And now, for our feature presentation
By Claire Fortier
For Janet Leigh, returning to Lake Tahoe must seem more like a time warp than a homecoming. Her only connection to the area was a chance encounter some 54 years ago that altered Jeanette Helen Morrison’s destiny and forged Janet Leigh’s fate.
That simple twist of fate led to one of Hollywood’s great discoveries – Janet Leigh, whose 50-year career is the stuff of film legends.
Leigh will be honored April 8 by the Lake Tahoe Pioneering in Film Festival and the American Film Institute for her enduring legacy to motion pictures. The weekend event, held April 7-9 on South Shore, will include her films “Psycho” and “The Manchurian Candidate.” A gala honoring Leigh, hosted by Nick Clooney, host of American Movie Classics, will be Saturday, April 8 at Harvey’s Lake Tahoe.
Leigh will be accompanied to the tribute by her daughter, Kelly Curtis, an actress in her own right with numerous stage, film and television appearances, including the guest lead in “Judging Amy.”
Leigh’s chance discovery more than five decades ago is the stuff of Hollywood lure. On a winter break visit with her parents, who worked at nearby Sugar Bowl Ski Ranch ski resort, Leigh was photographed by the lodge photographer.
“I had never seen snow before,” she said during a recent phone interview. “I guess he caught just the right expression.”
A month later, the image caught the attention of famed actress Norma Shearer, who was a visitor at the lodge. Unbeknownst to Leigh, Shearer arranged a screen test with MGM Studios.
That forever changed the young woman from Modesto, Calif., Jeanette Helen Morrison, into the film legend known as Janet Leigh. Within days she had signed a seven-year contract. Within weeks, she was making her movie debut in 1946 opposite Van Johnson, the highest paid actor in Hollywood at the time, in “The Romance of Rosy Ridge.”
“When I tested for the part, they asked me to do a scene from Van’s film, ’30 Seconds Over Tokyo,’ the scene right before he leaves his wife,” she said. “I had seen the movie just a couple of weeks before, so it was simple for me to do the scene.”
Now, with more than 50 movies to her credit, including her enduring performance as the beautiful shower-stabbing victim, Marion Crane, in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” Leigh has earned the moniker of cinema icon.
Her latest film, the mystery/comedy “A Fate Totally Worse than Death,” is slated to be released in the fall. Cast with Christopher Lloyd, she said the two of them were the only ones in the film over the age of 20.
“It’s a fun kind of twist for me,” she said. “It appealed to me because it’s not at all what you would expect me to play. This is a complete departure.”
While she won’t give away the plot, she thinks the film is “riveting. It’s a surprise kind of thing,” she said.
Her Cinderella beginning in Hollywood was a very different experience than that of her two actress daughters; Jamie Lee Curtis, a star in her own right whose roles in horror movies earned her the nickname “the Scream Queen,” and Kelly Curtis.
Competition nowadays is “just awesome, just unbelievable,” Leigh said. “Jamie and Kelly did bit parts. I never did that. I started out as the lead ingenue.”
“When Jamie and Kelly started, nothing came free. It was a whole different world. You didn’t have someone watching over your career like a studio,” she said.
Unlike her daughters, MGM was behind her, training her, promoting her and protecting her. It was all part of the movie studios’ process she calls building a “house of brick.”
“Actors are put into star roles too quickly and have to carry the whole film,” she said. “Today, a person may be the star of a new hit series, but two years from now, people will be saying, ‘Who is he?’ “
Not so during the Hollywood heyday when Leigh’s career was launched. Studios owned their actors, with most on long-term contracts, but spent the time nurturing talent in a way that created legends, not just stars.
“I was never put on a film I wasn’t able to handle or put in the position of carrying a whole project when I wasn’t ready,” she said.
The result was a career in which Leigh was cast with many other screen greats including Angela Lansbury, Frank Sinatra, Elizabeth Taylor, Jerry Lewis, and her former husband, Tony Curtis. After 50 films, the list of actors she has appeared with reads like a Hollywood who’s who.
Her studio days also taught her a sincere appreciation for her fans, something that is becoming a rarity in Hollywood.
“People can be hypocritical in this business. They want you to come see their movies but they don’t want to do the work. You can’t expect to be a star, have studios put up money to make a picture and then say, ‘I don’t do publicity’,” she said.
On the other hand, the world of a celebrity has become more frightening, she said. “Even I’ve had a stalker. That’s scary. Today, it seems like our level of sanity has declined,” she added.
For Leigh, her home is hers exclusively. But outside her front door, Leigh is a star in the old-school sense of the word. Charming and accommodating, she always seems to remember how much people adore a momentary brush with fame.
She captured the dazzling excitement of her Hollywood years in her soon-to-be ruralized autobiography “There Really Was a Hollywood.”
“I had been approached by people to do an ‘as-told-to’ book,” she said. “But every book I read like that always had the ghost writers’ voice. I didn’t want that, nor did I want a Kitty Kelly-type unauthorized autobiography.”
So Leigh decided to write the book herself, launching a new avocation as a writer. “Writing flowed very naturally for me,” she said.
Since she has produced three more books – non-fictional account of “Behind the Scenes of Psycho,” her acclaimed first novel, “House of Destiny,” and her soon-to-be released novel “House of Secrets.”
But Leigh has hardly settled into a life of letters. She is actively involved in a number of charities, as well as a fervent support for the preservation of old films.
“When I was a child, I saw the world through movies. I learned about different cultures and different histories. Most of us did,” she said.
“I used to think that once it was on film, it was forever. But 15 years ago, I was being honored at a festival and they showed my first film. I just about cried. It was in deplorable condition.”
That’s why she believes a much greater effort needs to be made to prevent the classics from disintegrating with age and poor storage.
“There is no question that motion pictures have been one of the most effective mediums for cultural expression this last century. There are so many masterpieces, so many wonderful films out there that we don’t want to forget. That’s why we have to preserve these films now. They are part of our cultural heritage.”
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