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Jamie Lee Curtis Gets Serious

The actress moves beyond ‘Halloween’ and toward stardom

Actress, Jamie Lee Curtis

Actress Jamie Lee Curtis poses for a portrait Los Angeles, California in 1985.

Harry Langdon/Getty

ABRALESS JAMIE LEE CURTIS, CLAD IN A skintight, scarlet minidress and a Phyllis Diller fright wig, stares down the befuddled guest standing in her living room. Jamie is trying hard to be nice, but she’s had a lousy day at work and is in no mood to explain why she dresses like an East Village Bride of Frankenstein. “This is not Shakespeare,” she announces. “All I’ve got going for me in this whole, big, wide world is this body” — she points to her breasts — “this face” — she points to her cheeks — “and what I’ve got up here” — she taps her head.

Rewind the VCR a few seconds, play this terrific scene between Jamie and Dan Aykroyd again. One more time. Yes, here it is, no question. This Trading Places scene, wherein we see there is a person inside Ophelia, the Philadelphia street whore, is where Jamie Lee Curtis proves she is an actress. Not an “actress,” like the sitcom bimbos who talk about “acting” on Entertainment Tonight. No, an actress, the kind they used to have back in the days when weasels like Walter Winchell and Hedda Hopper could still pull Hollywood strings with their typewriters.

True, a handful of the tens of millions who heard Jamie’s five-minute aria of shrieks in her 1978 film debut in Halloween immediately figured out that Janet and Tony’s kid already knew her way around a soundstage. The Washington Post‘s Gary Arnold, for one, got so excited by Jamie’s first performance that he flooded one sentence of his review with as many unctuous adjectives as Rex Reed uses in an entire week. “The 19-year-old daughter of Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis,” Arnold wrote, was “more suggestive of a melancholy, ungainly, young Lauren Bacall.”

America has long since learned that Jamie Lee Curtis has gained her gainliness and a solid reputation as an actress. In her latest film, Perfect, a story about a mercurial reporter-stud working for Rolling Stone (John Travolta), Curtis portrays an Olympic swimmer turned Los Angeles aerobics instructor who unexpectedly becomes the reporter’s friend, lover and source. In Perfect, Curtis acts out a classic torch song that even Lauren Bacall sometimes had trouble pulling off: the one about the world-weary siren who decides to trust a man one more time — and gets burned again. This babe, the world should know, can act.

A MONTH BEFORE PERFECT OPENS, JAMIE LEE CURTIS leads a tour through the four-room, top-floor West Hollywood apartment she shares with her husband, Christopher Guest, of Saturday Night Live and This Is Spinal Tap, and Clark, her barkless dog. Chris, the only man in world history able to expertly imitate both Bob Dylan and an aged Negro League baseball star, briefly diverts the tour into a walk-in closet, where he pulls out the single best piece of baseball memorabilia outside of Cooperstown: a genuine Tokyo Giants uniform once worn by Sadaharu Oh. On a shelf is a note from Ronald Reagan saying how happy he is that Chris and Jamie got married. Chris, pissed off about Bitburg, says the note is coming down pronto. From the Curtis-Guest bathroom window, one can spy Jamie’s agent, who is lying alongside the apartment-house pool with aluminum panels under his chin. Half a block away on Sunset Boulevard is the Château Marmont, where John Belushi played his final rendition of “Tears of a Clown.” A few yards from Bluto’s haunted bungalow stands a monstrous strip-side billboard for Perfect. The ad shows a Godzilla-size Jamie Lee Curtis wrapped in a Danskin and John Travolta, whose chin dimple must be measured in feet. “Weirdness,” says Jamie about her billboard. “Yippy-yahoo weirdness.”

To get in Perfect shape, Jamie spent several months grunting through a four-hour-a-day regimen of aerobics, weight lifting and swimming. About two months into training, she began giving aerobics lessons at the Beverly Hills Sports Connection, the Wailing Wall of the West Coast fitness religion. Jamie’s pain was Perfect‘s gain. “It is very important in this movie,” she explains, “that people buy that I’m an aerobics instructor.” After Jamie toughened up, Bridges spent about a month filming all of Perfect‘s workout scenes. These hyperkinetic shots — all of which carry the electricity of Busby Berkeley with a backbeat — are the movie’s best. Then came several months of drama shoots. Finally, it came time to shoot the credit sequences, which would be filmed as a frenetic workout scene. Jamie had lost ten pounds of muscle in the intervening months — a weight loss that is noticeable in the final cut. Though this gaffe doesn’t rank with the shot of the Los Angeles Freeway sign in Spartacus, it does provide one more excuse for filmgoers to keep their eyes on Perfect‘s lead actress.

Weight loss is nice, but — in keeping with the Hollywood spirit — the inquisitor wants more, hotter, uglier. He wants on-set personality clashes. Jamie, refusing to bite, says John Travolta is a truly nice, normal person who became her friend. At “friend,” the inquisitor — who has studied Barbara Walters — hoists his eyebrows and contorts his lips into a pert little oh. Because she is a nice person, Jamie meets the minimum daily Hollywood dish requirement. “John and I were never sociable together,” she says. “We had dinner twice and lunch once. That’s it. Once in a while we’d sit around his trailer and talk.” During these infrequent schmoozes, Jamie came to a nice person’s conclusion. “I think John,” she announces, “is misjudged a lot”

So is she — but that doesn’t mean Jamie covets Travolta’s center-slide position under the public microscope. “I like the fact that I’m not going to be responsible for whether Perfect is a success or failure,” she says. “Not that John’s participation is going to make it a success or failure, but he and other people will get the focus of the success or the nonsuccess of the movie. I won’t. It’s just another step up for me.” Travolta, she muses, reminds her of another man-child idol whom the unforgiving Hollywood pagans first bowed down to, then broke apart with ball-peen hammers. “I look at John like I look at my father,” says Jamie. “Here’s this handsome, very young actor who’s suddenly one of the most popular people in the world. Then a lot of people start giving him a hard time and not giving him any credit for any other work he does. So I have a great respect for John, as I do for my dad.”

Unlike Travolta and her father, Jamie has had to perform before the pagans as a professional person since the moment she was born. Her first role was in an untitled cinéma vérité production made in Hollywood for release on the morning of November 22nd, 1958. Less than two hours later, news rooms from Bakersfield to Bangkok were briefed via a press barrage mounted by the Associated Press, the Ethel Mertz of the global village. Jamie Lee Curtis’ first publicity:

HOLLYWOOD, November 22 (AP) — Actress Janet Leigh gave birth to her second daughter today at Cedars of Lebanon Hospital. The baby weighed 6 pounds 8 ounces. “Mother and daughter are doing fine,” said Dr. Leon Krohn. Miss Leigh is married to actor Tony Curtis. Their first daughter, Kelly, is two years old.

To put this event in historical Hollywood perspective: The day Baby Girl Curtis was born, Samuel Goldwyn was seventy-six and in a cranky semiretirement. Meanwhile, hatchet lady Louella Parsons was approaching a senescence that would find her shrieking at nursing-home TV sets: “Clark! Clark! Tell me, when are you and Carole going to tie the knot? Remember, I must be the first to know!” The Hollywood torch, as it were, had been passed.

JAMIE WASN’T NAMED IN THE CREDITS OF HER BIRTH that were printed a few days later in Newsweek. Soon, however, she was getting billed — albeit below her parental stars-in cuddly family publicity shots distributed by Tony and Janet’s studio to newspapers around the country. Still, Jamie remembers these early years as happy: “I had a very abnormal normal childhood.” While Mommy and Daddy went off to work each day, she basked in what she now calls “the magical kingdom of Hollywood.” In 1962 the AP once again cheerfully tickered to news rooms across the land that all remained amazingly well in the Curtis-Leigh fiefdom:

HOLLYWOOD — There’s only one or two perfect marriages left unsundered in the mate-swapping melee of filmdom. James Bacon reports what keeps Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh together.……

It could not last forevermore, however, or even two days more. Something awful, loyal AP readers soon learned, had turned the Curtis-Leigh home movie from Camelot into Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Less than forty-eight hours after the world learned what keeps Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh’s perfect marriage unsundered in the mate-swapping melee of filmdom, Ethel chimed in again. This time, Mertz got so excited with her piping hot dish of bad news that she could barely contain herself. She rang bells:

URGENT
HOLLYWOOD, March 17 (AP) — Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh split up today after more than ten years of marriage.……

Jamie went on with her abnormal normal childhood in the company of Mom and sister Kelly. They were soon joined by Bob Brandt, the straight-shooting stockbroker with whom Janet finally found lasting love. As Jamie grew into kidhood, her relationship with her natural father evaporated. After moving out of the Beverly Hills house, Tony took up more permanent residence on the national gossip pages. Less than a year after Tony divorced Jamie’s mom, the press announced he had got hitched to “lissome, Austrian-born actress Christine Kaufmann, 18, who met Curtis when they filmed Tares Bulba in Las Vegas.” By his next marriage, even The New York Times was finding room for Tony:

LAS VEGAS, April 20 (AP) — Tony Curtis, the actor, and Leslie Allen, a 23-year-old model, flew here to be married early today.… The ceremony was performed in the suite of Buddy Hackett, the comedian, at the Sahara hotel about 2 A.M….

Tony’s most amazing stunt, however, was getting busted for pot in 1970 at London’s Heathrow Airport. The American Cancer Society-which had hired Tony as national chairman for its I QUIT program — was not amused. Still, the Bronx-born Bernie Schwartz kept enough of his sense of humor to waste David Susskind. After being repeatedly belittled by Mr. Middlebrow, Curtis blurted, “Better men than Susskind have called me lousy.”

Kid Jamie was of no age to understand. “My father was sort of a stranger, then a real stranger, then an enemy,” she remembers. “Now he’s a friend. My stepfather, who raised me since I was a little girl, is Daddy, the one I go to with dad problems. He has always been around and supportive — a complete papa.” Jamie was also kept relatively sane by levelheaded Janet Leigh. “My mom,” Jamie remembers, “was very good about reminding me that if I was to be successful, it would be because I was true to myself. It was very helpful for her to say, ‘You are okay. Show them Jamie. Don’t show them who they want to see.'”

Still, life ain’t easy when you’re twelve years old and The New York Times is running three-column pictures of your family skiing at Bear Valley. And misspelling your name. “It was just never forgotten who my parents were,” says Jamie. “Whenever I met anyone new, I was introduced as Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh’s daughter.” Despite her mother’s continuing pep talks, life for Jamie became a downbound train. “It screwed with my head,” she remembers. “You’re a child trying to develop an identity and a sense of self-worth, and all this Hollywood stuff plagues you and makes you kind of wonder who you are. Then you’re twelve through eighteen, and you’re developing sexually and emotionally. And it’s hard. My time in high school was just a fucking killer.”

Jamie did time in two L.A. high schools, including privileged Beverly Hills High, which she now writes off as a “designer school” chock-full of chowderheads. Then, in 1975, her mother took off for Broadway, and Jamie enrolled as a senior at Choate, the preppie Connecticut boarding school, where teenagers speak fondly of William Buckley and fly down to Venezuela on spring break to buy and smuggle kilos of coke.

As Jamie quickly discovered, an L.A. beach girl with a father named Bernie Schwartz is not exactly Choate material. Innocent as a Valley girl, she showed up for her first day of boarding school wearing frosted hair and bell-bottoms. Jamie took one peek around campus, then booked to Brooks Brothers for a complete line of chinos, Topsiders and crew-neck sweaters bearing JLC monograms. The point? “I didn’t want to be an individual; I just wanted to fit in and be normal,” says Jamie. “So if another girl was wearing her hair up in a ponytail, the next day I’d do that. I said I liked whatever kind of music they liked. It was a nightmare. I’ve never been so depressed.”

Jamie wanted to try acting, but she discovered that the inbred Choate theater scene was tighter than a Ma Maison pinkie ring. Jamie did get cast in one lineless role: the Oklahoma! lass who periodically scoots across stage, stops, then lifts up her dress for all to see. Near graduation, it came time for Jamie to choose yearbook inscriptions. While her peers were lifting favorites from Thoreau and Milton Friedman, she composed her own. Jamie Lee Curtis’ goodbye to prep school, as printed in the 1976 Choate yearbook, beats all: “Weirdness is a virtue that only some can project successfully. My bosoms aren’t big, but they’re mine.”

“I look back on that,” chortles movie star Jamie, “and go, ‘Whooo, you were fucking crazy.’ People were writing clever things, and I write something about tits and weirdness!”

Having burned her boarding-school bridges, Jamie headed back to California. Having no idea what she wanted to do, she briefly enrolled at the University of the Pacific, where she took a few drama courses. A few months later, a tennis-bum acquaintance decided he wanted out of the pro shop and into the exciting world of big-time Hollywood talent managing. Working the phones, he got Jamie an audition for the lead of the neonatal Nancy Drew TV series. Universal didn’t want Jamie for Nancy, but they remembered her face. She was soon signed to a seven-year, $235-a-week contract that the studio had the option to cancel every six months. So, while her Choate mates were taking freshman econ at Princeton, Jamie was playing junkies, sluts and blind girls on shows like Quincy, Marcus Welby, M.D. and Operation Petticoat. Though she had virtually no acting experience, she knew how to act. Explains Jamie: “It’s just never been hard for me to be someone else. I think the fact that I had very low self-confidence growing up and in high school made me a good actress. It was easy for me to be a preppie with preppie kids and a hippie with hippie kids. I learned early to be a chameleon, to turn whatever color was needed.”

John Carpenter, an obscure thirty-year-old director, caught on before anybody. He gave her the lead in Halloween, his low-budget slasher that was expected to play for one weekend at two Florida drive-ins. Filming began, and Jamie delivered a climactic five-minute shriek that helped make Halloween the biggest-grossing independent feature film in history. John Carpenter got rich and famous. Jamie Lee Curtis got $8000 and the title of Scream Queen. Little Jamie, happy at last, loved the billing — her billing. “I remember the discussion of whether my Halloween credit should say STARRING or INTRODUCING JAMIE LEE CURTIS,” she says, laughing. “My dream was to have INTRODUCING.” She got her dream, along with the realization that I am somebody. Says Jamie, “I was finally able to say, ‘That’s mine. I did that. That’s all me.’ Halloween was my deb party. It was a pretty weird party, but it was my coming out. My emotional coming out.”

But Hollywood success would prove trickier than adolescent confusion. After Halloween, Jamie was almost typecast in cement as Horror Girl Incorporated. With her only option being a return to playing junkie-sluts on TV, she said okay to some scripts. Halloween II. Prom Night. The Fog. A lot worse movies have been made for a lot more money. In the years that followed, Jamie gave a series of naive, painfully truthful interviews to reporters who only wanted to know what it felt like to date Adam Ant and have Tony Curtis, who became addicted to cocaine, for a father. Burned repeatedly, she learned about journalists long before reading the Perfect script.

Though Jamie didn’t know it, the job ahead of her — to get out of the slash circuit — was historically impossible. In The Book of Lists #2, there is a rundown of big-time movie stars who had to perform in early-career horror flicks. Among them are Humphrey Bogart in The Return of Dr. X, Steve McQueen in The Blob, Jack Nicholson in The Raven and Donald Sutherland in Castle of the Living Dead. Every single movie star listed is a man. Before Jamie Lee Curtis, no Scream Queen ever made it out of the Hollywood haunted house with a breathing career.

Yes, talent and persistence were the main elements. The key, however, to Jamie Lee Curtis’ becoming the Jackie Robinson of horror films was speed. Quite simply, she moved faster than the Hollywood pinkie rings whose job it is to mold eternal typecasts. She began tossing away every horror lead that came her way in favor of the rare supporting part that was even a tad different. The pigeonholers, having heard this riff before, ran alongside. Soon Jamie pulled into the lead. She transformed herself from Scream Queen to occasional yeller with nice hooters in TV’s Death of a Centerfold: The Dorothy Stratten Story. From there, she went on to well-figured comic actress in Trading Places. Then to funny gal who could be romantic and sensitive in Love Letters, Grandview, U.S.A. and Perfect. Soon, Jamie will costar with Jeff Bridges in Hal Ashby’s Eight Million Ways to Die, a film based on two Lawrence Block novels about alcohol and redemption. And so what if her movies aren’t Citizen Kane? For chrissakes, she’s only twenty-six and has a funny husband and a barkless dog to worry about.

Though she has already run rings around the typecaster, Jamie still frets. The Hollywood power boys never give up, she knows, even when they’ve been lapped by as seemingly an easy mark as Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh’s Danskinned baby daughter. If they don’t stop chasing her with their pigeonhole nets, says Jamie, she just may someday put on a pinkie ring, direct her own movies and be her own boss. “My only worry now,” she says, “is that they will keep skirting the issue of whether or not I’m a good actress. They can still say, ‘Oh fuck, you should see her body, it’s so great.’ They can still avoid saying I’m a good actress, the way they’ve avoided it for a long time.” They shouldn’t, not anymore. So Entertainment Tonight, remember this before you send Barbara Howar over to ask Jamie Lee Curtis about Adam Ant and Cocaine Papa. This babe can move. This babe can act. Best of all, this babe is sane.

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