On screen, Janet Leigh has faced menacing Mexicans, come up against Communist brainwashers, and run from killer rabbits, but she is best remembered for taking a shower. The 67-year-old actress commemorates that fateful cleansing — in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho — in her new book, Psycho: Behind the Scenes of the Classic Thriller. Here, on the occasion of the film’s 35th anniversary, Leigh assesses her trip to the Bates Motel and other cinematic excursions.
Little Women (1949, MGM/UA)
I was in love with the story as a little girl and even as a big girl. And the movie said something. It spoke about family and the idea that we have to be honest with ourselves. As for the actresses [including June Allyson and Elizabeth Taylor], we got along very well. We would play jokes, we giggled and laughed. I imagine we drove poor Mervyn LeRoy [the director] absolutely out of his gourd.
The Naked Spur (1953, MGM/UA)
It was a departure for me. Until then, I had done very ladylike-type things. This character was earthy; she was an outlaw’s daughter. Also, there were only five people in the film, so it was a tremendous responsibility at that tender age. Jimmy Stewart was the good guy, but he was rather a distasteful good guy. So [director Anthony Mann was making] perhaps the first noir Western.
My Sister Eileen (1955, Columbia TriStar)
Of the musicals I’ve done, everyone always seems to bring up Bye Bye Birdie, but I liked My Sister Eileen more. There was such creativity in the numbers. And I have to give a lot of the credit to [choreographer and costar] Bob Fosse. I think it was the freshness of Fosse that sparked all of us.
Touch of Evil (1958, MCA/Universal)
Universal originally released this movie like it was a B-minus picture, and of course now it has been put on a pedestal. One of the problems Universal had with the picture was that it didn’t have a pat story. The film jumped around a little bit. But that was actually the genius of Orson Welles because it kept the audience wondering what the hell is going on.
Psycho (1960, MCA/ Universal)
It’s a black-and-white film that did not show nudity, that did not show a weapon penetration, and that did not show sex. Everything was presented so that the audience imagined what was happening and put in the picture what isn’t even there. As for taking a supporting part, I didn’t even have to read the script before accepting. I couldn’t wait to see what Hitchcock would do.
The Manchurian Candidate (1962, MGM/UA)
Probably the most difficult role I ever did. My character, Rosie, is essentially plunked down in the middle of the script. And she’s spouting non sequiturs and you don’t know whether she’s a red herring or whether she’s a good guy or bad guy. To articulate words that meant nothing, and say something else with your eyes, was very difficult. I think the film was too much for people when it first came out. It was just too hard to accept that kind of manipulation and evil. And now, I’m sorry to say, it’s easier for people to understand it.
As told to David Everitt