We Ask Janet Leigh: “Are You Retiring?”
It takes a lot to arouse the blasé folks out Hollywood way. But for months, Janet Leigh has had them mystified, confused, intrigued—and stumped. Yes, the same Janet whose every move and thought had always been as open and clear to the public as the first page of the New York Times.
Strangely, it wasn’t what Janet did that caused the commotion. It was what she didn’t do. She was no longer a part of the feverish social whirl, constantly laughing and chattering brightly. She gave up her interest in a dress manufacturing company, in which she had been very active. Though she might have returned to filmy work shortly after baby Kelly was born, she kept putting it off for months. Rumor had it that the studio had to bring some pressure to bear to get her to go to work at last in “Badge of Evil.” This, in spite of the fact that her absence from the screen adds up to two whole years—a dangerous situation for any star.
Out of all this, one big rumor grew: Janet Leigh is retiring!
One Hollywood insider shook his head over his cocktail at Ciro’s. “I could believe it of anybody but Janet,” he said. “That girl has the greatest drive, the most consuming ambition of anyone I know. She’s the original Eager Beaver, and I don’t see how she can change.”
“That’s right,” agreed his woman companion, who had known Janet for years. “I can remember how she was a few years ago. If she thought she’d missed out on something, even being introduced to somebody important to her career, she’d be checking up on it the very next day to find out the whys and wherefores. She tore into picture sittings, interviews, anything that concerned publicity, as if her life depended on them—so much so that a lot of people put her down as a grasping opportunist. She was a girl who didn’t miss a trick when it came to advancing Janet Leigh. I say, if she’s retiring, a miracle has been wrought.”
So, to get at the truth of all these stories, we went directly to Janet.
The Curtis home is a large, light-flooded house, standing on an acre of ground, up Benedict Canyon in Beverly Hills. There, in the spacious living room, curled comfortably in a corner of a couch, shoes kicked off, the lady of the house hugged her knees and thought for a moment. Anyone who had known her before would have instantly noticed that, for Janet, this was quite a switch. The old Janet would have been jumping off the sofa, moving ashtrays, and keeping up a stream of chatter at the same time.
“I feel,” she said quietly at last, “that I’ve learned the important balance between relaxation and energy. Don’t misunderstand. I’ll always be a busy person. What I mean is—I’ve learned to control me.”
She went on to explain how this great change in her outlook on life has come about—a change that has turned a high-strung girl with a compulsive need to do, do, do that was so strong it sometimes made her physically ill, into a calm, completely different individual.
“Things don’t happen overnight,” Janet said. “Tony and I talked so much about our faults, the necessity for give and take .. . the million and one things that married people have to settle. I think the moment of truth comes after achievement. For instance,” Janet went on, warming to the subject, “I have a compulsive desire to answer notes and telephone calls immediately. So I inflicted it on Tony. The minute he hit the house I was after him with a list of phone numbers. I’d keep after him until he made the calls. Sometimes he’d rebel and refuse to. I never learned from the consequences. Oh, we talked about it—analyzed it and I’d try. But I didn’t really want to change. After all, my way was right. I was only trying to do what was right, wasn’t I? Then slowly common sense seeped through my piety. So it was natural for me. That didn’t make it natural for Tony. I was being irritating . . . not Tony. Me! That’s when I decided to stop prompting and prodding. Instead, I’d give him the messages and forget it. When my attitude changed, so did Tony’s. He started answering his calls in his own time. It was long after this became a pattern that I realized it had actually happened.”
Janet’s highstrung nervous energy and strong compulsive efficiency ran head on into Tony’s easy-going, relaxed way of life when they married. They were aware of the difference in their respective personalities and “took steps.” But it wasn’t until the first big basic battle of blending was won that they both completely understood the meaning of wanting to—not talking about. Women all over the world sympathized with poor Janet’s endless efforts to tantalize Tony’s unique and exasperating appetite. It wasn’t until Janet stopped trying that the balance was achieved. When Janet’s whirlwind culinary capers slowed to a gentle breeze, Tony lost his yen for soda pop and jelly beans. Of late, he has been known to eat a full-course dinner without casting one wistful eye toward the nearest hamburg heaven. In finding answers, she has also learned the ultimate importance of reaction.
“For years I have been cajoling, coaxing and wheedling to get Tony to buy a notebook to carry with him. For notes, telephone numbers and all the important jottings men jot. I would have gladly bought him one in solid gold if it would have helped. But no, he didn’t need it. So I finally let go . . . skipped it. The other day he waltzed into the house with a black leather notebook. Explaining that he suddenly decided he needed one. I didn’t even stutter when I told him it was a wonderful idea. That’s my idea of the right reaction!”
Actually Tony’s insecurity and lack of genuine confidence kept him from taking over the responsibilities of domesticity. His lack of security and fluctuating ego held him in a vise of indecision. Tony’s stature as an actor began to seriously grow at about the same time they discovered that Kelly was on the way. The two events worked wonders. Afraid of financial responsibility involved in buying a home, he had always insisted on renting. When he and Janet returned from Europe after filming their respective pictures, “Trapeze” and “Safari,” Tony decided it was time. It was time to believe in the future. It was time to buy a home. So they did. Once he got the hang of it, Tony started enjoying making decisions.
“We moved when I was five months pregnant,” Janet remembered. “Tony took over. He made arrangements with the movers, the gas company, the telephone . . . all the million and one things that go into moving. Believe it or not, the Saturday we moved, I sat quietly in the middle of the bare living room and told the movers where the boxes went! No fuss—no bustle. I sat and Tony did. I was learning to relax. Resting and taking it easy were required at that time. I felt the need so I gave in to it.
“I suppose becoming parents makes a terrific difference with anyone.” Janet smiled. “I know with us our whole lives began to center around our baby. For the first time in my life I didn’t have a compulsive (there’s that word again!) guilt feeling about work. Before if I wasn’t working—earning my keep so to speak, I became nervous, fraught and guilty. For the first time in years I didn’t even think about acting. I was merely thankful that I didn’t have to do a picture because I’d never been so busy in my life. With Kelly of course all our household routines changed. Then we were still having work done on the house and . . . well, suddenly I understood the meaning of the term ‘housewife and mother.’
“I used to be so bored when women would get in little huddles at parties and yak about their children. I always wanted to be with the menfolks talking business and sharing the pungent patter. Now! Im the first to form the huddle and get in my licks on the life and times of Kelly. The scintillating side lights on ‘other people’s babies’ send me home with a glow. Why, when I found out that one young couple, friends of Tony and me, were going to have a baby, I was over there immediately, instructing and advising like a professional midwife. It was a wonderful time,” Janet sighed happily. “I learned so much about me . . . and living.”
Janet is an intelligent girl. Intelligent enough to realize that egg-headed thinking must at times give way to emotional response . . . and no thinking. It was during her six months of just being with Tony and Kelly that she slowly became aware that problems were evaporating. Sometimes silly things in effect. But the causes were not silly. They were little tell-tale flags of warning. Two individuals—strong individuals—still clinging to their own egos. Not yet learning the way to blend and still be personalities. Like their party patter. It was gay, droll, stimulating and sometimes hilarious. But each was on guard. Tension was behind their funnies. For sooner or later, one of them would make a very amusing statement . . . with a neat quick-silvered barb attached. Funny? Yes. But underneath was resentment. Resentment of something not discussed, or too much discussed . . . but resentment. As imperceptibly as a sunrise the habit and the tension evaporated. The need to hurt had disappeared. Simultaneously their moods met. Their attitudes changed because not orally, but innately, they wanted to reach a new plateau of living. Impatient to love and enjoy Kelly to the utmost, the conflicts that had been very vital became non-essential. Free from the battle of winning points in the game of matrimony, Janet began to readjust her way of thinking.
“It was about that time the rumors started that I was going to retire as an actress,” Janet said. “Because of the rumors I started thinking seriously about the future. I decided very easily that first things came first. In my future Tony and Kelly will always come first. Having lost the guilty need to work, I looked at me objectively. I could of course retire. Then in ten or fifteen years I could be wailing like a fishwife at Kelly—‘I gave up my career for you. Now what are you going to give up for me?’ That is plain old human nature. No, I decided. I like to work. It also keeps me stimulating and interesting with Tony. I don’t want to turn into a vegetable. Tony’s too vital and enthusiastic to accept that. That’s when I decided on the balance. I will do two, at the most three pictures a year, but never on long locations away from Tony and Kelly. Where Tony goes—goes Kelly and me. As Tony was working in town on ‘The Sweet Smell of Success,’ I went back to work at Universal-International on ‘Badge of Evil.’ Reluctantly, I admit.”
Orson Welles was the director of the film and Janet was soon caught up in the excitement of working with him. The picture itself was so off-beat and unusual that the acting challenge engrossed her.
“Adjustment from the life of a busy housewife to acting was quite a thing to see,” Janet went on. “I had to start thinking differently about my duties. For the first few days I ran around trying to do everything the way I had before working. Let me say it did not work. The old desperate efficiency started taking over again. I became a nervous set of strings until I suddenly stopped and remembered I’d been through this before and decided on balance. So I calmed down. Systematically I figured first things first again. I started planning menus while in makeup. I answered mail at night. I kept things in one spot so I didn’t have to run. The other essentials I relegated to days off and Saturdays. It worked. I was free of things. I had the mental serenity to drop the studio at the gate. I could dash up the stairs growling like an idiot (or a doting mother) to Kelly. It became a habit. Now if I don’t go through all the insane noises of greeting, I’m sure she wonders what happened. Then Tony would come home, pick up his flute and come marching up the stairs playing a hot nursery rhyme and Kelly would light up like a pinball machine.
“After Kelly fell asleep I realized I was right to work. Some nights Tony and I would both be so wound up in the day’s work we talked for hours. Other times, it was just enough to be home, alone, tired and happy.”
During those active months, they planned projects. Both were determined to paint the fence themselves when their respective pictures were over. They also were going to form a musical combo with Jackie and Jerry Gershwin, their best friends. Jerry played the electric guitar and Tony, with impatient enthusiasm started working on the flute. Jackie and Janet can’t make up their minds among bongo drums, harp, piano or bass viol. The thought of Janet sawing away on a bass or sitting demurely behind a cello had them in hysterics. Tony even promised to take Janet to more movies. It seems her undying thirst for movies keeps him hopping. When they’re working, the theatre schedules are either very early or very late. When you have to get up at five or six a.m., you can’t go to the local flickers, see a double feature and get to bed by one. One night they went to dinner at a friend’s home. Their host ran three movies that evening. Janet was absolutely delighted until her spouse informed her that orgy should last her for three months.
“Then all our projects went straight up in the air,” Janet said happily. “Each of us received a script—individually. I liked it but turned it back saying I wouldn’t do it unless Tony did. He did the same thing. It worked out beautifully. It was for Kirk Douglas’ Bryna Productions and he wanted us both!”
The picture is “The Vikings” and will be filmed in Norway, Brittany and England. So Tony and Janet made plans to go abroad. “Tony and I decided when Kelly was born—where we go—she goes. We have reached,” Janet said suddenly with a near look of smugness on her happy face, “a wonderful new plateau of living.
“Don’t misunderstand. We’re not dangling our feet off pink cloud number nine. We still have our fights. But they’re different. Now we want to blow off the steam and get to the crux of the problem. Find out what’s to be done and do it. Somehow it doesn’t matter anymore who’s right. The need is to blow up and get it over with. Any complaints? Sure. I suppose Tony has some too. He still forgets to tell me we’ve been invited to a party until the night we’re due. Or he’ll suddenly remember he’s invited some people to dinner—the day they’re due. But that’s almost a joke now. We know we can always work it out. The only real problem,” Janet explained with a satisfied grin, “is Tony’s new efficiency. It sometimes runs into the household duties. This I don’t like. If something goes wrong, he tries to fix it (‘Yipes!’) or calls someone, anyone, for repairs. As I have in my little black book tried and true competent people, this annoyed me. Until I realized that I wasn’t home when these emergencies occurred. So who cares? It doesn’t have to be my man.”
Janet is fully aware that the plateau of understanding she has reached is but a resting place. Life is made up of levels of understanding—if one keeps wanting to learn. The Curtis couple have reached a little deeper into themselves in this year of decision.
Janet can look back now at the girl she used to be with no regrets. All that driving, and pushing, and striving, all the nervous energy she poured into trying to prove to one and all that she was good, or she was right—how unnecessary it was!
Looking back now, Janet says seriously, “I’ve found out that it doesn’t matter if you’re right or wrong. Sometimes it’s a little worse if you’re right.”
—BY DEE PHILLIPS
It is a quote. PHOTOPLAY MAGAZINE AUGUST 1957