The scene occupies a mere 45 seconds on the screen, but it remains in the memory of every moviegoer who has seen it. "Psycho," released 40 years ago, was Alfred Hitchcock's most famous attempt at terror. It worked — particularly when an unseen assailant slashes Leigh to death as she stands under the shower's spray.
Does Leigh fret that the brief sequence has overshadowed her other achievements?
"I say thank God. How can anyone not be grateful for that kind of opportunity?" she replied. "I don't mind being bombarded by something like that. That's what the (movie) business is all about: creating images."
Leigh even published a book called "Psycho, The Classic Thriller." (She has also written a memoir, "There Really Was a Hollywood," as well as two novels, "The Dream Factory" and "House of Destiny.")
At 75, Janet Leigh may not have the girlish looks of her early film career, but she remains strikingly beautiful. And slender — her waist is as narrow as a ballet dancer's. She attributes her slimness to a natural metabolism, working out daily, and playing tennis twice a week.
She lives with her second husband, Robert Brandt, in a handsome wood house that resembles an alpine chalet. That seems natural, since it sits atop Beverly Hills with a view all the way to Catalina Island on a clear day.
Leigh no longer appears on screen, but does make occasional personal appearances at film festivals or to promote her books. On a recent afternoon, she settled on a hard chair in her cozy den and recounted her remarkable- and in its inception, scarcely believable — career in Hollywood.
When she told the story of her discovery to members of the MGM publicity department after signing a studio contract, head man Howard Strickling commented: "That is a really good story; now you're going to tell us how it really happened."
Indeed, the story sounds so "showbiz," it still evokes skepticism.
"But it's absolutely true," Leigh insisted, and then recounted how a Stockton college student with no acting experience became a star in her first motion picture.
It seems the retired MGM star Norma Shearer and her ski instructor husband, Marty Arouge, spent a month each winter skiing at the Sugar Bowl resort in Northern California. Leigh's father operated a shop in the hotel, and her mother waited tables. The girl visited her parents in 1945 and her photo was taken.
Later Shearer happened to see the photo of the girl, radiant with youthful vitality, and asked if she could borrow it. Back in Hollywood, she gave it to Lew Wasserman, then head of talent at the giant MCA agency. One of his agents took the 19-year-old Leigh to MGM. She was tested and cast as a 16-year-old country girl opposite Van Johnson in "The Romance of Rosy Ridge."
"I thought I had died and gone to heaven," Leigh recalled. Her original contract paid her a salary of $50 a week, but during filming it was raised to $150. At the same time Johnson got a raise that made him the highest paid actor in films.
Born Jeanette Helen Morrison, Leigh grew up in Merced. During the Depression, both of her parents had to work, so the local movie house became her babysitter each day.
"It was cheap — 10 cents before 5 p.m., plus a nickel for a Milky Way bar," she said. "I stayed all afternoon until they cleared the theater and changed the price to 25 cents for children."
Movies became her refuge, her dream world, but she never thought of becoming part of them. She sang in a local choir and soloed in a production of "The Pirates of Penzance," but never appeared in a play. She majored in music at college, envisioning a career of using music as medical therapy.
MGM soon discovered that the tyro from Stockton was not merely attractive, but appealing in a variety of roles. In 1949 alone, Leigh appeared in six movies. Unlike her "Little Women" co-star Elizabeth Taylor, who hated being pushed into trivial pictures, Leigh accepted her roles uncomplainingly. And she didn't object when MGM profited by selling her services to other studios.
After eight years, her agents convinced her it was time to leave. She had become unhappy with a new regime at MGM, yet she worried that she might not find another job. MCA told her two studios had already made offers.
"After I asked for my release, I cried my eyes out," she acknowledged, and she seemed in danger of doing it again during the interview. After a pause she continued: "I truly was sad — and grateful."
Leigh appears to have a deficiency that is rare in Hollywood: an inability to badmouth anyone. Not even ex-husband Tony Curtis, who left her and their daughters Kelly and Jamie Lee in 1962 for a young Austrian actress, Christine Kaufmann.
"Until the crowning series of (movie) successes, we were fairly solid," Leigh said. "I think that the degree of success just sort of changed our paths. I can't speak for him, obviously, but I just think that was the beginning. When you go down different paths, there are different temptations, different options.
"It was ready to break. It just happened that it broke at that time with Christine."
In addition to "Psycho," Leigh appeared in two other certifiable classics.
"Touch of Evil" (1968) marked Orson Welles' first direction of a mainstream Hollywood film in 20 years. Universal was reluctant to hire him, but the star, Charlton Heston, insisted.
"We had a week at the studio when Orson filmed the fabulous three-minute opening scene," Leigh commented. "Then we shot at night in Venice — California, that is. It was convenient for Orson, because by the time the studio saw the rushes, it was two days later and too late for complaints."
The studio had the last word, slashing Welles' cut by almost 15 minutes. Critics still proclaimed it a masterpiece.
Leigh first read Richard Condon's novel "The Manchurian Candidate" on a plane chartered by Frank Sinatra taking Hollywood celebrities to Washington for parties following John F. Kennedy's inauguration. She became so incensed by the book's theme an American prisoner brainwashed by the North Koreans to commit an assassination — that she threw it down the aisle.
Two years later she was appearing in the film with Sinatra.
"When we were shooting it, I knew it was special," she remarked. "Frank and Larry (Harvey) and Angela (Lansbury) were just first-rate. But you never know what the critics or the audiences are going to say." Released in 1962, the film was withdrawn from circulation after Kennedy's assassination. It was re-released in 1985 to critical raves.
Leigh said that working with Hitchcock on "Psycho" was a unique experience. Every scene, every camera angle was sketched on storyboards before filming started.
She recalled the director's instruction: "You can bring to Marian (her character) pretty much what you want to make of her. But Marian has to fit in my orbit. You have to move when I tell you to move with my camera."
When "Psycho" was released in 1960, reviewers carped at Hitchcock's use of shock.
The movie became his biggest moneymaker.
By Bob Thomas