Janet Leigh appeared in more than 50 films during her career. After being discovered by Norma Shearer, widow of MGM producer Irving Thalberg, who met her while skiing at Lake Tahoe on vacation. Legendary agent Lew Wasserman signed her even though she had no acting experience. In her first film, The Romance Of Rosy Ridge (1947), she had the lead role, but after that she was mostly cast in supporting roles.
The first film where she received top billing for was Hills Of Home, where she costars opposite a bitch named Lassie. That same year she played Dorothy Rodgers in Words And Music supposedly a biopic about the creative partnership of the composer Richard Rodgers and gay lyricist Lorenz Hart. The film stars Mickey Rooney as Hart and gay actor Tom Drake as Rodgers. It is basically fiction, conveniently ignoring Hart’s psychological problems and self-destructive behavior, without a clue to Hart’s gayness. But Leigh gets Rodgers right and the movie has terrific musical numbers performed by the major MGM stars of the era, including Judy Garland, Lena Horne, and Gene Kelly.
She was loaned to RKO for Holiday Affair (1949) starring Robert Mitchum. Mitchum played heavies in Westerns and crime stories, yet RKO execs had the great idea cast him as a good guy in a light-hearted comedy to help him with his public image following an arrest for smoking the evil marijuana. Leigh plays a poor war widow who wants to get her kid a toy train for Christmas. The film was a box-office bomb, but I always enjoy watching during the holidays on TCM.
Leigh worked in film, television, stage, and radio, in a career that lasted over five decades. Leigh was born Jeanette Helen Morrison, and her name was first changed to “Jeanette Reames”, then to “Janet Leigh” and finally back to her birth name “Jeanette Morrison”, when RKO felt “Janet Leigh” might be confused with Vivien Leigh. It was ultimately changed back to “Janet Leigh”.
Leigh published four books; a memoir There Really Was A Hollywood (1984), a New York Times bestseller, Psycho: Behind The Scenes Of The Classic Thriller (1995), and the novels, House Of Destiny (1996), and The Dream Factory (2002), both about Hollywood during the height of the studio system.
After two earlier marriages, Leigh married actor Tony Curtis in 1951. Their marriage often made it into gossip columns and the tabloids. Leigh and Curtis acted in home movies directed by their friend Jerry Lewis. Leigh wrote that improving in these little films improved her acting ability. Curtis and Leigh had two children who became actors, one is Academy Award-winner Jamie Lee Curtis. Curtis and Leigh divorced in 1962.
A lifelong progressive, Leigh supported John F. Kennedy in the 1960 presidential election and Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964. She was on the board of directors of the Motion Picture and Television Foundation, which provides medical services for actors.
Her last film role was in Bad Girls From Valley High (2000), released posthumously. Leigh died at her home in Beverly Hills in 2004. Taken by heart disease at 77 years old. Her death surprised many, as she had not disclosed her illness to the public. Her ashes are at Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in Los Angeles if you would like to stop by to give her your regards.
I wonder if Jamie Lee and Melanie Griffith (her mother is, of course, The Birds star Tippi Hedren) have ever talked about their mothers’ experiences working with Hitchcock.
Leigh is played by Scarlett Johansson in the film Hitchcock (2012).
Here are 10 of my favorite Leigh performances:
The Naked Spur (1953), an intense psychological thriller and a cowboy action flick, it is one of the best Westerns ever:
Touch Of Evil (1958), director Orson Welles had to shoot around Leigh’s broken arm, with her cast carefully hidden. But shots required her to have the cast cutoff and then immediately replaced on set. Welles needed Touch Of Evil to be a success. Sadly, Universal took control and heavily edited, partially reshooting it before dumping it on the market as a “B” movie. Yet, it is now hailed as a classic, perhaps the last truly great film noir.
Bye Bye Birdie (1963) lightened things up a little for Leigh after Psycho. In Bye Bye Birdie she plays the Latin secretary and love interest of Dick Van Dyke as a struggling songwriter. Leigh was even given top billing, but newcomer Ann-Margret is the film’s real star, but Leigh proves she had real singing/dancing chops.
The Manchurian Candidate (1962) is, for me, the greatest political psychological thriller. Leigh is relegated to a girlfriend role, but it is played with more nuance and intelligence than expected and she makes an impact in a movie filled with great performances.
Scaramouche (1952) is an amusing action-adventure-romance film that takes place in late 18th Century France, with Leigh and Stewart Granger, Eleanor Parker, Mel Ferrer in high swashbuckling spirits.
Little Women (1949) is based on the novel by Louisa May Alcott, and has been adapted to film seven times, the first in 1917, and the last in 2019. This one is the first full color adaptation, and it has June Allyson as Jo, Margaret O’Brien as Beth, Elizabeth Taylor as Amy, and Leigh as Meg. Directed by Mervyn LeRoy, the film received two Academy Award nominations, winning for Best Art Direction/Set Direction. Absurdly mature for their roles, all four lead actors bring a simple elegance of human decency and goodness to their performances.
The truly scary The Fog (1980), where a hundred years after the mysterious sinking of a ship, an unearthly fog rolls into a small coastal town, bringing vengeful ghosts who were killed during the shipwreck, is directed by John Carpenter, with Adrienne Barbeau, and Jamie Lee Curtis, one of two films with mother and daughter.
Harper (1966); Paul Newman stars with Leigh, Shelley Winters, Lauren Bacall (giving homage to Humphrey Bogart‘s Sam Spade and Philip Marlow private eyes), and Julie Harris as femme fatales. Newman is a tough guy Los Angeles private dick. The screenplay by Academy Award-winner William Goldman, is based on the Ross MacDonald novel The Moving Target (1949). You will dig the mid-Sixties design, and the crazy Rat Pack lingo provided by Goldman, and Leigh as a very fatale femme.
Leigh and Curtis appeared together in five films: Houdini (1953), The Black Shield Of Falworth (1954), The Vikings (1958), The Perfect Furlough (1958), and Who Was That Lady? (1960). They also had cameos together in Pepe (1960).