Imagine Me Shy!—Janet Leigh
When I was going to high school, we had a class called Speech l-A, which was held every Friday. And every Friday morning, without fail, I’d wake up with a raging headache and feeling wretched. Sometimes my mother would let me get away with staying home, but more often, she ordered me off to school—where I’d feel even more ill.
Yet the only thing I was sick from was fear. I couldn’t make a speech then and I still can’t—unless I’ve memorized every word of it. I can’t even tell a story well.
The dark, curly-headed gentleman named Tony Curtis, to whom I’m married—what a character he is when it comes to spinning a yarn! Make it two or two hundred and my boy is right there with the jokes. But let me try to tell one, even one with just a two-line lead-in and a one-line snapper on the end and I get all involved, I fall flat, the joke falls flat, my husband groans, “Oh, no.”
In school, in my teens, that would have made me ill for a week. Now all it does is make me acknowledge my own limitations and be happy about them. Honestly! There are many reasons for this, which I’ll tell you in a sec, but the big, fast rule for getting over self- consciousness and shyness, I’ll tell you right now. I mean the rule that worked for me.
It’s this: Instead of beating your brains and crying your heart out over something you do badly, find the thing you do better than anybody else. I have two things and they are such snaps anybody can do them.
1. I can laugh better than anybody at another person’s humor.
2. I can listen better.
See? No hands, Mom. It takes no time, it takes no money, it takes no talent. Anybody, as I said, can do it. Only, fortunately for me, very few people do, especially at parties.
Growing up in Stockton, California, which is a mighty small city, I was all legs and arms and shyness. There was a clique of girls in my class who clung together and, since they excluded me, I madly longed to join them. But there was one thing they had against me and it made me miserable.
What a goon you can be when you’re thirteen and fourteen! Those uppity girls made my life a gloom because my looks didn’t suit them! If I’d had the sense of a goose, I would have been proud and happy because God had been good enough to give me good skin and a straight nose and a clean jawline. Instead of doing that old-fashioned virtue of counting my blessings, I went around miserable, thinking I was a square because they snubbed me.
Now, maybe you’re saying as you read this that I was real gone being upset by such a thing. Maybe you’re saying that nobody could suffer over such things, when other girls were suffering because they didn’t have the right clothes or lunch money or something more real like that.
Well, you’re half right. I was a square to let such criticism upset me. But you’re half wrong, too. Because nothing you are self-conscious about:is real. It’s all fear. It’s all because of not knowing. If it’s the lack of the right clothes that’s throwing you, it’s crazy because clothes don’t make that much difference.
It’s not-knowing that makes the cliques, too—it makes you want to be in them if you’re outside, and makes you afraid to leave them if you’re inside. Cliques, the gang, our group are just fear in a bunch, not fear individually. They are just every member trying to be like every other member, all following one pattern, dressing alike, talking alike and afraid of the most precious gift in life: the fact that you are you, and I am I, and nobody the whole world over is exactly like either of us or we like them.
Yet the more you expose your personality to other people the more you find they are like you. And expose is what I mean. You have to steel your courage and force your nerves when you are meeting someone strange or going into a social group you’ve never faced before. You think you won’t be adequate, won’t be dressed right, won’t know what to say or whom to say it to. But you make yourself go and it does pay off.
I remember the first Hollywood party I was invited to. It was at the multi-millionaire Atwater Kent’s house, and I was told that “anybody who was anybody in Hollywood” would be there. I shook with fear. I thought “I shall be the only nobody. What will I do?”
I would never have dared to go if Evie and Van Johnson hadn’t asked me, and I only accepted because I didn’t want to refuse them anything. Van was the leading man in my very first picture, “Romance of Rosy Ridge,” and he and Evie had been nothing but sheer heaven to me since then.
I stammered to Evie “I can’t go. I haven’t the right clothes.”
Evie closed up that escape for me. “I’ll loan you a dress,” she said.
I stammered to Van. “But I’ll need an escort.”
Van snapped that escape closed, too. “You will not. You’ll be right with us.”
So I went, in Evie’s dress, hanging, trembling, to Van’s arm. I came into a room absolutely stuffed with celebrities, and the host smiled down at me in the friendliest way, and the next thing I knew I found myself seated next to a very important producer. He happened to have just released a picture that I thought was the greatest. I began to shake with the mere idea of telling him so and then I plunged. I not only told him it was the greatest, but I asked him where he started on it. Was it with the book? Or had he worked from a finished script? And how had he arrived at the casting?
I said all that in one rush, and it was well I did, because an hour later he was still talking and I hadn’t put in another word. I just sat there, hanging on his every word because I was truly fascinated. He might have been talking yet, and I listening, but right then the entertainment started.
That, of course, was the greatest—the most famous comedians in the world, the best singers, the finest dancers. And suddenly I heard myself laughing and applauding the very loudest because I was having the best time of anybody. And you know why I was?
It was because I was the happiest I had ever been in my life until I met Tony. I just sat there, in the most heavenly glow, because for the very first time in my existence I realized two wonderful things: I’d probably never once be the belle of the ball when it came to getting up and performing before people—but one gift I did have: I could appreciate. I could listen with my whole mind and love it, because that way a girl like me, who wished she’d had much more time for education, could learn and learn and learn. And I could laugh with my whole soul because truly and absolutely people were so wonderful.
So maybe you’re arguing with me again and saying who can’t laugh at divine clowns like Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis or be fascinated by a great mind? But what happens if you meet only ordinary people, who aren’t entertainers or rich through their talents or interesting because they are in touch with the big world?
All right, I’ll make a confession. Recently Tony and I were on a personal appearance tour and at lunchtime we were booked for a luncheon with some local dignitaries. Not a person from show business among them. Not a name we’d ever heard of.
Said I to the man in my life, “This will be the dullest.” Now I must tell you something about Mr. Curtis. He gets a kick out of everything. He likes everybody. Oh, he has moods. He sometimes gets down, but that’s about himself, over some scene he wanted to play better or something he wanted to buy which we can’t afford—personal stuff. But about people and events, he’s always as high as the sky.
Me, I go along on a much more even keel—neither so high nor so low as Tony. But on this particular day I was real beat. We went to the luncheon and I looked at the man on my right and merely to say something I asked, “Tell me what you do”—when actually all I wanted him to do was go drop dead and let me rest.
He was a fisherman, a wholesale fisherman. And the next thing I knew he was opening up a whole new world to me, the stuff of lobster pots and clam beds and the deep sea inhabitants and the perils and the profits, and dangers and the daring of his trade. He made it all so exciting that I felt about as useful as a china doll when he got through, but he’d done the most wonderful thing for me: He’d given me a brand-new set of thoughts and values, and because of that, I was rested and life seemed more terrific than ever.
People are like passports—your own way into a strange, new, wonderful land. But just as you can’t get to Europe by staying home, so you can’t get to other people if you don’t meet them more than halfway.
As long as you are self-conscious, you think to yourself, “Oh, if they’d only come to me. Oh, if they’d only realize how nice I am, how loving, but I’m too shy to say this openly. Why don’t other people just sense this?”
The real reason they don’t is that they may be thinking just those thoughts themselves. They are standing in their little lonely place, and you’re standing in yours. Somebody has to give, but when you give, you can’t give just in order to get.
That is phony—and in the long run I don’t think phonies get anywhere, largely because they always are self-conscious. They are constantly thinking not of the other guy, but of the impression they are making, of the bright things they are doing, of the smart places they are going to get.
There is something else that I learned. When you change, other people change also. You are not the only one who grows up, who gets smarter, who begins to see his or her own personality in real terms.
Or to bring it more up to date, it’s like my dancing. The first time I was put in a dancing picture was about four years ago in “Two Tickets to Broadway.” I went into that with nothing but a natural sense of rhythm. I worked like crazy and I got by, but I never was relaxed. I never did have a happy sense of release or feel that I really knew quite what I was doing.
The second dance picture was “Walking My Baby Back Home.” I defy anybody not to be relaxed around Donald O’Connor, and what I learned about hoofing from Donnie would fill a sound stage. Just the same, when I was rehearsing a new step with him, he’d stand off a couple of times and say, “Let’s see how you look in that, Jannie,” and then I’d blow. I got really sore, really angry, and one day in temper, I blurted out, “Donnie, stop that, you make me so self-conscious.”
And that was exactly what it was. I was angry because I was afraid and because I was afraid I was self-conscious, and because I was self-conscious, I was a high-towered mess, acting petulantly toward a good friend who was trying to help me.
Now I’m dancing again in “My Sister Eileen”—and I finally know enough about footwork to be able to take criticism. I can take it and profit by it, so that every twice in a while I actually manage a step that I’m happy about. The other day Bob Fosse, the dance director, made me step out all alone in a dance we do together as a kind of a duet.
“Listen,” he said, “you step out strong when we’re together. Now step out just that strong when you’re by yourself. Forget yourself. Go toward the audience.”
That’s the ticket. Forget yourself—and go toward your audience. You’ll find the audience is waiting to welcome you.
—BY JANET LEIGH
It is a quote. PHOTOPLAY MAGAZINE DECEMBER 1954