Janet Leigh c. 1955 (Photo by Silver Screen Collection / Hulton Archive / Getty Images)
Janet Leigh appeared in more than 50 films during her career. On her birthday, we look back at five of her best roles – including one that involved standing in the shower for seven days in a row.
Holiday Affair (1949)
Janet Leigh began her film career after being discovered by silent star Norma Shearer, widow of former MGM producer Irving Thalberg, who met her while on a ski vacation at the Sugar Bowl resort. Shearer showed her photograph to legendary agent Lew Wasserman and the agent was able to land her a contract despite the fact that she had no acting experience. She played the female lead in her debut The Romance of Rosy Ridge but thereafter was largely used in secondary roles. The first movie she received star billing for was the Lassie movie Hills of Home. She was then loaned to RKO for the Robert Mitchum vehicle Holiday Affair, released on Christmas Eve in 1949. Though Mitchum specialized in playing heavies in Westerns and crime stories, execs at RKO cast him as a good guy in this light-hearted comedy in order to help him repair his public image following a marijuana arrest. Leigh plays Connie Evans, a war widow who lacks the funds to get her kid the toy train he wants for Christmas. The film didn’t do well in its time, but has since become a minor holiday classic with perennial Yuletide cable airings.
The Naked Spur (1953)
Directed by Anthony Mann and co-starring James Stewart, the movie features Leigh as Lina Patch, a woman captured by a bounty hunter after her father gets killed during a bank robbery gone bad. An intense psychological thriller as much as it is a cowboy action flick, the film has been called one of the best Westerns ever made, and it earned its screenwriter Sam Rolfe an Academy Award nomination.
Touch of Evil (1958)
Janet Leigh stars as Susie, the new bride of Mexican drug enforcement official Miguel Vargas, played by Charlton Heston. Leigh nearly didn’t take the part – because of its low budget, her agent had given the project a pass without consulting her. Then, just before shooting started, she broke her arm. She decided to go ahead with the role, and director Orson Welles worked around her broken arm. Her cast was carefully hidden at times, while other shots required her to have the cast cutoff and then immediately replaced. Welles needed Touch of Evil to be a success. His career was in free fall when he landed the project, and he hoped the movie would put it back on track. Sadly it was not to be. Universal took control from Welles, heavily editing and partially reshooting his version before dumping it on the market as B movie. Nevertheless, the film is now hailed as a classic – perhaps the last classic film noir.
Easily the role Janet Leigh is best remembered for, it’s the one that earned her an Oscar nomination despite the fact that her character (spoiler alert!) is killed 45 minutes into the film. And the scene where Leigh's character dies has become permanently wedged in the popular imagination and is almost certainly the most famous three minutes in the history of motion pictures. The infamous shower scene was filmed over the course of seven days and used 77 different camera setups. There is some controversy about whether Leigh used a body double – she claimed it was all her except for the end when Norman Bates drags Marion Crane out of the shower; meanwhile another source has said much of the scene actually featured showgirl and Playboy
model Marli Renfro, who was paid $500 for her efforts (coincidentally, her Playboy
cover featured her in the shower). Whatever the case, Leigh said she was so traumatized by the scene – not shooting it, but watching it on screen – that for years afterward she opted for baths instead of showers. Leigh must have been a good barometer of scariness because during filming director Alfred Hitchcock tested the scare factor of various models of Mother Bates' corpse by leaving them in Leigh’s dressing room and listening for her reaction – the louder she screamed, the closer Hitchcock felt his technicians were to getting the perfect Mrs. Bates. Decades later Leigh would have a cameo alongside her daughter Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later
, with Leigh reporting to private school dean Curtis that there is a problem with the girls' dorm shower.
Bye Bye Birdie (1963)
After roles in heavies like Psycho and The Manchurian Candidate, perhaps it's little wonder Janet Leigh felt like lightening things up a little. In Bye Bye Birdie she plays Rosie DeLeon, secretary and love interest to a struggling songwriter with doctorate in biochemistry. Rosie cooks up a scheme involving getting rock star Conrad Birdie to sing one of her husband’s songs on The Ed Sullivan Show before the conscripted star departs for the Army and, as they say, complications ensue. Though Leigh was given top billing, Ann-Margret, playing a star-struck teenager from Sweet Apple, Ohio, emerged as the film’s real star.