The Original Scream Queen: Psycho’s Janet Leigh

Although she was born during the tough times of the Great Depression, Janet Leigh was a natural entertainer. She may not have been born into fame and fortune, but she certainly worked hard to make it in the industry. Her hard work paid off, and she will forever be remembered as one of the leading starlets of Hollywood’s Golden Age.

Janet Leigh / Janet Leigh / Janet Leigh and Alfred Hitchcock / Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis
Source: Getty Images

After her incredible performance in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, Janet Leigh cemented herself into Hollywood history. Despite her stunning looks and amazing talent, Leigh’s life was filled with drama and tragedy – maybe more than in her films.

Let’s pull back that shower curtain and take a look at the cinema’s original scream queen.

Your Name Isn’t Good Enough

When Janet Leigh was born, she was given the name Jeanette Morrison. She went through a bit of an identity crisis when she landed her famous stage name. Initially, studio executives billed her under her second husband’s last name (Reames), then they switched it to Janet Leigh, then back to her birth name because “Janet Leigh” sounded too close to starlet Vivien Leigh.

A studio portrait of Janet Leigh.
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

It still wasn’t good enough. One of her early co-stars despised her name! So, instead of calling her by her given name Jeanette Morrison, they decided they liked Janet Leigh more and called her that. The rest is history.

Humble Beginnings

Janet Leigh was welcomed into the world on July 6, 1927, but the only child wasn’t born with a silver spoon in her mouth. In fact, her parents, Helen and Frederick Morrison struggled quite a lot, and the family had to deal with poverty.

Baby portrait of Janet Leigh as she sits and wears a baby bonnet
Photo by Pictorial Parade/Getty Images

They scrimped by and managed to save just enough money to make ends meet. But they were actually considered lucky because Fredrick’s low-paying job was cold comfort during the ruins of the Great Depression. It was a difficult time for everybody, but Leigh learned the value of hard work.

Hard-Working Girl

Since she wasn’t born into fortune, Leigh knew she had to chip in and work hard to make it in this world. When she enrolled at the College of the Pacific, she spent all her holidays working in dime shops just to send some much-needed cash back to her parents.

Janet Leigh is playing golf.
Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

But that wasn’t all. In addition to school and work, she took on another job. As a student, she manned the school’s information desk. She certainly knew the value of a penny and learned the determination and hard work that would later help her in her Hollywood career.

Beauty, Talents, and Brains

Leigh was nominated for Best Supporting Actress at the Academy Awards for her role as Marion Crane in Psycho. Unfortunately, she didn’t take home the trophy that night; she lost to Shirley Jones in Elmer Gantry.

Leigh, as Margit Mitchell, poses with a dog in a still from Hills of Home.
Photo by FilmPublicityArchive/United Archives/Getty Images

Despite being known for her screams, Leigh was actually a talented singer and dancer. At the height of her career, she starred in various musicals. But Leigh wasn’t just talented; she was also a very smart cookie. She got straight As in high school and graduated when she was only 16.

Becoming a Star!

Like many other Old Hollywood starlets, the story of how Leigh was discovered is legendary. It was winter 1945, and Leigh’s parents were working at a ski lodge in the Sierra Nevada mountains when the retired superstar Norma Shearer came in on vacation.

Janet Leigh poses in a short-sleeved sweater at the age of 16.
Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

While hanging out in the ski lodge lobby, Shearer noticed a photo of their 18-year-old daughter in a photo album. Shearer immediately knew this girl had something special and decided to make her a star: “That smile made it the most fascinating face I had seen in years. I felt I had to show that face to somebody at the studio.”

The Director’s Pet

After she was discovered by Shearer, Leigh almost immediately signed a deal with MGM studios, even though she had never acted a day in her life. But it didn’t take her long to become a starlet. In 1948, critics dubbed Janet Leigh the “Number 1 Glamour Girl” in Hollywood.

Norman Panama, Enzio Pinza, Melvin Frank, and Janet Leigh, discussing a script together on the set of the movie
Photo by Archive Photos/Moviepix/Getty Images

When she first started out, Leigh was known for being poised and polite and always acting in a professional manner. As one commenter snarkily noted, “She is over-eager, over-nice, over-everything.” Well, when you put it that way, it sounds like a bad thing!

Jamie Leigh Curtis

Leigh isn’t the only famous actress in the family. She passed on her Hollywood genes to her daughter, Jamie Lee Curtis, one of her children from her relationship with Tony Curtis. Jamie Lee followed in her mother’s scream queen footsteps, starring as Laurie Strode in John Carpenter’s classic horror flick, Halloween.

Janet Leigh and Jamie Lee Curtis in a scene from Halloween H20.
Source: Miramax Films

But that wasn’t all. In 1998, Leigh was featured alongside her daughter in Halloween H20; she played Laurie’s secretary. Wow, Jamie Lee certainly inherited her mama’s acting skills. You can find Jamie Lee starring in Halloween Kills in 2021 and Halloween Ends in 2022.

Wifey at 15!

Like many Old Hollywood stars, Leigh got married young. She was always in love with love, but that didn’t necessarily mean she was good at it. Before she was even 23 years old, Leigh had already gone through two husbands.

Janet Leigh tests perfume on her husband, Stanley Reames.
Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

When she was just 15 years old, she walked down the aisle for the first time with John Kenneth Carlisle and annulled the nuptials within months. Then, when she was eighteen, she tied the knot with sailor Stanley Reames. However, that wasn’t meant to last forever either. They got divorced four years later.

Howard Hughes Had a Creepy Crush on Her

Like pretty much every starlet in Hollywood at the time, Leigh had a creepy encounter with the eccentric Lothario, Howard Hughes. But unlike most actresses, Leigh was utterly unimpressed by the notorious director.

Leigh poses for a photograph in the park.
Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

She recalled how “over-attentive” he was, adding, “He was twice my age, and besides, I was dating someone else. He made me uncomfortable.” Then she said, “Subsequently, I got to know him better, which made me even more nervous.” Unfortunately, it wasn’t uncommon for Old Hollywood starlets (or new ones) to be made to feel uncomfortable by powerful men.

Hollywood’s Power Couple

Leigh had many public relationships, but her most high-profile romance was with superstar Tony Curtis. The press, media, and magazines everywhere wanted to cover their love life. But when it came time to tie the knot, the heads of the studio had a disturbing response.

Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh smile as they attend a premiere.
Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

These executives spent three full days trying to talk Curtis out of it. They did not want their heartthrob actor married. They even told him he would become “box office poison” if he got married. Yikes, it’s crazy how much power these studios had over their stars.

The Studio Rebels

The couple decided to get away from the meddling studio and take matters into their own hands. So, on June 4, 1951, the couple eloped. I guess those MGM executives didn’t have as much power and control as they thought.

Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh exchange rings during their wedding.
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

They got a local judge in Greenwich, Connecticut, to perform a ceremony, and their close friend Jerry Lewis was in attendance as a witness during the intimate event. That’s one way to do it! They showed them! Box office poison, my butt.

I’ll Take the Role

Leigh had so much faith in Alfred Hitchcock’s vision and talent that she happily signed up for Psycho without making any salary inquiries at all. She was just thrilled to be in the movie. Ultimately, she made just a quarter of her usual salary to sign on.

In the shower scene, Marion Crane, played by Janet Leigh, screams in terror
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

But in this case, money didn’t matter; it was the art. And those traumatic scenes that make people afraid of the shower for the rest of their life. Although I’m a huge horror fan, just thinking about that shower scene gives me the chills!

And They Didn’t Live Happily Ever After

In 1950s Hollywood, Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis were the talk of the town! Although they were a celebrity power couple, the MGM lovers were doomed to a heartbreaking end. After over a decade of marriage, Curtis served his wife with divorce papers in 1962.

Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis play with their daughters, Jamie Lee Curtis and Kelly Curtis, by the pool.
Photo by Richard C. Miller/Getty Images

At the time, Leigh was on the set of The Manchurian Candidate. Not the best way to receive life-changing news. But like the true professional that she was, she didn’t let the split affect her acting. As always, she did a magnificent job in that movie.

Not Good Enough

Janet Leigh later admitted that her marriage with Curtis ultimately fell apart because of “outside problems” such as his father’s death. However, Curtis had a much sadder explanation for the shocking divorce.

Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis pose for a portrait with their baby daughter Kelly Curtis at home.
Photo by Richard C. Miller/Donaldson Collection/Getty Images

According to the actor, he was so desperately in love with Leigh but “realized that whatever I was, I wasn’t enough for Janet. That hurt me a lot and broke my heart.” Well, that sounds depressing. Maybe this split was necessary, but hopefully, the decision made both Leigh and Curtis happier in the long run.

The Royal Flush

Leigh’s death in Psycho was certainly not the only controversy surrounding the film. Psycho was famously the first American movie to feature a toilet flushing. Believe it or not, this was considered “inappropriate” at the time, and audiences had an unsettling feeling.

The toilet flushing in a scene from Psycho.
Source: Reddit

I know, this sounds crazy, especially if they saw memes today. There are plenty of things that are considered more inappropriate than a toilet. However, this was a real thing. You may notice that the bathroom in The Brady Bunch didn’t feature a toilet for this very reason.

Fourth Time’s the Charm!

Janet Leigh’s fourth and final marriage was to stockbroker Robert Brandt. The pair exchanged vows just two months after her break-up with Curtis. This time, however, the marriage was meant to last. The couple was together for over four decades until the starlet passed away in 2004.

Janet Leigh with her husband Robert Brandt at a premiere.
Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Leigh was a woman with many talents. Besides the obvious, entertaining skills she was born with, Leigh can add author to her resume. Besides two non-fiction books, the actress also published two novels: House of Destiny and The Dream Factory’s sequel.

Hollywood Heartthrob

When Leigh first laid her eyes on Tony Curtis, it was at a swanky Hollywood party. At the time, Curtis was a total Hollywood heartthrob; he could have anyone he wanted. But his reaction when he first met Janet Leigh is worthy of a romance novel.

Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh on a carousel
Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

He said, “her face was exquisite,” and later added, “and those beautiful bosoms and tiny waist. It just devastated me to look at this woman.” It sounds like love at first sight if you ask me. Unfortunately, the Hollywood hunk ultimately didn’t feel like he was enough for Leigh.

Making Movie Magic

Leigh had to postpone filming Psycho’s infamous shower scene twice because she had a cold and the second time. After all, she had her period. But you know what they say, third time’s the charm!

Janet Leigh and Charlton Heston in a still from Touch of Evil.
Photo by FilmPublicityArchive/United Archives/Getty Images

When Leigh worked with director Orson Welles to shoot Touch of Evil, the starlet broke her arm. Undiscouraged, Welles made her take off the cast during filming, and when he couldn’t, he used many movie tricks to hide the truth.

When You Put It That Way…

Leigh had a devastating story when it came to her first child with Tony Curtis. The starlet was just 26 years old and excited to be a mom. Tragically, on July 8, 1953, she miscarried the baby.

A portrait of Leigh and Curtis.
Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

Tony Curtis once compared his marriage with Leigh to the toxic, passionate, hot mess of a romance that Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton had. But as Curtis put it, “They did it through a scandal; we did it through the movies and people’s affection.” Well, that’s certainly one way to look at it.

A Few Movie Regrets

Leigh took on a starring role in the horror film Night of the Lepus back in 1972 but regretted it almost immediately. She took part because the movie was filming next to her home. However, she didn’t allow her young daughters, Kelly and Jamie, to make a cameo because it was too violent.

Janet Leigh, as Gerry Bennett, in a still from Night of the Lepus.
Source: MGM

She later discussed the movie distastefully, “I’ve forgotten as much as I could about that picture.” Luckily for her daughters Kelly and Jamie, they didn’t need a guest appearance to become successful. Both girls are actresses now, but Jamie Lee Curtis is a little more famous.

Feminism Back Then…

Leigh was a pretty independent woman, but she also had some rather conservative ideas regarding gender roles in a husband and wife. In 1953’s Houdini, Leigh got second billing to her husband Tony Curtis, even though she was the bigger star at the time.

Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis on the set of Houdini.
Photo by Sunset Boulevard/Corbis/Getty Images

Leigh had a surprising response: “I will always take second billing to my husband. I don’t care if he’s made one picture, and I’ve made a hundred.” I mean, it’s nice that she wanted to make him feel masculine, but wow, how times have changed.

A One Week Shower

To film the infamous murder scene in Psycho, Leigh was forced to stand in the shower for a full week of shooting. After all, Hitchcock was a perfectionist and simply had to get the angles just right. I mean, at the end of the day, it’s not like it didn’t pay off.

Leigh at the end of the shower scene in Psycho.
Source: Paramount Pictures

Hitchcock is known for his perfectionism, so an entire week of shooting in the shower doesn’t come as that much of a shock. Especially in a time when filmmakers had to be extremely meticulous because there was no CGI or any of the other editing tech we have now. But Leigh recalled that she had wrinkly skin for days after that!

Dude, Take a Hint!

Despite her dislike for Howard Hughes, the mad director produced several of Leigh’s early films. But when it came to their last movie together, Hughes really dialed up the creep. Two Tickets to Broadway starred Leigh as a chorus girl, and Hughes kept demanding retakes. Some claim it was his perfectionism, but others thought there was a darker reason.

Janet Leigh with hands at the waist in a scene from the film 'Two Tickets To Broadway.'
Photo by RKO Radio Pictures/Getty Images

Apparently, Hughes purposely delayed production for as long as he could to spend more time with Leigh. “His pursuit continued,” she once claimed, “but he never caught me.”

He Was Unbearable

Leigh once revealed that Josef von Sternberg, who directed her in the movie Jet Pilot, was “an unbearable director.” Remember, Leigh worked closely with the one and lonely Alfred Hitchcock; he wasn’t exactly known for being a warm and fuzzy kind of guy. Seriously, I can only imagine what Sternberg did to this poor actress.

Leigh and Josef von Sternberg talk on the set of Jet Pilot.
Source: RKO Radio Pictures

Believe it or not, the bombshell actress never starred in a movie that was nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars. That’s pretty shocking, right?

Dear Ole Dad

In 1961, Leigh experienced a daughter’s worst nightmare. She needed to rush home from a vacation on the Riviera because her father had died. What makes this sadder is that he was nearly penniless and took his own life. It was completely devastating.

Tony Curtis consoles his wife Janet Leigh in the back of a car.
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

Unfortunately, things were about to get much worse. In his suicide note, Leigh’s father blamed his wife and marriage for his depression. The note continued with vicious words about her mother. I can’t even imagine how painful and heartbreaking this was for the starlet.

Mending a Broken Heart

After the split, Curtis and Leigh did a good job putting on a brave face for the press, but deep down, Leigh was heartbroken. Reportedly, just a few days after their legal separation, she was found passed out in a coma on the bathroom floor of her hotel room.

Leigh is lost in thought as she sits in a sofa chair.
Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Driven to the brink, the actress reportedly overdosed on pills to numb the pain. Heartbreaks are not fun. Most of us know that gut-wrenching feeling that comes with a break-up, and sometimes we do impulsive and dangerous things to cope with the emotions.

Script? What Script?

Janet Leigh was the definition of a director’s actress. She felt comfortable in many movie-making styles, even when those styles seemed strange or extreme. Orson Welles was famous for his freewheeling improvisation, and Leigh couldn’t get enough of it.

Leigh and Wells talks on the set of Touch of Evil
Source: Universal Pictures

The starlet recalled being super excited in Touch of Evil when Welles asked the cast to come up with their own lines. I would personally freak out, but Janet Leigh loved the creative idea as a natural-born star and was thrilled to work with him.

A True Hollywood Legend

In contrast to the laid-back directing style of Orson Welles, Leigh once expressed that “With Mr. Hitchcock, the film is over for him before he even begins shooting. Like a few other glamorous starlets, Janet Leigh was good friends with the Kennedy clan.

Alfred Hitchcock directs actress Janet Leigh in a scene for the horror film 'Psycho.'
Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

Janet Leigh’s deep voice, voluptuous body, and innocent appearance screamed “bombshell” even when her calm personality didn’t. Maybe that’s why Hollywood stunner Scarlett Johansson played her in the 2012 biopic Hitchcock.

Here’s to a Real One

On October 3, 2004, the once glamourous Hollywood star passed away in her home at 77 years old. She had been dealing with inflammation of the blood vessels known as vasculitis. Her ashes are buried in Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in Los Angeles.

Kelly Leigh, Janet Leigh, Jamie Lee Curtis during Premiere of
Photo by Albert L. Ortega/WireImage/Getty Images

She left behind two daughters, Kelly and Jamie, to continue her legacy. Janet Leigh will forever be immortalized as Marion Crane in the iconic Hitchcock film that remains a horror classic to this very day.

Prankster Director

While filming Psycho, Hitchcock played an evil joke on his starring actress. In a “hilarious” move, he kept hiding the prop of the mother corpse in all different closets close to wherever Leigh was filming so that she would find it.

Hitchcock and Leigh laugh on the set of Psycho.
Source: Paramount Pictures

Leigh actually took the disturbing prank quite well. In fact, the actress suspected that Hitchcock was doing it on purpose to keep her on edge. That’s one way to make someone look terrified on screen. It’s not uncommon for directors to scare actors to get emotion out of them on set. Stanley Kubrick famously did just that while filming The Shining.

Steer Clear of Showers

Today, Leigh is still remembered for her famous role as the doomed victim Marion Crane in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. The iconic film shocked audiences when the main character was murdered halfway through, but that’s not what bothered Leigh about the movie.

Janet Leigh replays the famous scene of the movie Psycho.
Photo by David Woo/Sygma/Getty Images

Janet Leigh had her own troubles with the film, and it’s not hard to figure out why. The actress was traumatized by that notorious shower murder scene that she had to film. It terrified her so much that she actually avoided taking showers for the rest of her life after that.

A Familiar Opening

In the opening scene of Psycho, an aerial camera approaches the building, enters through the window, and reveals a female lead lying half-naked in bed. What an amazing way to start a movie, but believe it or not, this isn’t the first movie that began with those two images.

Leigh poses on the bed while filming the opening scene from Psycho.
Source: Paramount Pictures

In 1954, a B movie titled Target Earth, directed by Sherman A. Rose started off the exact same way – with an aerial camera approaching a building, entering through the window, and then revealing a woman lying in bed in her undies! In this case, the actress was Kathleen Crowly.

She Really Wanted That Sandwich

Marion Crane’s last encounter with the two men in her life, Sam Loomis (John Gavin) and Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), is marked by a sandwich that her character didn’t get to finish eating.

Janet Leigh takes a bite from the sandwich in a scene from Psycho.
Source: Pinterest

That’s the snack that Marion doesn’t have time to eat when she was in the hotel room with Sam on her lunch break (you can see it in between the characters in the initial scene). It is also the improvised dinner Norman offers her when she first arrived at Bates Motel… you know, right before that fateful shower. In any case, Marion never finishes that sandwich.

Coincidence? I Think Not

A less subtle filmmaker would have probably included a big “13” on the screen to proclaim Marion Crane’s tragic fate. Alfred Hitchcock decided to disguise it, but there were two appearances of danger during the last hours of the protagonist’s life. The first time was in California Charlie’s used car lot, where Marion decided to switch her Arizona car for a new one.

Leigh walks through the car lot with the salesman.
Source: Pinterest

The address of the business, which you can clearly see in a huge ad, is 4270. And the license plate of the new car that Marion chose – as we later see when its trunk becomes a grave for the poor Marion – is 418. In both cases, the numbers add up to 13 (4+2+7+0 and 4+1+8). Sure, maybe it’s a coincidence, but knowing the director, he’s the type to include little Easter Eggs on purpose.

A New Beginning

Killing the main character in the film halfway through was a huge shock at the time and one of the many brilliant aspects of “Psycho.” Marion’s story ends when Norman Bates goes into her room to get rid of her body. That happened 50 minutes into a movie that is 1 hour and 49 minutes long.

Janet Leigh on the set of Psycho.
Photo by Sunset Boulevard/Corbis/Getty Images

And perhaps Hitchcock was trying to leave a nod for the audience that a new narrative was starting from that point on because the camera shows a newspaper folded on the ground where you can read the word “new!” Again, this may be an incredible coincidence, but I think it’s all part of Hitchcock’s genius.

Norman Bates Is Innocent!

Anthony Perkins jokes in a 1980’s interview that Norman Bates was innocent of all the crimes committed in Psycho just because he did not play Norman Bates or Norma Bates in any of the horror movie’s murder scenes.

The silhouette of the killer in the shower scene from Psycho.
Source: Paramount Pictures

The iconic shower scene was shot between December 17-23, 1959. Perkins was working in a Broadway show in New York during that time, so the villain was played partly by Margo Epper and partly by Anne Dore – with her face so darkened that all you can see are the killer’s eyes.

Technically, He Didn’t Kill Anyone…

That explains the shower scene. But Perkins was also absent from set on the day they shot the death of Martin Balsam’s character. To give the illusion of Mrs. Bates as a fragile woman, dwarf actress Mitzi Koester portrayed the character in those moments.

Norman Bates speaks with Marion Crane outside her room in a scene from the film.
Photo by John Springer Collection/Corbis/Getty Images

So, the only time in the entire movie where we actually get to see Anthony Perkins dressed as Norma Bates is in the last scene – when he doesn’t kill anyone. That sounds pretty disappointing to a horror fan like me. He missed the best parts of the movie!

Mamma’s Boy Forever

Psycho concludes with that classic image of Mrs. Bates’ mummified face on the face of the imprisoned Norman to demonstrate that he will never be free of his mother’s influence. However, before the movie ends, this double image dissolves into a third one (the police getting Marion’s car out of the swamp), and for just one second, the three overlapping images create a bizarre moment.

The final frames overlap in the film Psycho.
Source: Pinterest

The chain pulling the car appears to be connected to Norman/Norma’s neck – as if to prove the unbreakable bond between the two. Or perhaps it’s to suggest that the hangman’s rope around his neck is showing that the killer could still be punished for his crimes.

One Minute Longer

There is actually another version of Psycho that is one minute longer. It was limited to reruns on German television for decades, but last year (2020), it was restored and remastered for an International Blu-ray release.

Leigh is screaming for her life in the shower scene from Psycho.
Source: Paramount Pictures

The extended scene shows Marion Crane taking off her bra before getting into the shower. So basically, you can see much more of Janet Leigh’s skin than in the official version that everyone saw. There are also more scenes of Norman’s bloody hands while cleaning the bathroom and three stabs at Detective Arbogast – instead of the single stab we see in the original.