Janet Leigh on Surviving Hollywood With Style and Grace
Janet Leigh is living proof that it's possible to survive Hollywood stardom with grace and style.
I wind my way up a twisty canyon drive toward Janet Leigh's home one too-hot midafternoon, an emblatic image of her floating over and over in my head. This picture, one I will never shake, comes from that 1949 MGM silver jubilee portrait - you know the one - where Louis B. Mayer displayed 58 of his studio's prized stars on five tiers like bagatelle. It was a command performance. Mayer saw to it that all his blue-ribbon specimens showed up - Gable, Astaire, Rogers, Tracy, Hepburn, Errol Flynn, Garland, Gene Kelly, Sinatra, Ava Gardner. Some of them faced the camera marble-eyed, grudging, while others looked played out, and a few seemed downright schizy. But Leigh - third row, far right, blouse buttoned to the neck, scarf around her waist-draws you in. She looks like the nicest, dishiest girl in high school, achingly young, outside and in. She was young, just over 20, but that isn't the point. It's that smile, Jesus, that smile. Did anybody ever radiate such obvious zest in being so delectable, so already famous, so there, side by side, with the biggest stars in movies?
She survived the big studio star buildup, acted the bewigged princess in such period stuff as Little Women and Scaramouche, rode out awesome waves of fan frenzy during the front-page romance with, and subsequent marriage to, frequent co-star Tony Curtis, dealt with gossip and divorce, managed to remarry happily, raised two actress daughters in the limelight, struggled to win respect as an actress and got it with Orson Welles's Touch of Evil, won an Oscar nomination for Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, survived being out wriggled by a sex kitten in Bye Bye Birdie, and distinguished herself in character roles when newer blondes got the leads. Janet Leigh has forgotten more about fame than most contemporary actors will ever get the chance to learn. And she has borne every career bump with rare grace and class. Other vintage beauties play out their third acts on soap operas, on tabloid pages, and in denture cream commercials. Not Leigh. She has always been the consummate professional; now, as in her heyday, she enjoys a reputation for being perhaps the most cooperative star in the business.
Janet Leigh and I first met years ago to talk about Psycho for a book I was writing, and we recently appeared together on TV and radio to commemorate the 30th anniversary of Hitchcock's classic, but we have never before sat down to discuss her entire career, all 50-plus films of it.
Leigh greets me at the door of her Beverly Hills home with that same 1949 smile - and that same smokey, raw silk voice that reduced leading men like Robert Mitchum, James Stewart, John Wayne, and Charlton Heston to Jell-O.
"I didn't fuss, you're family," she says, apologizing for not "dressing up," although she is turned out in a designer original. The first thing Leigh does is make it perfectly clear that she does not live on Memory Lane. "I'm writing now," she declares as she leads me upstairs to her pin-neat study, which boasts copies of her successful 1984 autobiography, There Really Was a Hollywood, which strongly reflects Leigh's own feelings that if you don't have something nice to say about someone, don't say it. "If I wasn't there in a room to witness something for myself," she shrugs, "I don't talk about it." Leigh's too tactful to even talk about everything she did see for herself - though she can be bawdy and funny in private conversation, she's quintessentially discreet when the tape recorder is rolling. Before we sit down to begin the interview de facto, Leigh shows me the 400-plus-page manuscript of her work-in-progress, a multi-generational novel.
Having been drilled in career survival under contract at MGM from 1947 to 1954, and having reinvented herself time and again to suit the unique visions of such directors as Fred Zinnemann, Josef von Sternberg, Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, Anthony Mann, and Blake Edwards, Leigh's ambition to fashion her '90s persona-that of a developing writer who sometimes acts - is logical. Still, her fame as a star follows her, and she makes no effort to deny it. She's proud of her career and all that she's accomplished, but she wants to be seen as a vital woman who lives in the here and now, not as someone who longs for the past.
Although MGM debuted her as winsome and virginal, Leigh had already been married - twice - when Norma Shearer, the widow Thalberg, became entranced by a photo of her kept by her father, Fred, a receptionist at a Soda Springs, California resort where Shearer was vacationing. At the time, Leigh herself was living over an aunt's garage with her second husband, a struggling bandleader.
Leigh was the only child of parents who moved often in search of work, undermining whatever security their daughter found in friends and schools. Radiant yet riddled with self-doubt, Leigh was exquisitely tuned to her parents' bickering about finances. Perhaps to get out from under the weight of their love, she fled at age 14 to marry 19-year-old Kenneth Carlyle, and she was badly shaken when her scandalized parents had the marriage annulled. She seemed to swallow their shameful judgment that she was, in the parlance of the day, damaged goods. She imposed her own sentence; as she described it to me, "guilt for life." Later, while majoring in music and minoring in psychology at College of the Pacific, hoping to become a music therapist, she was unsettled but flattered by the attentions of Stanley Reames, a small-time band man, and she married him in 1946.
Considering that her self-esteem was shaky and her only acting experience was in a school production of "The Pirates of Penzance," it's no wonder Leigh was "flabbergasted" when, on the say-so of Shearer, MGM debuted her - a $50-a-week contract player with barely an acting lesson - as the Dewy Young Thing in love with the Boy Next Door, Van Johnson, in The Romance of Rosy Ridge, set in post-Civil War Missouri. A critic wrote that the movie's "rustic charm spread through [it] like molasses," but the 19-year-old Leigh considered the role ideal. "No one could have been greener or more naive," recalls the actress, who chose to see herself as "Pollyanna in Hollywood."
Leigh was one of the last of the contract players to get a glimpse of old Hollywood, however briefly. "MGM wasn't as grand once Mayer left," Leigh recalls. "But I was there!" She "worked like hell on a dialect, something that never comes easy to me" to play an English waif in If Winter Comes, delighting in the fact that her British director, Victor Saville, "didn't realize for a while that I was actually American." She supported Lassie ("Who can compete?" she asks), in Hills of Home. She played "Meg," the old Frances Dee role, in Mervyn LeRoy's cloying Technicolor remake of Little Women with Elizabeth Taylor and June Allyson. Then she played the niece whose fiancé 41-year-old Greer Carson lures away in That Forsyte Woman (another color picture, a sign her star was rising).
Petal lovely, fresh-scrubbed, never less than a charmer, Leigh showed an edge over her frothy sisterhood - the Debbies, Dorises, Pipers, and Mitzis of the '50s-due in part to her being, as critics frequently pointed out, sexy as all getout. Her figure was such a force of nature that she didn't have to push it. Color showcased her splendors, but black and white exposed in her a bruised, coiled furtiveness, even a toughness, that set her apart. When she was given the chance in the film noir-ish Act of Violence and Rogue Cop, for example, which anticipated her indispensable turns for Welles, Hitchcock, and Frankenheimer, she hinted that she could bring subtext to roles beyond that of the standard studio-issue doll. But in the late '40s and early '50s, MGM chose to roll her out as a frothy farceuse, in movies like Confidentially Connie, and as a twinkly Dancing Lady, in films like Words and Music.
In 1949, Leigh was borrowed for an RKO movie by studio head Howard Hughes, whose obsessive attentions repelled her. "Not a pleasant association," she recalls, shuddering. Many other beauties of the time wound up being kept by Hughes, or in the case of starlet Jean Peters, marrying him; Leigh did neither, yet managed to interest the bosom-obsessed mogul enough to help her shift her image from fluffy to foxy. Leaning back her head to exhale cigarette smoke-and allowing herself a moment to curse Hughes for convincing her to sex-up her image by smoking, "which I've done ever since"-she recalls Hughes casting her as an airborne Russian Mata Hari in the subversively nutty Jet Pilot. Criminally misdirected by Josef von Sternberg, whom she found "strange," and co-starring John Wayne, "a hunk of man," the debacle - released seven years after shooting began - was advertised by Hughes with specially designed posters that showed Leigh wriggling out of a sweater.
In 1951, Leigh entered her headiest incarnation - the idol of fan magazine readers and bobby-soxer millions - as the wife and costar of Tony Curtis. No studio-arranged liaison could have been more shrewdly engineered. Curtis's swarthy enthnicity (he was born Bernard Schwartz, a tailor's kid, and grew up in a combat zone of the Bronx) nicely curdled her peaches and cream. Two years after MGM had signed Leigh, Universal-International sewed up Curtis for seven years, starting him at $100 per week and sometimes billing him as "Anthony Curtis." By the time Leigh met Curtis, he was working his way up to $1,500 a week, a star's salary. She thought he was "devastatingly handsome - beautiful really," when they met at a bash at Lucy's restaurant across from Paramount on Gower and Melrose. Calling her the first time for a date, he charmed her by impersonating Cary Grant. Her training as a psychologist might have warned her to take that as an ominous opening gambit; instead, she was won over. The romance was on.
Legend has it that the studio bosses threw fits when they learned their money-makers had eloped in 1951 to Connecticut. Leigh pretty much confirms this. "We got a certificate with our 'maiden names' so no one would know," she says. "MGM hadn't wanted me to get married much more than Universal didn't want Tony to." For years after their wedding, one could rarely pick up such hugely popular movie fan magazines as Photoplay or Modern Screen - let alone Life or Look, the covers of which often boasted their faces - without a feature story on Leigh and Curtis. Madonna and Warren Beatty? Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson? Absolute peanuts, compared with this '50s team. The Leigh-Curtis liaison seemed lit by strobing flashbulbs that exposed them as heartbreakingly dreamy and aerodynamically sleek as a couple of T-bird ragtops. Cameras caught them dolled-up for movie premieres or night-clubbing at Ciro's, the Mocambo, or the chummier Slapsie Maxie's. "It was glamorous," Leigh remembers. "You always dressed up, then went to dinner at wonderful places like La Rue, Chasen's, or Romanoff's. That was a time when I felt I was living in a movie magazine."
Not everyone was charmed. Veteran columnists criticized Leigh and Curtis for grabbing any role that was thrown at them, accusing them of being "fearfully ambitious kids, so determined to make it, they were tiresome," and "overeager, over-nice, over-everything." Leigh says, with a shrug, "Some people seemed to feel that we measured recognition by the numbers of the fan letters, the hoopla, or how many covers or interviews, but that wasn't the case at all. We were cooperative. And it was part of the work. Not the main part, but it doesn't do anybody any good to do the best possible job on a movie no one sees."
Somehow, the perfect marriage did not put off the fans, even after daughters Kelly and Jamie Lee were born, in 1956 and 1958. "There was a chemistry that audiences liked," Leigh says. "It was a very nice thing that it didn't hurt his career. Or mine. Somehow, it didn't take him away from his fans because, well, they liked his choice." And hers. Leigh was the bigger star when they married, and that nearly derailed the 1953 Houdini, their first of six movies together. "I was making much more money than Tony at that time, and, at first, MGM didn't want to loan me, then gave in," Leigh recalls of the biopic made at Paramount for producer George Pal. "I knew that Tony and I would be good together onscreen, but when the picture never seemed to get going, I kept asking, 'So when are we going to start?' When I found out that MGM had insisted that, as their star, I had to have top billing, I called my agent and said: 'There's no question. A man is going to have top billing. The picture is called Houdini.' I had to say, 'Come on, guys, this is my husband. It'll be great for the two of us.' " And, financially speaking, it was. After that, audiences hungered to see them together in anything, so Universal, having liked Leigh in wigs and brocade in Fox's Prince Valiant, and Curtis as The Prince Who Was a Thief, shoved them into The Black Shield of Falworth, a medieval fantasia that director Rudolph Mate was forced to play for laughs. That it didn't end both their careers cold is proof of their indestructability as icons-in-the-making.
Leigh and Curtis kept house in several Beverly Hills mansions, including one next to Pickfair, the legendary estate of an earlier pair of lovebirds they briefly replaced. For the public it played like storybook stuff. Privately, while Curtis wrestled demons allegedly related to his being Jewish and to his being mocked by Hollywood as a flyweight, he was perhaps not always the dream husband. That their union lasted a full decade in the glare of the limelight is quite an achievement, especially since it had its fair share of inequities. Leigh herself recalls that Curtis did try to rein in her career; in 1955, he insisted she turn down Rodgers and Hammerstein's offer to have her star on Broadway in their musical Pipe Dream. "It would have been a kick," she philosophizes today, "but what's to regret? Tony and I had been married three years, and you can't work in New York while your husband lives in Hollywood." The following year, after shooting Safari on location in Africa, she apparently found Curtis so distressed that she agreed not to do location movies without him. Enter stuff like The Vikings, an immense, blood-soaked hit they shot together with Kirk Douglas in Europe. "I wanted to pursue my craft, but my husband would come first," she explained in her autobiography, voicing what was to become a credo and, perhaps, a key to her personal salvation when she later distanced herself from Hollywood.
It was while Leigh and Curtis were co-starring in The Perfect Furlough that director Blake Edwards, their "bosom buddy," suggested Curtis enter psychoanalysis. If therapy helped purge Curtis, it may also have helped crack the plaster of the Leigh-Curtis marriage. Meanwhile, onscreen Leigh began to hit her stride. Unlike such other MGM contractees as June Allyson, Esther Williams, Cyd Charisse, Gloria De Haven, and Arlene Dahl, who lost their moorings once the lion's roar died to a whimper, Leigh flourished with directors who kept her off-balance. Orson Welles cast her, in 1958, opposite Charlton Heston in Touch of Evil, and, in what Leigh calls "a rambling, unstructured, good picture whose 'differentness' [Universal] didn't understand," she gave one of her most memorable performances as an out-of-it newlywed harassed on her Mexican honeymoon by creepezoids out to get her Latino, drug-enforcer husband (Heston!).
Folks still talk about the wingding Curtis and Leigh threw to commemorate their tenth wedding anniversary: such guests as the Lew Wassermans, the Steve McQueens, Shirley MacLaine, Doris Day, Rock Hudson, and the Kirk Douglases danced away the night on a floor built over the pool to an orchestra on an elevated dais. Despite this, rumors of their worsening marital problems began surfacing when, minus Curtis, Leigh summered on the Riviera with her close friends, the Kennedys, and was then jolted back to reality by the barbiturate overdose suicide of her father.
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