The debut this week of Fox’s Screen Queens series reminds me how much I love Jamie Lee Curtis. It’s not that -- despite my Roger Corman past – I’m a huge fan of horror films in which pretty girls in their undies try to fend off rapists and killers. (Really, isn’t enthusiasm for these flicks largely a guy thing?) Yes, Jamie Lee got her showbiz start as Laurie Strode, the good girl who survived Halloween, and then went on to star in such chillers as Halloween II, The Fog, and Prom Night. But it’s what she’s done since that impresses me.
In one way, Jamie Lee was predestined for stardom. After all, her mother was perky blonde Janet Leigh, who was featured in scores of films in the 1950s and thereafter. I think of her in such light romantic comedies as My Sister Eileen and Bye Bye Birdie. But of course her best-known role was that of the original scream queen, Marion Crane, who took a deadly shower in Hitchcock’s Psycho. Jamie Lee’s father, Tony Curtis, was also a Hollywood superstar, both as a glamour-boy and as a serious actor in films like The Defiant Ones.
Once she’d made her mark in horror films, Jamie Lee started looking for cinematic respectability. Of all places, she ended up at Roger Corman’s New World Pictures, where Amy Holden Jones wanted to follow up her Slumber Party Massacre with something completely different. Jones wrote and directed Love Letters (1984), a romantic drama in which a young woman is inspired by her mother’s long-ago example to start a torrid affair with a married man. True to form, Corman demanded more nudity than was contained in Jones’ original script. She and Jamie Lee had no choice but to comply. Surprisingly, the eventual New World Pictures poster (which I recall on display in our office entryway) was the opposite of sleazy. And Jamie Lee moved on to bigger and better things.
Since then her films have included sparkling comedic performances in A Fish Named Wanda (1988) and True Lies (1994), for which she won a Golden Globe. The latter film took advantage of her persona as an apparently average suburban wife and mom who turns out to have a secret yen for adventure. Her ready-for-anything style also enhanced the 2003 screen adaptation of Freaky Friday, in which she and daughter Lindsay Lohan switch bodies.
I love these last two films because they “prove” that middle-of-the-road women, well past the sexpot stage, can still have hidden depths. That’s something Curtis has been proving in real life as well. She’s been married since 1984 to her one and only spouse, the hilarious Christopher Guest of Spinal Tap and Best in Show fame. Though she actually became a British baroness when Guest came into the title of Baron Haden-Guest in 1996, they apparently have a modest lifestyle. Together they’re raising their two children in (yes!) Santa Monica, though I admit I’ve never seen them wandering around town. While in child-rearing mode, she wrote a number of well-received kids’ books, including one, Today I Feel Silly, and Other Moods That Make My Day, that spent ten weeks on the New York Times bestseller list.
But what I love most about Jamie Lee Curtis is her honesty about herself and her failings. Seeking to debunk the myth of Hollywood glamour, she actually posed for MORE magazine in 2002 wearing nothing but her underwear. Unadorned, unretouched, she was showing the world what a forty-year-old looks like, sans Hollywood magic. She’s earned every one of her now-abundant grey hairs. You go, girl!