'Psycho' Turns 60: Jamie Lee Curtis Reflects on Mother Janet Leigh's Performance (Exclusive)
By Rande Iaboni
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Jamie Lee Curtis is one year older than Psycho, the Alfred Hitchcock classic starring her mother, Janet Leigh, which celebrates its 60th anniversary on Sept. 8. The ultimate scream queen, who has left an indelible mark on the horror genre since Halloween first premiered in 1978, reflects on Leigh’s iconic performance and how her legacy still holds up decades later.
“Sixty years is a long time,” Curtis muses to ET, before adding that she doesn’t even remember the first time she actually sat down to watch the thriller. “I think when I was a younger actor, I probably made up some story about seeing it somewhere. Honestly, I probably didn’t really see it until I was an adult and really appreciated it.”
There is much to appreciate in Hitchcock’s slasher, which follows secretary Marion Crane (Leigh), who’s on the run after stealing $40,000 and checks into the remote, roadside Bates Motel run by a young man (Anthony Perkins) dominated by his elderly mother.
“It’s just an amazing movie, it’s just a classic,” Curtis says. “Not only just the execution of the movie in the art form, but also the way that [Hitchcock] released it. There were very specific limits set on how you could see it.”
In a rare move, Hitchcock controlled the promotion of the film. Critics were not given private screenings and buzz was created with a “no late admission” policy. Signs appeared in front of cinemas reading: “We won't allow you to cheat yourself. You must see PSYCHO from the very beginning. Therefore, do not expect to be admitted into the theatre after the start of each performance of the picture. We say no one -- and we mean no one -- not even the manager's brother, the President of the United States, or the Queen of England (God bless her)!”
“Once you were in the theater, you could not leave, they forbade people to leave because they didn’t want to let the secret of the movie out,” Curtis continues. “In today’s world, with social media, it’s very hard to keep secrets in movies and the moment a movie is seen, a thousand people are tweeting about it.”
The actress adds, "Back then, they were able to contain it and I think part of the fear of it was the buildup of this movie that you weren’t allowed to talk about and once you were in there, you couldn’t leave and that just built up.”
That buildup proved well worth the anticipation when, 45 minutes into the film, Leigh’s character is brutally stabbed to death in the shower. A mere 45 seconds that changed everything. Billed as the star of the film, audiences were left reeling that the actress they thought to be untouchable had perished so early on. It proved that anything could happen, a terrifying thought that wouldn’t be replicated to such effect until 36 years later when Drew Barrymore famously died in the opening scene of Scream despite her prominent billing in the film.
Ultimately, Leigh won a Golden Globe and earned an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. (Psycho earned three additional nominations, including Best Director for Hitchcock.) While the actress went on to star in films like The Manchurian Candidate and Bye Bye Birdie, she eventually returned to the genre that made her -- and eventually her daughter -- an icon.
In the final years of her career, Leigh made appearances in John Carpenter’s The Fog and Halloween H20: 20 Years Later, both of which starred Curtis, before she died in 2004 at the age of 77.
In addition to the nod from Scream, Leigh’s performance has had a lasting impact on Hollywood and the shower scene has been replicated or referenced by modern horror stories in the decades since. And during that time, ET and Leigh revisited her most iconic moment on screen, which took seven working days and 76 shots to complete.
“You can’t really get all of that impact when you are there in the water for seven days and you’re doing what your job requires, but not until I saw it did the full power affect me and, quite truthfully, I cannot take a shower,” the actress shared.
What made the Psycho moment so brilliant is that “[Hitchcock] made an actually innocent shower become evil,” Leigh, who admittedly was not a big shower taker in real life yet never thought of it as anything but safe, explained. “I never thought about anything bad before, a shower was completely normal, until I saw Psycho.”
She added at the time, “I had never consciously thought about it before, how vulnerable you are in a shower. You can’t hear because the water is going, you can’t see because your eyes are closed. You are obviously completely defenseless.”
Despite how she felt about showers, Leigh’s admiration for the film was steadfast. "The reason it was so effective was because at that time we had censorship. You could not show nudity, you could not show graphic violence,” Leigh recalled. “So what Mr. Hitchcock did was bring the audience into the picture so much so that what they saw, their own mind imagined much worse than you can show. Much worse. And that was the secret of Psycho.”
The shower scene, of course, has been recreated many times -- Anne Heche starred in Gus Van Sant’s 1998 shot-for-shot remake, singer Rihanna portrayed the role of Marion Crane in A&E’s television prequel series, Bates Motel -- but none have come even close to matching the original iteration. Even Curtis herself re-enacted her mother's moment on Ryan Murphy’s horror Fox series, Scream Queens, in 2015.
Despite that, “the scariest movie ever made is probably Psycho,” Curtis previously conceded in 1998, when ET was on set for the Halloween sequel that reunited the two scream queens, with Leigh making a cameo as Norma Watson. “When we were coming back to do this sort of homage movie, it seemed correct to include her. It was very gracious of her to be a part of it. It was my way of homaging her.”
Curtis added at the time, “She is my mother and we both have established ourselves in a career where you would call the high point or pinnacle of career was a horror movie. In my generation, it was a low-budget teenage slasher movie, and in her age, it was an Alfred Hitchcock thriller.”
After Carpenter cast Curtis in Halloween because she was the daughter of Leigh, the actress went on to become synonymous with the horror genre following the success of The Fog, Prom Night, Terror Train as well as the continuation of the slasher franchise, which is set to return with two new installments, Halloween Kills and Halloween Ends.
While her horror resume has easily surpassed her mother’s, the sentiment that Leigh passed the scream queen torch on to her loving daughter is not lost on the 61-year-old actress. “I’m very proud to be her daughter," Curtis says. "These big chunks of time are now kind of upon us and it just talks about legacy. It’s just a cool thing that these movies live on all these years later.”