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Janet Leigh, 77; Memorable Shower Scene in 'Psycho' Established Her as a Major Star

October 05, 2004|Myrna Oliver | Times Staff Writer

Janet Leigh, Hollywood's perfect "nice girl" ingenue who memorably changed her acting image and earned an Academy Award nomination with her bloodcurdling screams as she was stabbed to death in Alfred Hitchcock's classic "Psycho," has died. She was 77.

Leigh, who appeared in more than 60 motion pictures, died Sunday in her Beverly Hills home of vasculitis, an inflammation of the blood vessels.

At her bedside were her husband of more than 40 years, stockbroker and producer Robert Brandt, and her two daughters from her marriage to actor Tony Curtis, actresses Kelly and Jamie Lee Curtis. Leigh's death was announced Monday by Heidi Schaeffer, a spokeswoman for Jamie Lee Curtis.

Of her scores of motion pictures and movies for television, Leigh was proudest of three, all made within four years, she noted in her chatty 1984 autobiography, "There Really Was a Hollywood."

They happened to be her most critically acclaimed films and three that were often included on lists of best all-time movies: Orson Welles' "Touch of Evil" with Charlton Heston and Welles in 1958, "Psycho" in 1960 and, in 1962, "The Manchurian Candidate," which was directed by John Frankenheimer and starred Frank Sinatra and Laurence Harvey.

"Touch of Evil" has been called by film historian Leonard Maltin a "stylistic masterpiece," even though Leigh and Heston agreed with Welles that Universal studio executives, in an effort to court 1950s' mainstream audiences, damaged the picture by re-cutting it.

She preferred the newly restored version of the film that was cut according to Welles' 58-page memo and released on the film's anniversary in 1998.

Perhaps presaging her "Psycho" role, Leigh played the wife of Heston's detective, terrorized by thugs in the Mexican border murder saga.

The Cold War political thriller "The Manchurian Candidate" -- remade this year with Denzel Washington in the Sinatra role -- was to Leigh a "dynamite film," and critics at the time agreed.

Maltin rates it in his 2004 Movie & Video Guide as a "harrowing presentation of the Richard Condon story." Leigh, who read Condon's novel about the Korean War hero on the way to John F. Kennedy's presidential inauguration, quoted Philip Strick's evaluation in her autobiography: "intelligent, funny, superbly written, beautifully played, and brilliantly directed study of the all-embracing fantasy in everyday social, emotional, and political existence."

But "Psycho," with its fatal shower scene that tantalized viewers' imaginations, was unquestionably the zenith of Leigh's prolific motion pictures.

Leigh, offered the script by Hitchcock, was so convinced the role as embezzling office worker Marion Crane would establish her as a major dramatic actress that she agreed to work for one-quarter of her usual $100,000 fee. The gamble paid off.

Her 45 minutes on screen, ending with her dramatic stabbing death in the shower, earned Leigh a Golden Globe award as well as an Oscar nomination and a slot in Hollywood history. "That scene in 'Psycho' alone established Janet as one of the stars every movie fan in the world will always remember," Paramount producer A.C. Lyles, a longtime friend as well as colleague of Leigh's, said Monday.

Film buffs recall Leigh nude in the Bates Motel shower stall. She actually wore a flesh-colored moleskin bikini.

Fans forever "see" the knife wielded by Anthony Perkins' madman Norman Bates piercing her flesh. In reality, the blade never touched her body, and the slashing sounds were made by plunging a knife into a melon. "In those days, we had the Hays Code, censorship, and we couldn't show what actually happened," Leigh told an audience in Newport Beach when she was promoting her book "Psycho: Behind the Scenes of the Classic Thriller" in 1995. "So it all had to be done with cleverness, split-second editing, surprise elements, music -- to create the atmosphere of fear.

"By the time 'Psycho' got to the moment of crescendo -- the attack -- the audience was primed and ready," she said. "They saw what they didn't see. When you have to create something in your own mind, the impression lasts."

To shoot the scene, Leigh spent seven days in the shower on camera while Hitchcock amassed more than 70 takes of two and three seconds each. The work was easy, she said in her book, until the last 20 seconds, when her face had to reflect her realization that her bloody death was imminent.

Once she saw the finished picture, Leigh often said, she abandoned showers for life.

Born Jeannette Helen Morrison in Merced on July 6, 1927, she was studying music and psychology at College of the Pacific in Stockton when fate fit for a Hollywood script intervened.

Former MGM star Norma Shearer saw a photo of the 19-year-old on the desk of her doting father at the ski lodge where he worked. Shearer took the photo to agent Lew Wasserman, who signed her to a contract at MGM -- then known for developing actors -- for $50 a week.

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