Janet Leigh: Critical Appreciation of a Versatile Actress

Her most famous role and the only one for which she was nominated for an Oscar left her naked and dead halfway through the picture. Janet Leigh was married to one of the biggest male sex symbols of the 1950’s and 1960’s and was the mother of one of the most popular actresses of the 1980’s. She has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, a Golden Globe, a handful of Golden Laurels, and a triplet of Golden Apple awards, whatever the heck those are. Leigh was herself one of Hollywood’s Golden Girls, but she has never received the critical appreciation she deserves. At least not as of the writing of this article.

Say the name Janet Leigh and one or more of the following three names likely will pop into your head: Tony, Jamie Lee, or Marion. (Or Stony, if you are a “Flintstones” fan!) Wife, mother, and Alfred Hitchcock’s most famous murder victim aside, however, you should be willing to think of Leigh as one of the most surprisingly versatile actresses of all time.

Consider her role in “Angels in the Outfield.” I recently caught this baseball comedy on Turner Classic Movies and it took me a good 10 minutes to recognize that Leigh was the female lead. Not that she looked considerably different from how she looked as, say, Marion Crane. What kept me from immediately putting the name to the face was the disconnect between the films that Janet Leigh is famous for and the fact that she was appearing in a light comedy. The longer I watched “Angels in the Outfield,” the greater my appreciation for her talent became.

One way of measuring Leigh’s unrecognized potential as a talented actress is to watch “Angels in the Outfield” immediately after “Touch of Evil.” This Orson Welles film, considered by many to be the last great black & white film noir, has many elements that make it easy to think that Hitchcock was highly influenced by it when constructing “Psycho.”

For one thing, Leigh plays a blonde beauty terrorized at a hotel at which a squirrelly mama’s boy works. Leigh’s precursor to Marion Crane is a much more fully realized performance, working perfectly as a counterpoint to the lightness of the character she plays in “Angels in the Outfield.”

Placing “Touch of Evil” and “Angels in the Outfield” side by side reveals that Janet Leigh rises above the likes of Kim Novak, Tippi Hedren, Doris Day, and other cool blonde beauties of her era. One need only watch “Psycho” and “Touch of Evil” after catching “Midnight Lace” to see that Leigh was capable of reaching dramatic heights Day could only dream of, despite claims of emotional breakdowns.

Add her deceptively superficial performance in the musical Bye Bye Birdie into the mix, and it becomes ever more apparent that Janet Leigh was a major actress of her time who never got her due. This is a film with a young, ridiculously sexy Ann-Margret vying with Leigh for the attention of male viewers. Rather than attempt to compete with the explicit sensuality of the redhead 15 years her junior (a task very few actresses in the history of Hollywood would be up for), Leigh brings a mature kind of sex appeal likely to become even more smoldering for male viewers as they age. Beyond the battle of eroticism, however, Leigh easily trumps Ann-Margret in achieving a performance of greater depth and nuance. (Even so, there is no getting around the obvious: Ann-Margret was a force of pure sexual energy.)

Janet Leigh unfortunately passed away before the inevitable reassessment of her talent could take place. We’re still waiting for the recognition that is bound to come. Too bad the current plan to cast Scarlett Johansson as Leigh is in the works. Leigh is deserving of an actress playing her who is equal to her own level of talent, rather than a latter day Tippi Hedren.