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Janet Leigh - Star of the Month
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Janet Leigh Profile

Few stars can achieve icon status with one film, let alone one scene, but if ever an actress earned that distinction, it was the beautiful Janet Leigh when she took on the role of the ill-fated bank embezzler Marion Crane in Alfred Hitchcock's classic thriller Psycho (1960). We all know what happens to Leigh's character when she takes her final shower at the notorious Bates motel. It was one of many fine performances this lovely leading lady gave us.

She was born Jeanette Helen Morrison on July 6, 1927 in Merced, California. The only child of a young, rootless couple, young Jeanette took music and dancing lessons and excelled in her academic studies, skipping several grades and graduating high school when she was just 15. In 1946, her parents were working at a ski resort in Northern California - her mother a maid, her father a front desk clerk. They had young Jeanette's picture on the counter when none other than screen legend Norma Shearer approached him about the photo. She took one look at the picture and immediately felt the young girl, who was only 19 at the time, radiated star quality. Shearer set up a screen test for her at MGM (Shearer's old studio). The studio executives liked what they saw, and gave Jeanette a contract, and changed her name to Janet Leigh.

She made her screen debut in the romantic drama The Romance of Rosy Ridge (1947). Although she could hold her own with whatever she was given, a majority of her early roles were just variations of the sweet ingenue: If Winter Comes (1948), Little Women (1949), and the popular baseball fantasy, Angels in the Outfield (1951).

In 1951, she married actor Tony Curtis, and their union was celebrated as one of Hollywood's "fairy-tale" couples. It did enhance her popularity, and her screen roles improved somewhat. She was fine as Aline de Gavrillac opposite Stewart Granger in Scaramouche (1952); and she had fun opposite her new hubby Curtis in the biopic Houdini (1953); but her dramatic turn in Anthony Mann's stark, psychological Western The Naked Spur (1953), caught the attention of the critics and from here, Leigh graduated to sharper films: the tense police drama Rogue Cop (1954); the freewheeling musical My Sister Eileen (1955); the suffering heroine in Orson Welles' legendary Touch of Evil (1958). And she showed great comic flair in two delightful comedies with Curtis - Blake Edward's sharp The Perfect Furlough (1959) and Who Was That Lady? (1960). Of course, her next film Psycho (1960), which we all know has the most infamous shower scene in screen history, earned Leigh her only Oscar® nomination, but she did win a Golden Globe for her performance.

For the next few years, Leigh kept the streak coming with some good roles: Frank Sinatra's curious girlfriend in John Frankenheimer's The Manchurian Candidate (1962); the sharp talent agent in Bye Bye Birdie (1963); and she was wryly effective as Paul Newman's ex-wife in Harper (1966). Within a few years though, she was making dreck like Hello Down There (1969), a "comedy" about a family living underwater; and Night of the Lepus (1972), a woeful thriller that had Leigh fighting off giant, killer rabbits in Tucson, Arizona.

At this point, she wisely turned to television, making a string of made-for-tv movies and appearing on innocuous shows like The Love Boat and Fantasy Island. By the early '80s, Leigh's daughter, Jaime Lee Curtis, had found some measure of success in horror movies (Halloween (1978), Terror Train (1980), and mother and daughter appeared for the first time together on the big screen in John Carpenter's The Fog (1980).

Leigh more or less went into semi-retirement, save for some guest appearances in the late '80s on programs such as Murder She Wrote and The Twilight Zone. She did appear with her daughter one last time in Carpenter's Halloween H20: 20 Years Later (1998), and made her final film appearance in the odd teen comedy A Fate Worse Than Death (2000). In 1984 she published an autobiography, There Really Was a Hollywood. She is survived by her husband of 42 years Robert Brandt (she had divorced Curtis in 1962); her two daughters, the actresses Kelly and Jamie Lee; and two grandchildren.

by Michael T. Toole

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