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Silver Scream

Janet Leigh's Film Career Was Defined by One Killer 'Psycho' Scene

By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 5, 2004; Page C01

Oh, Janet Leigh -- what would it take now? (More blood? Color? Actual slashing? Two guys with knives instead of one guy with a knife? A CGI monster with a CGI knife?)

We can never go back and undo that first scarring of the collective cultural consciousness in "Psycho," and that murderous moment in 1960 in the shower with the beautifully paranoid, on-the-lam, then 32-year-old Janet Leigh. Stabbed to death in the Bates Motel -- can there be any higher honor? She didn't think there could be.

(1960 Photo)

_____From The Post_____
Obit: Janet Leigh Dies at 77

Leigh, who died at her Beverly Hills home Sunday at age 77 after a bout with a vascular disease, saw clearly, in retrospect, that she had been an essential participant in a distinct and everlasting 45 seconds of film, and so she reveled in it. She showered and screamed forever.

We don't seem to be able to improve on it, either, though Lord knows Hollywood has tried: After her came all sorts of shower spigots where the water suddenly turns to pomegranate-hued blood, or shower stalls with ghosts whose unseen hands turn the water far too hot. Or the many kinds of madmen who found a way in, just when the hapless (and amply-boobed) are losing themselves in a soapy, unguarded remove. Director Gus Van Sant put Anne Heche in the same shower, the same way, in his 1998 frame-for-frame "Psycho" remake, and big whoop. In the TV spot for her new horror flick, "The Grudge," Sarah Michelle Gellar is in the shower prepping herself for a cream rinse when she feels the back of her head, and wha . . . ? THERE ARE FINGERS COMING OUT OF THE BACK OF HER HEAD.

Ree! Ree! Ree! Ree! Ree . . . Ree?

Yeah. Well. You see the problem. It's never the same.

You can have all the ingredients -- the violin abuse, the kitchen cutlery, the barely opaque shower curtain -- and it just never quite plays the way it did when "Psycho" was released. (There were legendary, hype-worthy rules about not admitting latecomers to screenings at theaters.)

Alfred Hitchcock is dead, Anthony Perkins is dead, and now Leigh has died. But we'll never feel the same about taking a shower again. She made sure that the rest of us always lock the door to the motel room -- the bolt, the chain, and then the bolt to the bathroom door, too. Leigh considered this a small but somehow immeasurable gift to the modern psyche and never turned away from the horror of having one's entire career summed up in a scream. She seemed to have never rolled her eyes at the mention of "Psycho," and never dismissed it with "Oh, that."

"I say 'thank God,' " she told CBS News last year. "How can anyone not be grateful for that kind of opportunity? I don't mind being bombarded by something like that. That's what the [movie] business is all about: creating images."

And so we've come to know those 45 seconds of "Psycho" more than the rest of the movie itself. People are born, it seems, knowing about Ree! Ree! Ree! Ree! The trivia of it all circles the drain: The seven days it took to shoot it. (She says she was a prune by the time they finished.) The 70 camera angles. The shock of initial audiences, who were terrified by the scene but also floored that the lead actress would make a mortal exit before the movie was barely half over. (On this technicality, she got the Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress.)

She also danced up a storm in "Bye-Bye Birdie," even though that movie popularly belongs to Ann-Margret. She had that weird exchange of non sequiturs with Frank Sinatra in "The Manchurian Candidate," even though people still think more about Angela Lansbury in that one. What she had in the end was "Psycho."

If you were doing a retrospective, or celebrating an anniversary of the movie, she was available. She swore over and over in repeated interviews that from the moment she saw herself on the movie screen being murdered in the shower she was never able to take one again. "It's not a hype, not something I thought would be good for publicity," she insisted in one interview. "Honest to gosh, it's true."

"I don't take showers," she told another interviewer. "Or, if there is no other way to bathe, I make sure all the doors and windows in the house are locked, and I leave the bathroom door and shower curtain open so I have a perfect, clear view."

So she became a bath woman. (Hollywood has done some pretty terrifying things there, too, but this didn't involve her.)

She made the shower scene safe for all actresses, and lethal for them, too. With the right placement of moleskin, it's not even technically a nude scene. She helped make the shower creepy. So permanent is this moment that almost anyone's boyfriend or husband now thinks it a laugh riot to scare the daylights out of us in the shower.

Ree! Ree! Ree!

(That's not funny! I'm serious, David! Jeez! Go a-way. I mean it.)

Lather, rinse, repeat. She took the knife so we didn't have to. The relief of all those pleasant and psycho-free showers you've ever taken, you owe to Janet Leigh.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company