'Psycho' still gives Janet Leigh a thrill, and showers still give her the creeps

November 06, 1997|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

It's the truth -- Janet Leigh really hasn't taken a shower since seeing herself in "Psycho" nearly four decades ago.

"It wasn't shooting the scene," says Leigh, whose character's death at the hands of the knife-wielding Norman Bates helped ingrain Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 masterpiece into the national psyche. "But I never realized before how completely vulnerable we are. Seeing the movie and seeing how defenseless one is -- you can't see, the curtain's shut; you can't hear, the water's running. You're a sitting duck it did a number on my head."

A 37-year bout with showerphobia is about the only negative she can recount from her "Psycho" experience, a piece of cinematic history she'll be discussing at the Senator Theatre tonight when she serves as host for a 7: 30 screening of the film (all tickets were handed out weeks ago). The evening is being sponsored by American Movie Classics and is designed to promote both the cable channel and its continuing efforts to raise money for film preservation.

Leigh had made some 30 films before "Psycho" -- including at least one other masterpiece, Orson Welles' "Touch of Evil" -- and would go on to star in two of her most memorable films, "The Manchurian Candidate" and "Bye Bye Birdie."

But "Psycho" would remain the high point of Leigh's career, in both her eye and the public's. Not bad, considering her character took up only two pages in the Robert Bloch novel on which the film was based. Even in the film, she's gone for good before it's half over.

Having a major character come to such a premature end was the brainchild of screenwriter Joseph Stefano, who felt it would heighten suspense. Having a major star play her was Hitchcock's inspired way of ratcheting the suspense even higher.

"The viewer is involved with the woman," Leigh explains, "and when you meet Tony [Perkins, who played Norman Bates], you think is she going to go with Tony now, or is she going to stay with Sam Loomis [played in the film by John Gavin]? And then, after she and Tony talk and she decides to give back the money and she's killed the audience never believed it."

Stefano's instincts were right on. Leigh says she was constantly approached by fans who were sure she'd be back before the movie was over.

When Stefano explained his idea to the director, she adds, "Hitchcock leaned over and his eyes lit up and he said: 'Yes, and we'll get a star to play her. So it's even more shocking when she gets killed.' "

Shocking, yes, but a great career move.

"We are in the business of creating images, and to think that I was part of something that has remained so potent, has remained in people's minds for 37 years -- I feel so proud, I could never stop talking about it."

Besides, Marion Crane's grisly end may have helped Leigh avoid being typecast after the film's incredible success. Anthony Perkins had a varied and successful career before "Psycho" was released; afterward, the public had trouble seeing him as anything other than the deranged owner of the Bates Motel.

"Tony, because he was still there, he could come back," Leigh says. "I think that's what really killed his career, in terms of versatility. No one would ever let him be anything else.

"But I could go on, because I was killed off."

Pub Date: 11/06/97

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