Horror of Horrors, It's Jamie Lee Curtis

Caught between Old Hollywood and 'Halloween'

Jamie Lee Curtis for the film 'Road Games', 1981. Credit: AVCO/Getty

Jamie Lee Curtis had had a rough day in New York City. Catching a limo to The Today Show after only three hours of jet-lagged shut-eye, drawing a caricature of herself on a napkin during lunch with Earl Wilson — these things didn't bother her; they're simply part of "the business." The real trouble began when she was mistaken for a hooker in her hotel lobby (was it the gold pumps?). Later, at the Jacksons' concert in Madison Square Garden, she was harassed by tall, dark strangers (was it her new blond hairstyle?), and then a girl in the bathroom tried to snatch the earrings from her pierced ears (it was definitely the gold plating). Finally, at Frankie Crocker's postconcert bash at the Underground disco, a smiling gentleman walked up and calmly placed a hand, firmly, on her left breast (was it her gold-patterned Chinese chemise?).

Any other Girl of the Golden West Coast probably would have locked herself in the Sherry Netherland and cried for her press agent. But this was no Natalie of the Wood, no Sally of the Field. This was Jamie Lee Curtis — stalked by a mental patient in Halloween, terrorized by scythe-wielding ghosts in The Fog, nearly beheaded by her younger brother on Prom Night, manhandled in the bar car of Terror Train, chased across Australia's Nullarbor Plain by a coffin-shaped van playing Road Games....and survived! Wait, there's more! She was born into a showbiz household run by The Boston Strangler and the lady who gets butchered in the shower in Psycho. With that kind of lineage, it's not surprising that Jamie Lee Curtis has become the Queen of Teenage Horror Movies.

Meeting Curtis, it's easy to recognize the elements that have led to her reign. There's the same weird combination of tough-talking bravado and unspoiled girlishness that she brings to her roles. For her, all the world's a sound stage, and she struts through it without fretting. She pops out of an elevator in silly sunglasses and sillier shoes and starts trading confidences with the first business-suited stranger she bumps into. She gulps Jack Daniel's and wisecracks at full speed in an unwavering baritone. "Excuse me!" she interrupts, when her mild-mannered publicist drops an expletive. "Don't say fuck to a lonely girl!" Yet she's only twenty-three, grew up sheltered in Hollywood as the eldest daughter of Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis, and giggles and blushes when talking about her boyfriends (Bobby Carradine, or the screenwriter she almost married, or her current beau, "the Italian"). With her well-bred manners and fresh-scrubbed complexion, she looks like the kind of girl most likely to be asked for beauty hints by Mademoiselle. Which is exactly what she is waiting for them to do, as we sit around her Manhattan hotel room on a busy afternoon devoted to promoting her latest scary special, Halloween II.

Many actors turn up their noses at horror films, and Curtis has no illusions about the liabilities of being typecast as a potential victim. Still, she views it as practical education. "Horror movies allow you to play a lot of emotions. In a horror film, you go from being a normal, happy-go-lucky child to a completely brutalized little person, and everything in between. It's good exercise."

In the movies, Curtis' I'm-no-ingenue act is effective; when this unlikely damsel is in distress, you know there's something to be scared about. The older-than-her-years bit isn't precociousness, either. Far from being a child star, Curtis had only done a couple of scenes on Quincy and Columbo and a short-lived TV sitcom called Operation Petticoat when director John Carpenter and writer Debra Hill asked her to star as a threatened baby sitter in a low-budget horror film called Halloween. "When I got the part, all I could do was look through the script seeing LAURIE, LAURIE, page after page after page," she says. "I wasn't even caring what the words were. I ran to my mamma saying, 'Look how many pages I'm in!'" Obviously, Curtis catches on fast.

Her instincts for script interpretation were similarly, uh, sophisticated. She takes great pride in the way she "conceptualized" the heroine of Halloween through her wardrobe. "I figured this girl's mother probably took her to J.C. Penney's, like, three times a year — fall, winter and spring-summer — and got everything in coordinates: strictly mix-and-match." Never mind that this is standard practice for millions of American teenagers. For Jamie Lee of Bev Hills, who probably wore Pampers from Rodeo Drive, shopping for Laurie's sweater-skirt sets was as much of a novelty as knowing someone with a listed phone number.

Although she did take a drama class during her six months at the University of the Pacific, Curtis found its exercises ("Let's be jello") less than thrilling and credits Carpenter with teaching her everything she knows about film acting. "I remember the biggest discussion we had was about vulnerability," Curtis says. "I used to associate vulnerability with weakness, and I never liked weak people. John sat me down and was very serious for a moment, and said, 'Listen, it is essential. Your job is to get the audience to love you. When you leave the house after hearing all those things on the phone and walk across the street, if the audience is not screaming, out loud, for you' — which I'd never heard an audience do in a movie theater — 'we've lost the movie.' I remember sitting back and thinking, 'Holy shit, what a responsibility.'

"The first time I ever saw Halloween in public," Curtis continues, "was a sneak preview at the Pix Theater in Hollywood. There were maybe fifteen or twenty people there, and right as I was walking across the street, this black woman stood up and screamed at the top of her lungs, "Don't go in that house! Don't you dare go in that house, honey!' Then more people started to get vocal, and by the end of the movie they were standing up and screaming at the screen. I was in the back of the theater thinking, 'It worked.'"

Halloween's tremendous success — it's perhaps the most profitable independent film ever made — triggered a tidal wave of cheap scream-flicks and ultimately a string of job offers for Jamie Lee Curtis. But there were side trips to The Love Boat and Charlie's Angels ("I played a golf pro. Cheryl Ladd and I almost got eaten by alligators"), before Carpenter cast her in his next film, The Fog, and Curtis became the most bankable starlet on the blood-and-guts circuit.

What do you have to do that's especially tough in horror movies? "Walk into a room and find your best friend dead. They light you, they shoot you. You have to learn to deliver, quickly and convincingly. You're not given an hour to get ready for it. There are not a lot of special allowances given the actors, which I like, because it makes the actors more of a part of the crew. Halloween was great that way; there were thirty people united to make a movie. You weren't just in your motor home, with someone saying, 'Miss Curtis, it's time.'"

Being catered to is something Miss Curtis is very sensitive about. Like almost any child who follows a famous parent's footsteps, she would like you to believe that being the daughter of two movie stars has not helped her get ahead. She insists that her being signed as a contract player with Universal Studios when she was eighteen had nothing to do with studio president Lew Wasserman's being her godfather. "He was in Europe when I got hired; he had no idea I was even auditioning. People won't believe that. They'll say 'bullshit.' They will say 'bullshit' to half this interview. But it's true. I don't think I've ever gotten meetings because of my parents. I actually think it's hurt sometimes — certain people will always consider me 'little Jamie.'"

Nonetheless, Curtis agrees that she inherited a sense of professionalism. "Little things like writing thank-you notes to people — it's a very simple thing, but people don't know that now, whereas that was one of the standards of the old system. Also, I respect the technical people because I know what they do."

As she launches into a lecture about the technical aspects of film — the importance of asking for help in hitting a mark ("What helps? A sandbag. That was a trick I learned from a crew guy on Halloween. Crew guys are the ones who know the secrets"), or her conviction that fight scenes involving women should be staged more realistically — Curtis leans forward, her voice booms and she grows more earnest, more animated and, well, less fun. You can sense her determination to be seen as a professional. She uses a bold public persona — steady eye contact, studied unpretentiousness, crowd-pleasing self-deprecation — that's intended to erase any trace of "little Jamie," despite such cute habits as eating Apple Jacks and wearing gold pumps.

Curtis used to slip into this role without knowing it. When she was eighteen and thrilled to be working in Hollywood, she moved into her own apartment, bought a Jeep, frosted her hair and ran around in sunglasses until her mother kindly pointed out, "They aren't going to want you to be thirty-two. Just be Jamie at eighteen." Now she only turns on the professional act for effect — to impress an interviewer, say, with her adulthood or her expertise. And it is impressive, though a bit insecure. For instance, when she found out she was sitting next to Lesley Gore at the Jacksons' concert, she turned star-struck and gushed, "I have your very first record." But then she struck up a conversation with the woman sitting in front of her, the sensational young actress and dancer Debbie Allen, and when Allen mentioned she was moving to L.A. and didn't know anybody there, Curtis scribbled down her unlisted phone number and urged Allen to call. The source of her professional ambivalence is the same as her appeal: raised to be a celebrity yet determined to make it on her own, Jamie Lee Curtis is in the peculiar position of still learning show-business traditions at the same time that she's passing them on.

This delicate balance came in handy when Curtis landed the lead in the NBC-TV movie Death of a Centerfold. The role of Dorothy Stratten, the protégé of Hugh Hefner who was murdered by her former husband-manager in August 1980, would seem to be more worldly than the hitchhikers and high schoolers Curtis usually plays. What made the assignment especially challenging was that Curtis felt more sophisticated than Stratten had been, and was never motivated by the kind of cinematic myths that haunted Stratten. Having grown up in the middle of the fairy tale, Curtis was immune to the Schwab's-to-stardom dreams that plague so many young actresses.

"I always have this problem," Curtis muses, "because I was born in 1958. I'm a child of the Seventies. Do you know how boring the Seventies were? My idol was David Cassidy. I watched The Brady Bunch. I mean, my God, where was Elvis, where were the Beatles? There was nothing for young people to look to for focus. It was most weird for me when my peer group was in college and I was working. My priorities were totally different, and I had nothing in common with my friends anymore. For a while I was hanging around with people in their thirties who went to Woodstock, who went to meet the Beatles at the airport, who marched against the Vietnam War, who did all those things I only read about and didn't understand. I didn't understand the Vietnam War until five years ago, when I actually first thought, 'holy shit!....'"

Suddenly, the phone rings, and Curtis answers, poised between her roles as sheltered kid and harried movie star, tough twenty-three-year-old and childlike celebrity.

"Now," she says, "I'm going to tell Mademoiselle what I eat."