Horror of Horrors, It’s Jamie Lee Curtis
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.’
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