'Psycho's' Leigh Still Showered In Fear
Star Helps AMC Preserve Hitchcock's Legacy 40 Years Later
Leigh's fear is so intense, in fact, that she simply can't take showers. Oddly enough, the fear wasn't borne from shooting of the sequence, but by viewing the completed project, punctuated of course by Hitchcock's quick edits and Bernard Hermann's blood-curdling string score.
"It wasn't in the making of it because it took place over the course of seven shooting days. So I couldn't have possibly been in a state of hysteria that long. Otherwise I would have been in a booby hatch," Leigh told me in a recent interview.
"When I saw it condensed and edited in a way that only Hitchcock could do it, it was so frightening to me that it made me realize that it's an extremely vulnerable position we're in, while in a shower.
"I never even thought about it that way before. I just couldn't get back in a shower after that. I just thought it was stupid to put yourself in that position," she said.
So, how then, does Leigh keep herself clean?
"I take a bath," she bolted with laughter.
In the one instance where rotator cuff surgery made it difficult to sit in the tub, she had her friend and housekeeper, Laura, stand outside the shower with the door open.
AMC's tribute to the master of suspense began last week with a film preservation festival on the channel, and continues this Sunday with the kick-off of the new series that showcases his films, called "Universal Hitchcock."
Although her place in cinematic history is legendary, talking to Leigh is hardly intimidating. She's very warm, funny and expressive, although I do have to admit, I had reservations about asking her the same questions that she's certain to have heard a thousand times before.
One minute of chatting with her cured me of that. In fact, she answered every single one of the questions as if it were the first time. She clearly enjoys talking about the movie and never gets sick of talking about it.
"We are in a business where you hope to create a believable image hopefully even in a lasting one. That's our job," Leigh said. "So to be in a movie that has kept people's interest for the last 40 years is very exciting.
"It's pleasurable because at least you feel you did your job. I know people aren't to the extreme that I am and don't take showers. But people all over the world have said to me that they never go into a shower without thinking about that scene. That's pretty impressionable."
Anthony Perkins: The Sad SilenceAfter countless hours of research, interviews and viewings of the film in preparation for her 1995 book, "Psycho: Behind the Scenes of the Classic Thriller" (Harmony Books) there is little that Leigh doesn't know about the classic thriller.
Needless to say, she was surprised (as was I) to hear a question she hadn't been asked before.
In the liner notes of the DVD version of the film, the late Anthony Perkins talked about how he avoided talking with fans about the film for 15 years because he resisted the pigeonhole it left him in.
But did he ever talk about the film with Leigh? She was, after all, a fellow professional who looked at him in a different light.
"I've never really thought about it," Leigh said. "As many times as I saw him after 'Psycho,' we never really talked about it. We might have made a quick reference but we never did talk in depth."
Leigh began to speculate as to why he wouldn't talk about the movie, even with one of his co-stars.
"When Tony was not nominated for an Oscar, Hitchcock sent him a wire saying I'm ashamed of your fellow actors. And I wish I'd thought to say that, too," Leigh told me. "The fact that he wasn't nominated is something that I will never understand. I wonder if he was hurt and did not want to talk about it.
"Not that he begrudged the fact that I was nominated, I know he was happy about me. He sent me wires congratulating me. But I wonder why? Maybe he was hurt because as the years went on, his career was hurt. He was so brilliant in the role that no one would accept him as anybody but Norman Bates," Leigh said.
It was only in the late '70s that Perkins came out of his self-imposed exile to talk about the movie. He even reprised the role in the films three sequels, and directed one of them. And while Leigh never directly got Perkins take on the role (he died in 1992), she did gain some terrific insight from Perkins son, Osgood in an interview for the book.
Leigh said: "Osgood once asked him, 'If you knew today what doing 'Psycho' would do to your career, would you have done the movie?' He came back the next the day and said, 'My work as an actor is to create images. And if I were so successful to create Norman Bates and have people not see me as anything but Norman Bates, then I've succeeded in my job. So I would have to say yes I would.'"
Despite Perkins' acceptance of the role and how people perceived him, Leigh still can't help for the torment he went through.
"It had affected his life, his career. At carpool, for instance, if his wife Berry couldn't do it and it was their turn to drive, the other parent's kids wouldn't get in the car with him. They were afraid. It affected so much of his life, and yet he came to the resolution that that yet he was."
"The Dead Look" And "Psycho" BookLike Hedren and the "attic" scene in "The Birds," Leigh found filming the shower scene to be the most exhausting. That's because in both instances, it took a week of shooting that comprised of 70 shots (the final shower sequence ended up being 45 seconds long).
Oddly enough, the most trying part of that shoot was the shot were she lay motionless on the bathroom floor: It's a shot that she refers to as "the dead look" (which started with the close-up of her glazed-over eye), which ultimately was featured on the cover of her book.
"I fell in a very uncomfortable position," Leigh recalled for me. "My head was crinkled against the tub and water was running down my hair onto my face which tickled and I couldn't obviously react to it. I had to have that look -- and not blink or swallow. I couldn't do anything until Hitch snapped his fingers after the camera panned far enough away."
"That was the hardest shot of all, because Hitchcock's thought was that I would wear contact lenses," she said. "But using contacts 40 years ago weren't as easy to using them today. The optometrist said I'd have to wear them six weeks before I could get used to keeping them in a great length of time -- otherwise it could damage my eyes."
Since time was a factor, the contacts were not an option. "Hitch looked at me then and said, I guess you'll have to go it alone, old girl."
No matter the exhaustion while working on the film or the fear of showers that developed thereafter, nothing was more frightening for Leigh than the demented actions of some audience members. She received death threats for as long as 10 years after the film came out.
"I don't know why, I guess the thought of what happened to me turned some people on, I guess," Leigh said in a whispered tone. "Apparently they wanted to do what happened to me in the film in real life."
Even more frightening is the fact that the past came back to haunt her as recent as her book signing tour in 1995.
"I had to have a metal detector for book signings because some people brought knives," she said. "One frightening experience happened on the way to doing a radio show. I was with a book rep, the radio people and security, when we spotted a man in the hallway of the building down from the doors of the station.
"He reached into his briefcase and pulled out his knife. We absolutely froze. It was so unreal. Then the security went after him. He said, 'I'm not crazy I just want people to sign this knife.'"
Whether that was really his intention, she'll never know.
Hitchcock: The Master Of PlanningAlthough Leigh's time on the set only amounted to about three weeks, she said it was a delightful atmosphere. Making things most interesting, of course, was Hitchcock himself.
"He was wonderful and the set was as congenial and as pleasant," Leigh recalled. "I had been on enough sets before that to know whether you could cut the tension with a knife or know if people were happy. And this was a very happy set.
"He was delightful to work with. You weren't tearing out your hair because he already knew what he was going to do. Everything was so well organized. He had every shot all laid out. There were no surprises in store for the crew."
Of course, the ultimate master plan came with the execution of the shower scene -- a scene that was essentially shot the way it was because of restrictions of what violence could be shown on film.
"It was planned that way because he wanted the action staccato, he wanted all the angles so that every time the knife came up he showed a different part of the body and a different angle. It was happening so quick that what was happening in your mind blended the knife with the body, because you couldn't show it in those days
That's a pretty amazing feat, considering that the violence which many people think they have seen over the years, is merely implied. There's no visible stabbing taking place on camera, yet the camera is the element that is controlling your emotions.
"My theory for the reason the film has in stayed in people's minds, is because they created the scene however they wanted to see it. Because we showed them as much an we could; the way the knife came up and down on another part of the body, it became linked together. If you are part of the creative process, as the audience was and still is, then you'll never forget it," Leigh said.
With Leigh's long lasting contributions to film, it's doubtful that she'll ever be forgotten. And though she continues to appear in films (among them the bookend to "Psycho" -- the last installment of the "Halloween" series made famous by daughter Jamie Lee Curtis), one of her biggest priorities now is making sure that we don't forget about classic films in general.
"I'm so excited about the interest in me from American Movie Classics, the American Film Institute and the Library of Congress," Leigh said. "I try to do everything I can because film preservation is so important. It just breaks my heart to think that 50 percent of the films made before 1950 are gone."
DVD Spotlight: 'Sleepy Hollow'
While the violence in 'Psycho' is implied, the same can't quite be said for director Tim Burton's wicked screen adaptation of the Washington Irving classic, "Sleepy Hollow," his frightening, yet oddly amusing homage to Hammer Horror recently released on DVD.
The tagline for the film is appropriately "Heads Will Roll," and they mean it. Nothing is left to the imagination when it comes to the execution of terror by the Headless Horseman (with a particular emphasis on the word, "execution)."
Johnny Depp is brilliantly quirky as Ichabod Crane (what else would you expect from a Burton/Depp collaboration?), a New York City constable sent to investigate a grisly series of beheadings in the upstage village of Sleepy Hollow. Soon enough, however, he discovers it's the work of a headless horseman. The question remains whether he is responsible for all the mayhem. After all, two heads (or in this case, one head and something otherworldly) are better than one.
While the daunting Hammer Horror-like atmosphere alone of this film makes it a must-have, the DVD's bonus features on "Sleepy Hollow" makes this (trick or) treat much sweeter. Much like "Psycho," the film's "making of" documentary, for the lack of better words, is a cut above your standard DVD fare: It peers into several elements of Burton's mystical movie world, which has also made such films as "Batman," "Edward Scissorhands" and "Ed Wood" such inspired gems.
In relation to "Sleepy Hollow," we essentially see the film built from the ground up: Shot almost entirely on the English countryside and in London's famed Leavesden Studios (home to the "Star Wars" films), the doc chronicles the making of the sets (including a windmill that thrillingly recalls "Frankenstein"); the creation of the film's atmosphere (pumped in fog and wicked, winding trees that make up the films forest); the music (with Burton regular Danny Elfman at the baton), how they made the horseman headless (Christopher Walken plays the headed version, while Darth Maul vet Ray Park played the fight scenes on the ground and Rob Inch played the riding version) and of course, how the special effects wizards made those heads roll!
If the 30-minute documentary doesn't quite dig deep enough for you, there's an interview segment with Burton, Depp, Christina Ricci and several others, as well as a wonderful commentary track by Burton. This is a film clearly defined by a unique filmmaker's vision, and it's a thrill to hear what makes Burton tick.
Also new on DVD: Tom Cruise fans who are still energized by the sizzling summer blockbuster "Mission: Impossible 2" can now enjoy 1993's "The Firm" on DVD. While this tale of corruption and deceit doesn't quite have the visual pyrotechnics of "M:I-2," it's certainly not short on suspense. The legal thriller -- based on the novel by John Grisham - was helmed by Oscar winner Sydney Pollack is presented in widescreen, and includes scene selection capabilities and two trailers.
"Love's Labour's Lost" star-director Kenneth Branagh has yet another new project out this month, the DVD release of his acclaimed 1991 thriller, "Dead Again" A murder-mystery that finds both Branagh and Emma Thompson playing dual roles, "Dead Again" is unique in that it offers a commentary track (along with producer Lindsay Doran) by Hollywood's most acclaimed screenwriters of late, Scott Frank.
Since it was Frank's first major screen project, it's fun to get the perspective on the early days from a seasoned screenwriter's point of view. (Frank has written such gems as adaptations of Elmore Leonard's "Get Shorty" and "Out Of Sight" and script doctored "Saving Private Ryan."). Of course, the package wouldn't be complete without Branagh contributing himself, as the Shakespearean-bred actor director pipes in his thoughts on his own insightful commentary track.
Those up for Shakespeare after seeing Branagh in action (although "Dead Again" is not adaptation, he regularly channels the Bard) may want to opt for the new DVD issue of "Romeo & Juliet" - which is the internationally acclaimed Franco Zeffirelli version from 1968. Starring Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey in the title roles, the DVD offers only the widescreen format and scene selection in terms of bonus features, but does also include the film's theatrical trailer, rarely seen by film audiences.
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