Celebrated actress Janet Leigh dies at 77

Appreciation

Janet Leigh, of `Psycho,' dies at 77

Actress defined the role of the ill-fated heroine

October 05, 2004|By Michael Muskal | Michael Muskal,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Janet Leigh, the actress who turned the mundane act of taking a shower into one of cinema's most enduring images of gore and horror, died Sunday with her family at her bedside. She was 77.

The actress' husband, Robert Brandt, and her actress daughters Kelly and Jamie Lee Curtis, were at Leigh's side when she died in Beverly Hills. Leigh had suffered from vasculitis, an inflammation of the blood vessels, for the past year.

"She died peacefully at home," said Heidi Schaeffer, a spokeswoman for Jamie Lee Curtis.

For almost six decades and more than 60 films, Leigh helped define the range of women's roles in Hollywood. From playing young ingenues opposite the most important leading men of the 1940s and 1950s, such as Errol Flynn and James Stewart, to working in gritty dramatic roles with Frank Sinatra and Paul Newman in the 1960s, Leigh displayed her sexuality without being vulgar.

But it was her work in Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 thriller Psycho that became the defining moment of her career and led to an Oscar nomination as best supporting actress. She played Marion Crane, an embezzling office worker, hacked to death in her shower by a crazed motel owner, Norman Bates, acted by Anthony Perkins. In Hitchcock's hands and with Leigh and Perkins, what could have been a quirky slasher film was elevated to cultural touchstone.

In her first scene in the film, Leigh is shown on a bed in just underwear. "That was very hot stuff," she recalled in a 2001 interview with WE: Women's Entertainment. "We had censors, but they didn't think anything about a bathing suit, but the fact you had on underwear. ... The connotation meant it was sexual."

By today's standards, Leigh's role seems tame, but in the America just coming out of the repressed 1950s, it was like being plunged into an icy bath, shocking and mind-numbing all at once. There were rumors she was naked in the shower scene, but she actually wore moleskin to simulate nudity.

Leigh wrote in her 1995 book, Psycho: Behind the Scenes of the Classic Thriller, that the filming was easy until the last 20 seconds when she had to express horror as her character was being slashed to death. Asked once if it was true that she didn't take showers, she told interviewers: "It's actually, honestly true. And not because of the shooting of it. It was the seeing of it. It never dawned on me how truly vulnerable we are. But that's what Hitchcock did. A shower. A bird. All these things that are absolutely ordinary, he made extraordinary."

Born Jeanette Helen Morrison on July 6, 1927, in Merced, Calif., Leigh was an only child, according her biography posted on the film Web site IMDb.

Her father was working the desk at a ski resort where her mother worked as a maid, according to the site, when retired MGM actress Norma Shearer saw a picture of Leigh and used her influence to get Leigh a screen test at MGM. That led to her first starring role in the 1947 film The Romance of Rosy Ridge, and a run as a contract player in the Hollywood system.

From there, her career included: Little Women (1949), Angels in the Outfield (1951), Scaramouche (1952), Houdini (1953) and the Orson Welles' classic Touch of Evil (1958).

In 1962, she again demonstrated her range, starring in the paranoid Cold War political thriller The Manchurian Candidate with Sinatra. The following year, she did a cinema about-face and danced in the musical comedy Bye Bye Birdie. She also starred in a number of made-for-television movies.

Leigh was married four times, her first at 14. It was later annulled. At the height of her fame in 1951, Leigh married Tony Curtis, with whom she had Jamie Lee Curtis and Kelly Curtis. "Tony and I had a wonderful time together; it was an exciting, glamorous period in Hollywood," she once said. "A lot of great things happened, most of all, two beautiful children."

She married Brandt, a businessman, in 1962.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. Wire services contributed to this article.

Leigh's films

A selection of Janet Leigh's movies:

1947: The Romance of Rosy Ridge

1948: If Winter Comes

1949: Act of Violence, Little Women, Holiday Affair

1951: Strictly Dishonorable, Angels in the Outfield, Two Tickets to Broadway

1952: Scaramouche

1953: The Naked Spur, Walking My Baby Back Home

1954: Prince Valiant, Living It Up, The Black Shield of Falworth, Rogue Cop

1955: Pete Kelly's Blues, My Sister Eileen

1956: Safari

1957: Jet Pilot

1958: Touch of Evil, The Vikings

1959: The Perfect Furlough

1960: Who Was That Lady?, Psycho

1962: The Manchurian Candidate

1963: Bye Bye Birdie, Wives and Lovers

1966: Harper, Three on a Couch

1980: Fog

1998: Halloween H2O: 20 Years Later

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