Born July 6, 1927, Janet Helen Morrison is probably best known by modern audiences as the lady who gets killed in the shower scene of Psycho. But under her stage name of Janet Leigh, the actress racked up over 80 film and television credits. She was also an accomplished stage performer, a wife (married four times), a mother and a best-selling author.
Janet was discovered in 1945 by none other than the famed silent and classic film actress Norma Shearer, who saw a picture of the young girl while on vacation at a resort called the Sugar Bowl, where Janet’s parents worked. Shearer showed the photo to Lew Wasserman, a talent agent, and urged him to work with her.
Leigh was studying music and psychology and had no acting experience at all when she signed on to a contract with MGM. She scored her first role in 1947’s The Romance of Rosy Ridge, and her star only rose from then on.
The following are five of my favorite films starring Janet Leigh, in honor of her birthday today!
5. The Manchurian Candidate
Janet stars alongside Frank Sinatra and Laurence Harvey in this 1962 film. Her character is Eugenie Rose Chaney, love interest to Sinatra’s character, and interesting (and somewhat humorous) addition to the film. From what I’ve read Leigh’s character was kind of tacked on when the studio decided that Sinatra needed a love interest in order for the film to make the big bucks at the box office. What I love about this role is that Leigh succeeds in drawing the viewer into the film even though her character is a red herring doesn’t serve much of a purpose otherwise (a testament to her great screen presence!). She gets to partake in a few very odd conversations that make her character a perplexing one, and though some viewers like to downplay her role as a simple romantic interest, I think she makes a fascinating addition to the film.
4. Angels in the Outfield
The 1994 remake of this 1951 film was an odd childhood favorite of mine, and it was many years before I saw the original (which I now know is far superior to the Disney version, despite my love for Joseph Gordon-Levitt). Leigh stars as Jennifer Paige, a reporter. In her column, she blames the losing streak of the Pittsburgh Pirates baseball team on their cranky, harsh manager. She uses her sneaky reporting skills to learn more about the man… and meanwhile, he begins hearing the voice of an angel who urges him to change his angry ways. Janet Leigh and Paul Douglas are both perfectly cast in this film.
3. Touch of Evil
Janet Leigh stars as Susan Vargas, wife of Charlton Heston’s Mike Vargas, in this 1958 thriller. Mike is a narcotics officer working on a dangerous case in which a police captain is suspected of criminal activity. He keeps his new wife safely tucked away in a hotel on the American side of the Mexican-American border… or so he thinks. She’s in much more danger than he realizes. I love Leigh’s performance in this film because it is such a great precursor to her most famous role in Psycho. Once again, she’s being terrorized in a hotel! Susie is an unexpectedly strong character and Leigh’s performance in the role is one of the film’s best.
There can’t be a list of great Janet Leigh films without mentioning her fantastic work in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Her character of Marion Crane may not serve as the film’s focus (which is instead an exploration of the character of Norman Bates), but she’s certainly an important driver of the plot, not to mention a completely iconic character of the thriller genre.
1. My Sister Eileen
In this 1955 musical remake of the 1942 film of the same name, Leigh takes over Janet Blair’s role of Eileen, a girl with big dreams who moves to New York City with her sister with the hope of becoming a star of the stage. Leigh gives the character of Eileen such zest that she far outshines Blair’s performance (as much as I enjoy the 1942 version!). Through Leigh’s performance, the film’s focus becomes a pretty even split between Eileen and Ruth’s storylines rather than being a story heavily tilted toward Ruth. The dynamics of the story are completely altered by Leigh’s performance alongside Betty Garrett and Jack Lemmon in this film.
Happy birthday, Janet!