Her life reads like a genuine American fairy tale, the likes of which only seem possible from an era when Hollywood movies cost less to make than the Gross National Product of many small countries and the stars and stories took precedence over digital animation and special effects.
When Janet Leigh was an 18-year-old woman visiting her parents at a ski resort in northern California where they worked (an accelerated learner, Leigh was already a college senior at that age), retired MGM actress Norma Shearer saw a photo of Leigh on her father’s desk and brought it back to her former studio. A screen test and a few drama classes later, Leigh was starring opposite one of Hollywood’s hottest leading men at the time, Van Johnson, in the 1947 movie The Romance of Rosy Ridge. Leigh would go on to appear or star in more than 30 motion pictures during the next few decades, including leading roles in two all-time classics, Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958) and Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). Leigh is the star of perhaps the most famous scene in cinematic history and very likely the hero of bathtub salesmen worldwide.
Last week the Independent caught up with Ms. Leigh, who will be presenting Touch of Evil in Missoula on Friday as part of the Library of Congress Film Preservation Tour.
Missoula Independent: Tell us about the beginning of your career.
Janet Leigh: In those days, they would sign someone like me who had no experience. Even though my contract was for seven years, the studio had options every three months, so they could drop me at any time. They would sign 50 to 100 people like me, and then hope that out of that group they’d get one who would work out.
The studio drama coach saw something she liked in me, and they were casting for a picture that called for a very young, naïve mountain girl, and no one could have been more naïve than me at the time.
MI: How did you get involved with the film preservation project?
JL: Well, gosh, it’s been three of four years now, and I just feel it’s so important because our cinematic history is really a reflection our country’s history. Film is certainly the most powerful mode of communication, and I would guess that a huge percentage of people learn more from movies than from anywhere else.
MI: How important is film preservation from an artistic standpoint?
JL: I think it’s crucial that people understand the level of genius in the industry from the beginning. Movies have become more sophisticated over time, but the basic talent, genius, inspiration and creativity was there from the very beginning.
MI: What do you think of the film industry today?
JL: I think that they’ve almost out-sophisticated themselves. Because television is in our homes all the time, movies now have to be so much more than television, so much bigger than anything else. Movies before could just be movies, simple stories, and now it has to be 40,000 cars flying in the air or something.
MI: Did you have any sense at the time that Psycho was going to be the groundbreaking movie it turned out to be?
JL: No, we didn’t. We knew that it was different and innovative, and that we were in untried waters, but we didn’t know how it was going to end up. The public could’ve just said “No way,” but they didn’t.
MI: You worked with two of cinema’s unquestioned geniuses while they were in their primes. What was it like to work for Hitchcock and Welles, and how were they different?
JL: Well, genius is reached by many paths, and Mr. Hitchcock and Mr. Welles were alike in their genius but so different in getting to the goal. They were both extraordinarily creative, daring, and secure in their choices. But where Mr. Hitchcock was methodical and completely prepared, everything down to the inch-frame of film, Mr. Welles was much more flamboyant, spur-of-the-moment. It’s not that he hadn’t thought things ahead, but if he saw something he liked, he would use it right then and there.
MI: Welles’ performance in Touch of Evil was remarkable, especially because as a director he had to get the most he could out of the physical qualities of his actors. And at that point he was an immense man—
JL: Actually, no, he was not that big yet. That’s a common misconception. He was padded for that role. He wore pillows, the bags under his eyes and his jowls, that was all make-up.
MI: Did you know when you were filming it that the movie would be so powerful?
JL: Well, we absolutely loved it when we were filming. But the reception at Universal Studios was so awful. That was very discouraging, and we had to do retakes that we didn’t want to do, but we had to under the SAG contract.
MI: What is the biggest difference between the studio and restored version of Touch of Evil?
JL: Well, the opening tracking sequence doesn’t have the credits over it, and it also has the original source music. Orson wanted it to have the essence of the honky-tonk border town, so from every bar would come a different juke box song. As brilliant as Henry [Mancini, who wrote the musical score, which played over the background music] is, it wasn’t what Orson had in mind for the picture.
MI: What was the reaction of the cast to re-shooting scenes without Welles directing?
JL: Oh, we hated it. We were ordered to go do the retakes on a Monday, and Charlton [Heston, who had the lead role] would not do it. But the studio had a full crew and everything there and Charlton paid the studio’s cost for that day’s crew and tried to convince them not to do this. The studio had their way in the end, though.