Thursday, July 6 would have been Janet Leigh’s 90th birthday (the actress passed away on October 3, 2004), and so we felt like taking a look back at some of the highlights of her career. Janet Leigh was an unlikely movie star. When MGM star Norma Shearer saw her portrait on her father’s desk (he worked the front desk at a hotel), she saw potential and asked if she could bring the picture back to Hollywood with her. Shearer’s intuition earned Leigh a screen test and her first film role. Thus, the young woman from Northern California who had not entertained dreams of a Hollywood career, found herself thrust into the limelight.
Beginning her career as a series of spunky ingénues, Leigh eventually came into her own with more serious roles that had a particularly seductive angle to them. She also became half of one of Hollywood’s most famous marriages when her engagement to Hollywood heartthrob Tony Curtis led them to be dubbed “Hollywood's Perfect Couple.” They had two children, including actress Jamie Leigh Curtis who continues her parents’ legacy in the entertainment industry today. After her split with Curtis, Leigh largely retreated from acting, focusing instead on politics, philanthropy, and parenting. She occasionally returned to the screen, for small roles in The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and as leading lady Rose opposite Dick Van Dyke in Bye Bye Birdie (1963) as well as often appearing on television. But at the height of her fame in the 1950s and 60s she became an indelible screen figure and left an unforgettable mark on film history as one of Hitchcock’s most memorable blondes, Marion Crane.
5. Touch of Evil (1958)
Touch of Evil, widely considered Orson Welles’ other great directing masterpiece alongside Citizen Kane, marked a turning point for Leigh’s career. Previously, she had starred largely as sweet and innocent ingénues, but her role as Susan Vargas (wife to Charlton Heston’s Mike) imbued her screen persona with a new sexual vitality. Stowed away in a roadside motel on the Mexican border, Susan is meant to be keeping out of the way while her husband investigates a Mexican narcotics ring. But plans change when the family he’s investigating begins to terrorize her, nearly rape her, and frame her for murder. It’s one of the darkest roles Leigh ever played, and though two years before Psycho, an early lesson in why Leigh should avoid staying at motels. It’s an intense performance from an actress who hitherto dealt mostly in sweet characters, but it’s made all the more impressive by the fact that she made the entire film with a broken arm.
4. Houdini (1953)
Janet Leigh made a total of five films with husband Tony Curtis. By the time they started working together onscreen, they’d already been married for two years. Houdini marked their first project together. This tale of magician Harry Houdini and his devoted assistant/wife Bess was one of their best (although frankly, most of their onscreen pairings are fairly lackluster). Like many biographical films of classic Hollywood, this one plays fast and loose with facts, but it does paint a portrait of a gifted magician struggling to maintain his career and keep his wife happy. Curtis, an amateur magician himself, performed most of his own tricks. And Leigh gives a nuanced performance as Houdini’s on and offstage partner. A great onstage assistant, offstage she continually struggles against her love for Houdini and her fear that he will die executing one of his dangerous tricks.
3. Holiday Affair (1949)
Holiday Affair doesn’t hold the same place in the public imagination as other Christmas classics like It’s a Wonderful Life or Holiday Inn, but it should. Janet Leigh stars as war widow Connie Ennis, struggling to raise her son and keep her husband’s memory alive. On the verge of marrying her new beau, Carl (Wendell Corey), she strikes up a romance with a department store clerk who she inadvertently causes to get fired from his job. Robert Mitchum is a hunky Christmas gift as Steve Mason and it’s a delight to watch Leigh struggle against her attraction to him. The chemistry between the two actors and Mitchum’s devil-may-care attitude elevate a sweet rom-com to something even better. The film deals deftly with grief, single motherhood, and second chances. It’s a bittersweet look at love and the holidays when the country was still recovering from the losses of the second world war. Leigh was only 14 years older than her boy playing her son, but she plays a mother quite believably. Leigh told a story of Mitchum overwhelming her with their first onscreen kiss – he later explained, “I wanted to make the kiss memorable, as though the characters were never going to see each other again. The perks of being an actor are at times not bad".
2. My Sister Eileen (1955)
Janet Leigh stars as the title character in My Sister Eileen, a musical comedy that co-stars Jack Lemmon, Betty Garrett, and a young Bob Fosse. The film is the essence of Leigh’s cookie-cutter sweet ingénue roles that comprised the bread-and-butter of her early career. Based on a 1940 play inspired by Ruth McKenney’s autobiographical short stories in the New Yorker, My Sister Eileen has a rather convoluted history. The play had already been turned into a 1953 Broadway Comden and Green musical, Wonderful Town, but when the studios deemed the film rights too expensive, they decided to write an entirely new score with Jule Styne and Leo Robin. To avoid rights disputes, they had to be careful to change the story and place songs in entirely different places in the action. This is all in spite of the fact that a 1942 film starring Rosalind Russell had already been adapted from the original stage play. Sisters Ruth (Garrett) and Eileen (Leigh) move to New York City with dreams of becoming a writer and an actress respectively, but hijinks soon ensue. Betty Garrett made her return to the screen after a six-year absence in the wake of her husband’s (Larry Parks) blacklisting. Bob Fosse choreographed the film, but also made a rare onscreen appearance as Leigh’s onscreen love interest, Frank Lippincott. Leigh gets to shine as the cheery, aspiring actress at the story’s center.
1. Psycho (1960)
Janet Leigh is only in the first 40 minutes of Psycho, but it still remains the most iconic performance of her career. When Alfred Hitchcock set out to make his most shocking picture yet, he knew he needed a mega-star at its center to make her early demise all the more horrifying – and Leigh was a perfect choice. She fit the model of the Hitchcock blonde to a tee, but brought Marion Crane an earthiness in contrast to Grace Kelly and Tippi Hedren’s more icy elegance. She felt more real and relatable than the untouchable leading ladies of many of his other films. Leigh’s Crane was so vibrant and relatable that it made it all the more shocking when her life was cut short less than halfway through the film. Though she made many films, Leigh is best remembered today for the iconic shower scene in which she is stabbed to death. The scene took an entire week to shoot. Its fast-cutting, ear-splitting score, implied nudity and violence, and the iconic final shot of her eye and the shower drain, were ahead of their time. The scene provoked much outrage and horror upon release, and it is still the stuff of nightmares for many today. Indeed, it’s such an indelible part of Leigh’s legacy that her daughter Jamie Lee Curtis recreated the scene in a photo shoot promoting a new horror television show, Scream Queens.
Whether you prefer to remember her for her sweet ingénue roles or can’t ever quite shake the Psycho shower scene from your mind, there’s a Janet Leigh move for every taste.