More than a scream in the shower

Janet Leigh brought intelligence, class to her many roles, before and after 'Psycho'


October 10, 2004|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,Sun Movie Critic

She made 62 other movies, and in none of them was she stabbed repeatedly while taking a shower.

Janet Leigh, who died last week at 77, will go down in film history for one role only -- in reality, for one scene, the 45 seconds she spent getting knifed by Anthony Perkins' deranged mama's boy in Psycho (1960). It is, admittedly, one incredible scene, a tour de force of quick-cut editing by director Alfred Hitchcock that set the template for every damsel-in-distress scene in every horror film made for the next 44 years (and counting).

To her credit, Leigh for the rest of her 50-year career never tired of talking about the role of Marion Crane. She gave seemingly thousands of interviews in which, amazingly, she frequently came up with new details. In a National Public Radio interview from a few years back, for instance, she revealed that it was never Hopkins who wielded the knife while the scene was being filmed, but rather a succession of men and women used by Hitchcock, who was afraid someone in the audience might recognize Perkins and thus not be properly shocked by the movie's surprise ending.

"We are in the business of creating images," Leigh said during a 1997 interview, given while she was in town to promote a screening at Baltimore's Senator Theatre of -- what else -- Psycho. "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."

And yes, she confirmed during the interview, she hadn't taken a shower (at least not one with the curtain closed) since Psycho. "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."

How ironic that Janet Leigh and King Kong's Fay Wray died within a month of each other. Both were accomplished actors who spent years making films, yet each is remembered for one -- a horror film in which the most memorable line for either is a scream. Yet, both women accepted their limited immortality with charm and grace.

Leigh's legacy will be recalled every time an actress in a horror film takes a shower (as Sarah Michelle Gellar does in the upcoming The Grudge), every time an actress lets out a scream (Drew Barrymore was definitely channeling Marion Crane in Scream), every time a director pays a visual homage to what remains one of the cinema's most analyzed and imitated sequences (think Brian De Palma having Nancy Allen take a shower in Dressed to Kill).

But to truly pay tribute to Leigh, it's fitting to acknowledge that she had a career outside of the one movie she made with Hitchcock. She may never have been the brightest star in the Hollywood firmament, but Leigh shone for a lot of years, in a variety of films. Here are six examples:

Angels in the Outfield (1951): Though she was only 23 at the time, Leigh's performance as a lady reporter who believes her home team Pittsburgh Pirates' poor record is due to their manager's abusive behavior set the benchmark for much of what was to follow. Although her beauty was unquestioned, her roles rarely played to it, instead granting her character grace, strength and wit that just happened to be inside a knockout. Leigh always seemed smarter than she was beautiful. Audiences remembered Jack Douglas' laughably foul-mouthed manager, or the cameos by Joe DiMaggio and Ty Cobb, or the invisible angels that helped turn the Pirates into winners, but Leigh's dutiful reporter gives Angels a firm center around which events could pivot -- a function she'd play repeatedly throughout her career.

Scaramouche (1952): Leigh starred in her share of period dramas, including Prince Valiant, The Black Shield of Falworth (both 1954), Little Women (1949, as Meg), even 1953's Houdini, in which she co-starred with then-husband Tony Curtis. This one may have been the most fun, as Leigh dons plenty of big wigs and tight corsets as Aline de Gavrillac de Bourbon, one of two women in love with Stewart Granger's swashbuckling Andre Moreau (Eleanor Parker was the other). Befitting her established screen persona, she plays the more demure of the two -- a thankless role (flamboyance is always more memorable onscreen) that she carried out with her customary class.

The Naked Spur (1953): Anthony Mann's crazed Western helped shake the genre up, turning it away from the staid horse operas of old to concentrate instead on the psyches and moral dilemmas that men and women faced daily on the frontier. James Stewart is an embittered bounty hunter looking to collect on escaped killer Robert Ryan; Leigh is the woman who starts out loving one man, then midmovie develops feelings for the other. An underrated gem that offered Leigh possibly her first real, memorable role.

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