Many of you probably haven’t heard of Norma Shearer, a common fact that makes her one of the biggest Hollywood stars who few people remember today. Known as the “Queen of MGM”, she reigned as that studio’s top attraction throughout the 1930s, before permanently retiring from the screen in 1942. Today, she is best known less for her films than her role as the widow of the legendary film mogul, Irving Thalberg - a brilliant wunderkind who died from pneumonia at the age of 37 and subsequently inspired F. Scott Fitzgerald’s final, unfinished novel, The Last Tycoon.
Having inherited Irving’s estate and his share of the profits of all the films he made, Norma retired a wealthy woman and married a former ski instructor named Martin Arrougé. In 1946 his enthusiasm for the slopes took them to a small Californian resort in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. It was an otherwise uneventful vacation until the moment Norma noticed a photo of a pretty young woman displayed in a frame at the registration desk.
She asked the man at the counter - Fred Morrison - who the gorgeous girl was. He told her it was his daughter, Jeanette. Norma studied the photo and told Fred that she believed Jeanette was beautiful enough to be a movie star.
Now most folks would have left it at that, but Norma took her role as the widow of Irving Thalberg very seriously. When she declared that someone should be a movie star, she did something about it. In this case, she asked Fred to give him a copy of the photo she admired. Fred agreed and gave her several more for good measure.
It was a charming anecdote and Jeanette was flattered by the attention she received from the glamorous star, but she didn’t believe anything would ever come of it. But four months later she received a letter from an agent named Levis Green. Two days after that she found herself walking through MGM’s studio gates. There the studio’s talent developer, Lillian Burns Sidney, asked her to spend two days preparing a short monologue. Jeanette memorized the piece—fortunately for her it came from a film she’d seen more than once—and stunned everyone when she proved she was as talented as she was beautiful. She was immediately offered a 7-year contract and found herself cast opposite Van Johnson in The Romance of Rosy Ridge.
She was 19.
Most fairy tales end after that, but Jeanette’s story was just beginning. They changed her name to Janet Leigh after her co-star Johnson decided he didn’t like the sound of either Jeanette Morrison or her married named, Reames. She was put through the studio acting school and then thrown into the system upon graduation, appearing in 6 films in 1949 alone (including the role of Meg in Mervyn LeRoy’s classic adaptation of Little Women).
Two years after that, Janet made the studio’s publicity department ecstatic when she married fellow movie star, Tony Curtis, making them one of Hollywood’s most beautiful and celebrated star couples. Right from the start it was a marriage that looked better in newspapers and magazines than it did in real life - Curtis was a serial philanderer and their busy careers kept them apart for long periods of time. Together they starred in such hits as Houdini and The Vikings, but these did little to help save a marriage doomed from its start.
But as her personal life suffered, Janet’s career took a new turn in 1958, when Orson Welles cast her in Touch Of Evil, his tale of corruption in a Mexican border town. Having spent most of her career playing the beautiful ingénue in period fantasies, this represented her first real chance to sink her teeth in a real, gritty drama. But it would take another film to truly cement Janet’s status in the annals of movie history - one that not only turned her into a permanent icon, but also changed the very rules of cinema and film exhibition itself.
The dream child of a scriptwriter named Joseph Stefano, it was the kind of gimmick that director Alfred Hitchcock adored - kill off the main character of your movie 1/3 of the way in and then send it careening in a totally different direction. It was a perverse trick and “Mr. Hitchcock” (as Janet always insisted on calling him in interviews) understood that for it to truly work, he would have to cast a famous star in this unexpectedly abbreviated role.
Psycho’s legendary shower scene had the cultural impact it did for many reasons - it was completed unexpected and flawlessly executed to name two - but one of the major factors was that for all of Marion Crane’s failings (she is, after all, an impulsive thief who steals from her boss’ wealthy client in the hopes the money will solve the financial problems her lover gives as the reason why he can’t marry her) we always remain on her side and are thus devastated to see her story end before she can earn her redemption. It’s Janet’s performance that makes this possible. No matter what Marion does, we ultimately believe she is a good person making a mistake rather than a genuine criminal, because Janet herself is such a sympathetic screen presence.
The Academy agreed and gave Janet Psycho’s only acting nomination (Anthony Perkins was snubbed for his performance as Norman Bates, easily one of the most shocking omissions in Oscar history). She didn’t win and had to instead settle for being the face of what is often sited as the most famous scene in movie history. C’est la vie.
Following Psycho Janet had one other masterpiece to add to her collection (making three in total for everyone counting), when she played the part of Eugenie in John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate. It’s a strange role that could have easily felt tacked on just to add a sympathetic female face into the mix, but George Axelrod’s script gives her character weight by allowing her to speak in beguiling non-sequiturs that make you adore her at the same time you question her innocence. In another performer’s hands it could have been a disaster, but Janet made it work beautifully.
After that, though, Janet’s career fell into the same trap so many actresses were prey to. She grew older and Hollywood grew less interested, forcing her to accept parts in increasingly unfortunate material - her career reaching its nadir with a film that featured her being menaced by hordes of giant bunny rabbits. (We apologize in advance for the presence of the bearded fellow in the embedded video link.)
Despite this professional low, Janet’s career went to amazing places considering how it all started back in 1946, when a framed photo caught the eye of a well-connected retiree. Like a lot of performers who achieve icon status, there seems to have been an element of destiny in her rise to stardom. Janet Leigh had a face that lit up the screen, but even more importantly, she had a presence and personality that gave her the kind of depth that still resonates with audiences today.
Picture Credit: Rex Features