This dame was a lady

Janet Leigh rebuffed Howard Hughes, made movies with Orson Welles and collaborated with Alfred Hitchcock. But don't call her an actor.

By Michael Sragow

Published June 29, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

Any number of actors have had a better time playing Howard Hughes than Hughes had playing himself -- at least judging from the Turner Classic Movies documentary "Howard Hughes: His Women and His Movies."

Tommy Lee Jones had a ball playing Hughes as an idiosyncratic and paranoid Jazz Age millionaire in the 1977 miniseries "The Amazing Howard Hughes" (still available on videotape). His Hughes aimed the same hair-trigger concentration at streamlined airplanes and cantilevered bras.

In Francis Coppola's 1988 "Tucker," Dean Stockwell did a dizzying oddball number portraying Hughes as an elusive visionary, hovering in the shadows of his white elephant airplane, the Spruce Goose, almost buried from sight under sunglasses, mustache and wide-brimmed hat.

And best of all, in Jonathan Demme's 1980 classic, "Melvin and Howard," Jason Robards embodied Hughes in his aging-hermit phase as a madman motorcyclist who seized on speed and motion as if they were his sole remaining pleasures. His Hughes was amazingly out of touch -- suspicious, selfish and cantankerous -- yet still had enough latent humanity to connect with the good-natured milkman, Melvin Dummar.

It's no surprise that a man like Hughes inspires so many different portraits. He was an enigma even to those who observed him at close quarters. During a wide-ranging interview last week, I asked movie star Janet Leigh why Hughes continued to have his agents track her movements and phone calls long after she had made clear that she would never succumb to his romantic advances. Was he an incorrigible erotic optimist? Or was he paranoid about her as a potentially disgruntled employee? "Maybe he lived in hope," she laughed. "But, really, who knows?"

Born in 1905, this inheritor of a hugely profitable oil-drill business became a successful movie producer in his 20s and an aeronautical pioneer in his 30s. He was a towering American type, the heir who would be a self-made man. Whether taking over Trans-Continental and Western Airlines (TWA) in 1937 or RKO Studios in 1948, he made the kind of sweeping gestures that often signal greatness -- at least to tabloid sensibilities.

But was the man as big as his gestures? "Howard Hughes: His Women and His Movies" suggests not. The TCM movie, which premiered on June 27 and next screens on TCM July 1 and 11, could have been called "Howard Hughes: The Man and the Myth." It takes an original tack, focusing on Hughes' dual fixation with Hollywood and pulchritude.

Then it reduces everything to purple prose and novelette-ish Freudianism. The fear of rejection bred in an unhappy childhood explains his compulsive skirt chasing; obsessive-compulsive disorder explains his fatal blend of perfectionism and procrastination. In a swift 56 minutes, it makes for absorbing soap opera to follow him producing films high (the original 1932 "Scarface") and low (the 1941 lust-in-the-dust camp classic "The Outlaw") while courting a succession of ever-younger or more vulnerable beauties. He went from Katharine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers and Bette Davis to starlets and teen queens, eventually marrying 30-year-old Jean Peters in 1957.

"Howard Hughes: His Women and His Movies" leaves you with the impression that Leigh was the only actress in Hughes' RKO Studios stable who denied him love or attention. And that impression fit in with everything I knew about Leigh, whether from interviewing her two years ago about "Touch of Evil" or from reading her two books, "There Really Was a Hollywood" (her 1984 autobiography, which covers much of the same ground) and "Psycho: Behind the Scenes of the Classic Thriller" (a 1995 memoir, co-written with Christopher Nickens). She confirmed in our phone interview last week that she didn't let this mixture of Lindbergh, Barnum and Lothario get to first base with her. She wouldn't even let him get to bat.

With the level intelligence that typifies her backward glances at the movie industry, Leigh says she doesn't regret starring in Hughes' ruinously expensive "Jet Pilot" (1950-57), an alternately riotous and turgid aviation epic about the love between a Soviet and an American flier -- Leigh and big John Wayne -- just out on a widescreen DVD. After all, this movie helped crumble her white-bread image. Soon after its long-delayed release, she starred in a trio of dark masterpieces: "Touch of Evil" (1958), Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho" (1960) and John Frankenheimer's "The Manchurian Candidate" (1962).

Yet even when she was an ingenue, Leigh worked with a succession of gifted directors (such as Fred Zinnemann on "Act of Violence") in roles that had unexpected shadings. As the aristocratic love interest in George Sidney's "Scaramouche," that euphoric romantic swashbuckler set in 18th century France, Leigh put the hero in a trance -- though he spent most of the movie thinking she was his sister. Shortly after riding sidesaddle in "Scaramouche," she rode rugged in Anthony Mann's "The Naked Spur," playing a gal who drives desperate men wild in a bitter and compelling psychological western. (Leigh has four films in the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress: "The Naked Spur," "Touch of Evil," "Psycho" and "The Manchurian Candidate.")

Today, Gwyneth Paltrow would be hailed for going from the ballroom gliding of "Scaramouche" to the mud-kicking tomboy behavior of "The Naked Spur." But back in the early '50s, it was no big deal for Leigh: "That was something we were expected to do -- and given the chance to do, thank God. We were trained for it." Indeed, as an up-and-comer at MGM she was in the position of the court-schooled beauty in "Scaramouche," who tells an intrigued marquis that she has "a nodding acquaintance with geography, geometry, astronomy, philosophy and botany," and gave up on algebra when she was 12.

Leigh was the perfect target for Hughes when she first met him in 1948. Two years earlier, Norma Shearer, the still-influential former star and widow of MGM's beloved production chief, Irving Thalberg, had spotted Leigh's photograph on the registration desk at a ski resort where her father worked as a clerk. (Leigh's real name was Jeanette Morrison.) Summoned to MGM in 1946, at age 19, she became a sought-after fresh face for films like "Little Women" (she played Meg). Leigh had been through an annulled teenage marriage and had recently divorced a musician when Hughes asked to meet her at the "Little Women" wrap party.

The only exceptional features she noted in the slender, rumpled, 43-year-old billionaire with the reedy voice and thinning hair were his "aware and alive" dark eyes. But an agent friend, at Hughes' behest, repeatedly devised occasions to bring her and Hughes together -- most spectacularly when a sailing date with her pal turned into a Hughes-piloted flight to the Grand Canyon, followed by dinner at the Desert Inn in Las Vegas.

Such highflying coercion might have worked with less independent young stars, but it backfired with Leigh. "Coming from a small-town background," she now says, "that kind of manipulation was distasteful to me. If someone wanted to go out with me, I thought he should ask me -- don't arrange things. He would arrange things so that I didn't have a choice, and I hated that." When MGM executive Benny Thau announced that he was lending her out to Hughes' RKO, where she would work with Robert Mitchum on one film and John Wayne or Cary Grant on another, Leigh sobbed -- not with joy. She feared Hughes would find ways to continue his unwanted advances. Leigh says she acquiesced only after Thau insisted that it was a smart business deal (for MGM) and career move (for Leigh), and that help, if needed, would be only a phone call away.

I ask Leigh whether any contract player in the studio system would have had any real choice in the matter. She says, "I don't think MGM would have put me on suspension. But I never had any problem with the studio. Benny Thau explained it in a way that made sense to me. And whenever I went to RKO, Dad always drove me." Throughout her time at RKO, Leigh was living with her mother and father in a Beverly Hills apartment and then in a house she bought in Brentwood.

So it was all the more ludicrous that Hughes would have her tailed and wiretapped. At one point he suggested that her then-boyfriend, Arthur Loew Jr. (grandson of Loew's Inc. founder Marcus Loew), rather than Hughes himself, was having her followed. Hughes' proof was a private detective's record of a night out on the town that Leigh had taken accompanied by "a dark-haired woman." Hughes didn't realize that the "dark-haired woman" was Loew's own sister.

"Mr. Hughes never did a physical thing, a mean thing," says Leigh. "It was never that. He was always a gentleman. It was just his background presence that was so nerve-racking."

This "nerve-racking" presence extended to his movies. The documentary states that Hughes never set foot on the RKO lot when he ran it. Leigh says, "I don't believe that's true. I did have meetings with him at RKO, but never during the day -- maybe that's why they can infer that he didn't come to the lot."

In 1950 and '51, Leigh appeared in her second RKO production, "Jet Pilot," which Hughes hoped would score a box-office and critical sensation comparable to his 1930 air spectacle "Hell's Angels." Hughes did drop into this movie's locations. Literally. Leigh recalls "shooting at George Air Force Base (in Victorville, Calif.) and trying to complete a shot when this plane kept circling around us. Duke (Wayne) said, 'It's Howard, Janet; he's checking up on us.'"

Astonishingly, it was. Leigh, Wayne and Hughes, and the writer-producer, Jules Furthman, ended up having dinner in (of course) Las Vegas. But that was the last time Hughes attempted to see her socially.

"Jet Pilot" has the reputation of a lunatic curiosity. On DVD it registers as prime camp. Leigh's Soviet jet pilot only pretends to be a defector: She's a high-altitude Mata Hari who uses her erotic wiles to snare American daredevil John Wayne back to the USSR. From the moment she steps out of her aircraft in a snug-fitting snow-colored flying suit more appropriate for a White Russian than a Red, the film sets Leigh up as an irresistible object. "A woman," says Wayne; "a lady," says the next guy; "a dame," sighs a genius.

When Wayne demands she gets out of her duds, the streaking sounds of jets punctuate her strip -- they seem to emit wolf calls whenever there's a "sweater shot" emphasizing her breasts. And when Wayne puts her through her paces in the air, their loop-the-loops are lusty mating dances. In a midsection that resembles a jaded Palm Springs version of "Ninotchka," Wayne introduces Leigh to the rewards of capitalism: haute couture and juicy steaks. Staring at a circa 1950 Wonderbra, Wayne quips that both Soviets and Americans "believe in uplifting the masses."

But the movie has no momentum. It was the first feature director Josef von Sternberg had made since "The Shanghai Gesture" in 1941. Though Hughes must have hoped that von Sternberg would frame Leigh as magically as von Sternberg did Marlene Dietrich in "The Blue Angel" and "Morocco" (both 1930 -- the year of "Hell's Angels"), Leigh says the director was hopelessly "out of touch."

She does understand why Hughes hired him: In an unprecedented move, the mogul screen-tested potential directors instead of actors -- and von Sternberg made a "great" test. Hughes also, she says, "loved to get people out of retirement: When I finally forced him to start my next picture for him, 'Two Tickets to Broadway,' he hired Busby Berkeley."

But partly because of "that egomaniac Mr. von Sternberg" and partly because of "the noodling and fiddling" from Hughes, Leigh says she believes that "what could have been spooky and funny got diluted and mixed up. We knew it was a make-believe spy story -- it was never Shakespeare. But working with Duke Wayne was really fun and it could have been like a James Bond, in a way."

Leigh contends that if Hughes had stopped tinkering and released "Jet Pilot" when it was fresh, in the early '50s, he might have stunned the audience with its cutting-edge aviation, including the first views of rocket planes like the X-1 series. But by the time Hughes did let the picture out -- in 1957, six years after Leigh's last retake -- all this was old hat.

Leigh realized that Hughes had a history of developing stars like Jane Russell (of "The Outlaw") and allowing them to "wither on the vine." She wasn't going to let that happen to her after the prolonged shooting of "Jet Pilot." She demanded the mogul put "Two Tickets to Broadway" into production -- and when he hemmed and hawed she got so mad she threw a phone at him. "My dad came into the room thinking Mr. Hughes had made a move on me," she says. "Dad found him cringing behind a desk." Leigh suspects that Furthman (who had just one significant writing credit ahead of him, on Hawks' 1959 "Rio Bravo") strung Hughes along on "Jet Pilot," promising he'd get Leigh to marry Hughes and in the end collecting seven years of steady paychecks. (Whenever there were retakes to be done, Furthman shot them.)

Leigh tells me she knew Hughes wanted von Sternberg to give her "the Dietrich treatment. But this was 30 years after he gave it to Dietrich, and it didn't work with me -- he wanted to be like Svengali, but I was a free-thinking person, not a piece of property. I had to do things that were ridiculous, like knock out John Wayne! I used four-letter words for the first time on a movie set. Von Sternberg was, physically, a very small man, and he was directing Duke Wayne's scenes for a small man. I once asked Duke why he didn't protest. He said, 'Janet, if I ever let loose, I'd kill the son of a bitch.'"

Nonetheless, Leigh appreciated the deliberate attempt "to start a campaign graduating me from girl next door to sex symbol." She didn't find this change oppressive: "It opened up another avenue for me." At the same time, she points out, even the prettiest pieces of big-studio escapism, like "Scaramouche," often had an adult ambience "and innuendoes deeper than you think. At the beginning, when Stewart Granger surprises Eleanor Parker in her Gypsy wagon and from the outside you see it rocking -- obviously, you know what's going on. It was like that bumper sticker: 'If this van's rocking, don't try knocking.'"

Similarly, she says that when she worked with Jimmy Stewart on "The Naked Spur," everyone on the production recognized that it was part of a new era in westerns -- a film noir in buckskins. Did she think it was a risk to take the part of an amoral innocent? "Come on! A cast with only five people, and I'm the only girl -- and she's a spitfire? That's a dream part!" The male lead was the one who dodged the land mines. As a psychologically wounded man driven to become a ruthless bounty hunter, "Stewart had to walk a line between hero and antihero. I'm sure other people at the time could have done it -- a bit. But I can't think of another actor who could have done it as well: made you understand the cruel things he was doing, but also see that he could be a loving man. And [director Anthony] Mann, sure, he did great action, but he also handled the tender moments with understanding."

A stalwart supporter of Welles during the making of "Touch of Evil," Leigh eloquently testified to his genius when the film was rereleased two years ago. ("He always made you try to climb to the next branch," she told me then.) And even before last year's Hitchcock centennial, Leigh countered the clichis about his supposedly lordly way with actors. When she played Marion Crane in "Psycho," she says, Hitchcock gave her "complete freedom" within his game plan. "He was not dogmatic in our interpretation, only that it had to fit within his camera. And if a performer had a problem making Hitch's mental images work, getting up for it at a particular time, he was perfectly capable of helping, and willing to help. It isn't that he couldn't or wouldn't -- if you needed him, he would help you find the motivation. If you didn't, he would give you free rein."

Although legends have sprouted up around Hitchcock's alleged sadism toward Tippi Hedren on "Marnie" and "The Birds," Leigh thinks that Hedren's own inexperience on movie sets may account for her harsh feelings toward her mentor. "I know Tippi felt at the beginning -- and I know she doesn't feel that way now, because we've talked about it -- that he was practically telling her how to comb her hair. But she had never made a movie before. Plus, she was under contract to him. So he had to teach her what this business was about, because she didn't know. When I went into 'Psycho,' I had done roughly 32 pictures. It isn't like he had to show me from square one."

He treated Leigh as a respected collaborator. When things weren't clicking in the opening hotel bedroom scene between Marion Crane and her lover (John Gavin), Hitchcock took her aside and said, "Let's see if we can heat it up a little bit." To Leigh, Marion "was desperate for love. So it all worked. The layered personality of Marion Crane was really exciting for me, as was Hitch's way of exploring the split personality; everyone has a dual personality, it's a matter of degree which is dominant, and prevails."

The most difficult scene Leigh ever played wasn't in "Psycho" or in "Touch of Evil," but in "The Manchurian Candidate." It was her entrance into the movie: a train-set tjte-`-tjte with Frank Sinatra when his character is on the brink of nervous collapse. These two strangers must connect to each other in a string of crazy-comic non sequiturs (straight out of the Richard Condon novel). At lunch, before they shot it, director Frankenheimer told Leigh she had 20 seconds to make the audience buy her as a heroine. To Leigh, the key was having her character talk with her eyes: "Her mouth moves, but her eyes are saying, 'Hang on, don't jump, we can handle you.'"

This nonverbal communication harked back to what Wayne had told her on "Jet Pilot" a decade earlier: "When he said, 'I'm not an actor, I'm a reactor,' he was saying more than you might think he was: If you're a good actor, a good actor listens. That's what in essence he was saying. A good actor listens and reacts to what you say. And just calling yourself a 'reactor' -- that's an excellent description of what being an actor should be. I hate that word, 'acting,' or saying 'I'm in the acting business,' or calling yourself 'an actor,' which makes it sound like you're in a solo situation. When you say 'acting' in normal conversation, what do you think of? 'Look at him, he's acting up.' Or, 'She's acting like a fool.' It really has a bad connotation. A reactor is someone who's a person, listening to somebody else, and reacting to what that person is saying within the personification of a character."

Michael Sragow

Michael Sragow's column about moviemakers appears every Thursday in Salon. For more columns by Sragow, visit his archive.

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