her MGM stint Janet Leigh did succeed in making her mark in a handful of productions. Among those were Fred Zinnemann's thriller Act of Violence (1948), opposite Robert Ryan, Van Heflin, and Mary Astor; Mervyn LeRoy's generally (and in my view unfairly) dismissed 1949 version of Little Women, with Leigh as Meg (the old Katharine Hepburn role), plus June Allyson, Margaret O'Brien, and Elizabeth Taylor as her sisters, and Mary Astor as their mother; and Anthony Mann's solid Western The Naked Spur (1953), in which Leigh plays a feisty tomboy much to the annoyance and/or entertainment of fellow travelers Robert Ryan, Ralph Meeker, and James Stewart.
Janet Leigh in Technicolor: Peaches and cream
Leigh also looked incredibly pretty in Technicolor as one of Stewart Granger's love interests in George Sidney's balletic Scaramouche (1952). (Eleanor Parker was the third side of the triangle, or rather, quadrangle, as Mel Ferrer also found himself in the mix.) And she was part of a prestigious all-star ensemble in Compton Bennett's beautifully shot That Forsyte Woman (1949), co-starring Greer Garson, Errol Flynn, Walter Pidgeon, and Robert Young.
Janet Leigh Psycho shower scene: Paramount Pictures.
Janet Leigh Tony Curtis, previous husbands. (Photo: Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis.)
From 1951 to 1962 Janet Leigh was married to Universal star Tony Curtis, her third of four husbands. Actresses Jamie Lee Curtis (Halloween, True Lies) and Kelly Curtis (the Eddie Murphy comedy Trading Places) are their daughters.
Nine years before her marriage to Tony Curtis, the 14-year-old Leigh had eloped with her boyfriend, John Carlisle, in Reno, Nevada. Shortly thereafter, the marriage was annulled at the behest of her parents. Leigh's second marriage, in 1946, was to struggling musician Stanley Reames. The couple were divorced two years later, as Leigh's Hollywood career began taking off.
Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis: Five movies together
Their troubled marriage notwithstanding, Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis went on to star in five films after the end of her MGM contract: George Marshall's biopic Houdini (1953), with Curtis in the title role and Leigh as his wife; Rudolph Maté's semi-historical drama The Black Shield of Falworth (1954), in which Leigh's aristocrat falls for peasant (of sorts) Curtis; Richard Fleischer's rousing adventure epic The Vikings (1958), with Leigh as a Welsh beauty coveted by half-brothers Curtis and Kirk Douglas; Blake Edwards' army comedy The Perfect Furlough (1958), in which Leigh plays an army psychologist named Vicki Loren; and George Sidney's marital comedy Who Was That Lady? (1960), also featuring Dean Martin and James Whitmore in this Norman Krasna adaptation of his own play.
While presenting the Best Screenplay Oscar at the 1960 Academy Awards ceremony, Janet Leigh plugged Who Was That Lady? in connection to Tony Curtis' nominated gender-bending box office hit Some Like It Hot. She told a joke that ended with the punchline “That was no lady, that was my husband!” It's unclear whether or not that got a laugh.
Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis: alleged suicide attempt, divorce
Two and half years later, the couple were divorced. Curtis later claimed that Leigh at one point tried to commit suicide by taking “all 14 pills out [of a bottle] and started popping them in her mouth. I hit her really hard on the back so they all flew out of her. Then I knew the marriage was over.”
Janet Leigh's career peak lasted about half a decade, from the late '50s to the early '60s. In addition to Psycho, The Vikings, The Perfect Furlough, and Who Was That Lady?, that period included what is quite possibly the best performance of her career: as the terrorized American wife of Mexican narcotics officer Charlton Heston in Orson Welles' Touch of Evil (1958), which Leigh filmed while nursing a broken arm.
Janet Leigh: Touch of Evil / Orson Welles remembered
“It started with rehearsals,” Leigh would recall four decades later. “We rehearsed two weeks prior to shooting, which was unusual. We rewrote most of the dialogue, all of us, which was also unusual, and Mr. Welles always wanted our input. It was a collective effort, and there was such a surge of participation, of creativity, of energy. You could feel the pulse growing as we rehearsed. You felt you were inventing something as you went along. Mr. Welles wanted to seize every moment. He didn't want one bland moment. He made you feel you were involved in a wonderful event that was happening before your eyes.”
Trounced in the editing room by the powers-that-be at Universal Pictures, Touch of Evil was a box office flop. “I was so saddened. I was angry,” Leigh declared in 1998. “When I saw this [restored, reedited] version, and saw the reaction by critics and moviegoers, it made me angry when I thought that if this had been released in [Welles'] form, and had been accepted, he would have gone on and made the five-picture deal they had offered him. Even now I think: What have we been robbed of? What have we been cheated of? We might have had five more masterpieces. We'll never know. It's a shame.”
Touch of Evil turned out to be Orson Welles' last major prestige production, but Janet Leigh would have a few more in the ensuing years. In addition to the aforementioned Psycho, she had a memorable supporting turn in John Frankenheimer's paranoid thriller The Manchurian Candidate (1962), as a woman who becomes involved with Frank Sinatra's disturbed soldier. She also landed one of the lead roles in George Sidney's satirical musical Bye Bye Birdie (1963), with Dick Van Dyke and rising star Ann-Margret – whose role was reportedly expanded at the expense of both Leigh's and Van Dyke's.
Leigh was also fine in John Rich's now-largely forgotten marital comedy Wives and Lovers (1963), co-starring with one of her former MGM leading men, Van Johnson, and with solid support from Shelley Winters and Martha Hyer as The Other Woman. (The film's best scene has Hyer and a royally pissed off Leigh wearing the same funky dress at a dinner party.)
Janet Leigh: Peace Corps, FBI investigation
A lifelong Democrat, in the '60s Leigh actively campaigned for Adlai Stevenson, and for both John F. and Robert Kennedy. In 1964, president Lyndon B. Johnson had the FBI do a background check on her before appointing the actress to the Peace Corps National Advisory Council. (Curiously, Johnson also considered her as a possible ambassador to Finland.) Eventually, J. Edgar Hoover told the U.S. president that Leigh was “absolutely clean.”
Besides her Peace Corps work, Leigh was an active supporter of charitable and humanitarian causes, including non-profit organizations such as the Motion Picture and Television Foundation.
Janet Leigh The Fog 1980, with Hal Holbrook
Janet Leigh biography final part: fourth marriage and semi-retirement.
Following her marriage to stockbroker Robert Brandt in Sept. 1962 – the day after her divorce from Tony Curtis was finalized – Janet Leigh's movies became both less frequent and less prestigious. She did, however, continue working in sporadic features, such as Jack Smight's humorous thriller Harper (1966), with Paul Newman as her gumshoe husband; the dreadful Jerry Lewis comedy Three on a Couch (1966); and Robert Gist's drama An American Dream (1966), with Stuart Whitman and Eleanor Parker.
Also: William F. Claxton's grade-Z horror flick Night of the Lepus (1972), once again opposite Stuart Whitman, in addition to fellow veteran Rory Calhoun and a bunch of human-eating giant rabbits; Stephen Verona's family drama Boardwalk (1979), with veterans Ruth Gordon and Lee Strasberg; and, what turned out to be Leigh's last film role in nearly two decades, John Carpenter's cult horror classic The Fog (1980), with daughter Jamie Lee Curtis and a bunch of living-dead creatures.
Leigh also kept herself busy on television. Among her small-screen roles were those in the made-for-TV movies House on Greenapple Road (1970), Deadly Dream (1971), and Murder at the World Series (1977), and in series such as The Red Skelton Show, Columbo, and Fantasy Island, plus the inevitable guest spot on The Love Boat.
Janet Leigh last movie: Halloween H20
After 1990, Janet Leigh's film and TV work dwindled to a handful of supporting roles. She was a guest star in the TV series Touched by an Angel and Family Law, in the latter cast in an episode featuring fellow veterans Andy Griffith and Janis Paige. In the TV movie In My Sister's Shadow (1997), she was the manipulative mother of troubled sisters Nancy McKeon and Alexandra Wilson. Leigh could also be spotted in Steve Miner's horror thriller Halloween H20: 20 Years Later (1998), featuring Jamie Lee Curtis. Unfortunately, the widely panned Halloween H20 turned out to be Leigh's last feature to be released in theaters.
As per the IMDb, Janet Leigh's last movie role was a small supporting part in John T. Kretchmer's little-seen horror comedy Bad Girls from Valley High (a.k.a. A Fate Totally Worse than Death), a direct-to-DVD effort shot in 2000 but that would be released only in early 2005, about six months after Leigh's death.
Janet Leigh death, autobiography, thoughts on Psycho
Having been suffering from an inflammation of the blood vessels known as vasculitis, Janet Leigh died of cardiac arrest in her sleep at her Beverly Hills home on Oct. 3, 2004.
Leigh's autobiography, There Really Was a Hollywood, was published in 1984. She also co-wrote (with Christopher Nickens) Psycho: Behind the Scenes of the Classic Thriller, published in 1995, and a couple of Hollywood novels: House of Destiny and The Dream Factory, the latter set during the apex of the studio era.
As for her Psycho shower scene, Janet Leigh declared that it “scared the hell” out of her when she first saw the finished sequence.
“Making it and seeing it are two different things. That staccato music and the knife flashing. You'd swear it's going into the body.”
Note: This Janet Leigh biography / article is an expanded version of an obit published in Oct. 2004.
Hal Holbrook / Janet Leigh The Fog 1980 picture: Avco Embassy.
Janet Leigh quotes about Touch of Evil via the New York Times.
Janet Leigh Touch of Evil Charlton Heston picture: Universal Pictures.