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Private Lives

Jamie Lee Curtis, From Slasher Queen to Children's Dreams

September 18, 2000|MARY McNAMARA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

While the rest of Hollywood scrambles and stutters in response to the latest round of rebukes in the anti-blood and -gore campaign, Jamie Lee Curtis just happens to be sitting in the catbird seat. The original scream queen, who helped launch the slasher movie genre with "Halloween," "Prom Night," "Terror Train" and "The Fog," now writes children's books.

Good children's books, sweet and funny children's books, the kind that parents don't mind reading 173 times. A week. Four of them thus far, all illustrated by Laura Cornell and all very successful.

"When I Was Little: A Four-Year-Old's Memoir of Her Youth" (HarperCollins, 1993) has become a model for writing classes of all levels across the country, including L.A. public schools participating in the UCLA Writing Project. "Tell Me About the Night That I Was Born" (HarperCollins, 1996) became the ultimate gift for every adoptive family.

"Today I Feel Silly and Other Moods That Make My Day" (Joanna Cotler Books, 1998) soared beyond its 4- to 8-year-old suggested age range to roost for 10 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list; thus far, it's sold 750,000 copies. And her latest, "Where Do Balloons Go? An Uplifting Mystery" (Joanna Cotler Books), which debuted earlier this month, is the first No. 1 book on that paper's newly launched children's bestseller list, picture-book division, a fact Curtis does not mention until the very end of a chat in her Santa Monica home.

"I just found out, but I didn't want to say anything right away, because I didn't want to sound like a horrible braggart," she says. "But really, I am so thrilled."

She looks thrilled, grinning that familiar disarming grin over coffee in the dining room of her comfortable Spanish-style home. And it's contagious--one finds oneself thrilled for her, as if she were a beloved college roommate. She is, after all, easily recognizable, the child of Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis, married to actor and filmmaker Christopher Guest and a long-standing presence on the big screen ("Trading Places," "A Fish Called Wanda" and "True Lies") and the small ("Anything but Love").

But unlike other Hollywood scions, she has never seemed tragic, never seemed troubled. Her marriage is in its 16th year. And even when brandishing a kitchen knife or seducing John Cleese, Jamie Lee Curtis always seemed somehow normal, somehow nice.

In a way, her writing seems like a natural transition, despite the fact that one of her most recent feature films was "Halloween: H20," co-starring her mother (arguably the original original scream queen), with a body count of about 10.

So where does she, mother of Annie, 13, and Tom, 4, stand on the issue of violence in the entertainment media?

"I do have a unique perspective," she admits. "Is there too much violence in movies. Probably. But I don't think it's the government's responsibility to regulate what's made. It's the parents' responsibility to regulate what their child sees and does."

As if testifying before a Senate subcommittee, she speaks authoritatively and with specific examples--and there has been plenty of regulation in the Curtis/Guest house.

"We took Nintendo out when we realized Tom was up to level five on Star Fox [an alien attack game]. I made the decision to take the Eminem album out of this house after I listened to the whole thing. I have chosen not to let my daughter have the Internet in her room--if she wants to go online, she has to come downstairs into a common room so my husband and I can see what she's doing. Is my daughter allowed to see horror movies? Absolutely not."

As a mother, Curtis says, she obsesses about everything--videos, television, pacifiers. But that is her role, not Hollywood's. "If self-regulation is being conscious," she says, "then yes, that's a good thing. But people shouldn't be told what they can and cannot do or say or make. We have to protect free speech."

She has, however, pulled the plug on a few acting projects that were in the vein of her slasher past. "I found myself wondering why I was spending so much time on such a dark subject," she says. "That's where self-regulation comes from--are we going to evolve and grow as people? That's why I have chosen a different path now."

And for the record, she hates horror movies, not because she thinks they're particularly harmful but because she hates being scared. Her parents, she says, screened "The Exorcist" at her 15th birthday party, and she was the only kid in the room freaking out. "Maurice Sendak scares me," she says, hanging her head in mock embarrassment.

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