I don’t take cold showers,” Janet Leigh told EW in 2000. ”That’s not hype, that is the truth.” Who could blame her? As the devious, doomed Marion Crane in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), Leigh was at the bloody center of the most important and memorable murder in film history — a moment that marked her career ever after.
Still, Leigh’s impact extended far beyond those famous few seconds. Born Jeanette Helen Morrison, the star — who died in Beverly Hills on Oct. 3 of a vascular disease at age 77 — was an 18-year-old music student when she was discovered by Norma Shearer. And she proved a natural in films as diverse as 1949’s Little Women (as Meg) and the 1963 musical Bye Bye Birdie. But it was black and white that framed Leigh’s most vivid performances: Psycho (which earned her an Oscar nod), Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958), and John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate (1962) pushed her wholesome sexuality over the edge, and underscored her facility with enigmatic, slightly off-kilter women. ”That she was a terrific actress was primary in convincing the audience to be frightened,” says friend and fellow Hitchcock blonde Tippi Hedren.
Her career thereafter was marked by shocking stories, from ’70s TV murder mysteries to a performance opposite Jamie Lee Curtis (one of two daughters from an 11-year marriage to actor Tony Curtis) in Halloween: H20 (1998). But her horror notoriety was never the cause of bitterness; Psycho remained a matter of pride. ”I was allowed to be a part of cinematic history,” she said 40 years later. ”I’m very fortunate.”