Friday, August 1, 2008

Ellen Graham's Eye on the World: Janet Leigh

Janet Leigh at her home in Beverly Hills, 1975.
Janet Leigh
photographed by Ellen Graham.

Born Jeannette Helen Morrison in Merced, California in 1927, she was discovered when she was sixteen or seventeen, by 30s film star Norma Shearer who was staying at a ski lodge in Sun Valley, Idaho where the girl’s parents worked. Shearer, who was the widow of the legendary mogul Irving Thalberg, was also a leading stockholder in Loews, Incorporated, the theatre company that owned M-G-M. She had influence and she used it in promoting her find. She sent the pretty young girl’s picture to Lew Wasserman, the head of MCA and he negotiated a seven year contract for her at M-G-M where they changed her name to Janet Leigh.

In the 1950s, Janet Leigh was one of the hot young stars in Hollywood. Her career was enhanced by her marriage to actor Tony Curtis, also a hot young star. They had two daughters, Kelly and Jamie Lee.

By age 30, Janet Leigh was a major star and so was her husband. 1960 saw the release of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho.” Hundreds of millions can still conjure up in their mind’s eye, Janet Leigh screaming while being stabbed to death in the shower of the Bates Motel. Overnight it changed a lot of people’s approach to taking a shower when home alone.

Ellen Graham
Leigh and Curtis were one of Hollywood’s most glamorous marriages until 1962 when he left her for a German actress named Christine Kaufman. Later that year, Janet married Bob Brandt, a Los Angeles stockbroker. That marriage lasted for more than 40 years until her death at 77 in 2004.

Off-screen, Janet Leigh was one of the sweetest, most down-to-earth women in Hollywood. She seemed to have no pretense about her in any way. Her star recognition was always very high in the movie community throughout her adult life to the end, but she never appeared to have been fazed by it. She was known as “Jenny” to her closest friends. By the time she was in her fifties her screen career was over and she had turned to writing – first a memoir and then a novel based on the Hollywood she grew up in.

I met her in the 1980s through Lillian Burns Sidney who had been the acting coach at M-G-M during the late 1930s through the 1950s. Lillian, who had been long divorced, had no children and no immediate family nearby. Janet and Debbie Reynolds became “family” for her and she was visited and communicated with almost daily, and included on all family and holiday gatherings, by one woman or the other for the rest of her life.

The Hollywood that Janet Leigh grew up in and lived in was a company town, controlled by several “factories” (20th, M-G-M, Paramount, Columbia, Universal, etc). The bankers back in New York had the last word on the money, but the moguls who headed the studios ruled like benevolent despots.

This was understood by all. Their stars -- who were the “merchandise to be marketed” -- were schooled in the basics of being a movie star. They were disciplined images. The very successful ones – the ones that had strong careers and made stable lives of some sort for themselves – were hard-working people, well aware of their place in the scheme of things, and very conscientious about keeping their jobs. In order to accomplish this, smart women would put themselves in the hands of those who “created” their screen images. They followed their guidance the way we might emulate a wise professor or mentor.

Lillian Sidney was one of those mentors/ professors to Janet Leigh. She had deep respect and affection for her charges – those stars who worked with, and she mothered them almost to her last days. Her Jenny was one of those hard-working, conscientious actresses; a good, caring “daughter” to Lillian.


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