The actress’ husband, Robert Brandt, and her daughters, actresses Kelly Curtis and Jamie Lee Curtis, were at their mother’s side when she died at her Beverly Hills home yesterday, said Heidi Schaeffer, a spokeswoman. “She died peacefully at home,” Schaeffer said. Ms Leigh had suffered from vasculitis, an inflammation of the blood vessels, for the past year.
The stunning blonde beauty enjoyed a long and distinguished career, appearing in such films as the 1962 political thriller The Manchurian Candidate and in Orson Welles’ 1958 film noir classic Touch of Evil.
But she gained her most lasting fame in Psycho as the embezzling office worker who is stabbed to death in the shower by cross-dressing madman Anthony Perkins. The role earned her an Oscar nomination as best supporting actress.
Hitchcock compiled the shower sequence in 70-odd takes of two and three seconds each, for which Leigh spent seven days in the shower. Rumours circulated that she was nude, but she wore a flesh-coloured moleskin. Although tame by today’s standards, the scene was shocking for the time for its brutality. Ms Leigh wrote in her 1995 book Psycho: Behind the Scenes in the Classic Thriller that the filming was easy until the last 20 seconds when she had to express total horror as her character was being slashed to death.
She often said she hadn’t been able to take a shower since the movie. “It’s not a hype, not something I thought would be good for publicity,” she insisted. “Honest to gosh, it’s true.”
Ms Leigh’s entry into films occurred in cliché fashion. Born Jeanette Helen Morrison in Merced, California, on July 6, 1927, she was a college student when retired star Norma Shearer saw her photograph at a ski resort.
Ms Shearer recommended the teenager to talent agent Lew Wasserman, who negotiated a contract at MGM for $50 a week. Dubbed Janet Leigh, she starred at 19 in her first movie, The Romance of Rosy Ridge, opposite Van Johnson in 1947. Her salary rose to $150 a week. She became one of the busiest stars at MGM, appearing in six movies in 1949.
Among her films were Act of Violence (with Van Heflin), Little Women, Holiday Affair (Robert Mitchum), Strictly Dishonourable (Ezio Pinza), The Naked Spur (James Stewart), Living It Up (Martin and Lewis), Jet Pilot (John Wayne), Bye Bye Birdie (Dick Van Dyke), and Safari (Victor Mature).
Ms Leigh had been married twice before arriving in Hollywood. Her marriage to John Carlyle in 1942 was annulled. She then married Stanley Reames in 1945, divorcing him in 1948. In 1951 she married Tony Curtis when both were at the peak of their stardom. Both their studios, MGM and Universal, expressed concerns that their immense popularity with teenagers would be hindered if they were married. Aided by a splurge of fan magazine publicity, their appeal rose. They appeared in four films together, including Houdini and The Vikings. The “ideal couple” divorced in 1963.
In Ms Leigh’s 1984 autobiography, There Really Was a Hollywood, she refrained from criticising Curtis. “Tony and I had a wonderful time together. It was an exciting, glamorous period in Hollywood,” she said in an interview. “A lot of great things happened, most of all, our two beautiful children (Kelly Curtis and Jamie Lee Curtis).”
Ms Leigh’s 1964 marriage to businessman Brandt was longer lasting. Ms Leigh appeared with Jamie Lee in the 1980 thriller The Fog and made occasional television appearances in her later years. She wrote in her autobiography that The Manchurian Candidate was “a dynamite film,” though she had worried about working with Frank Sinatra. “I had heard that Frank was known for unconventional work habits, and I was apprehensive, especially in view of our friendship. I needn’t have been. My experience with him revealed his absolute professionalism.”