“Being an actor, you are recognised for being somebody else.” – Jamie Lee Curtis
American actress Jamie Lee Curtis is primarily known for her brilliant debut in John Carpenter’s iconic 1978 film Halloween which cemented her reputation as a “scream queen” but she has gone on to prove her versatility. Curtis has also appeared in cult comedies like John Landis’ 1983 film Trading Places for which she received a BAFTA for Best Supporting Actress. On her 62nd birthday, we take a look at her life as a celebration of her illustrious career in the world of cinema.
Born in Santa Monica, California to Janet Leigh, the star of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, and Tony Curtis, the matinée idol from Sweet Smell of Success, many consider Curtis to be Hollywood royalty. The actress referred to herself as a “save-the-marriage baby [who] failed” because her parents finalised their divorce when she was just four-years-old. She admitted that she wasn’t a very good student, barely graduating from high school with an average D grade and an 840 combined SAT score. Although she joined the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California to study law, she dropped out after one semester to pursue acting. Curtis later reflected, “I never thought I’d be an actor, ever, ever, ever, ever. I was going to be a police officer, because I thought I would be good and you didn’t need a lot of schooling for it.” Growing up, Curtis struggled to come to terms with the celebrity statuses of her parents and did not know how to establish her own identity without being referred to as Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh’s daughter. She said: “You’re a child trying to develop an identity and a sense of self-worth and all this Hollywood stuff plagues you and makes you kind of wonder who you are.”
She did not have a lot of confidence in herself when she was attending high school, something that she believes helped her become an actress. The future star would try to fit in by adopting different personas, substituting the real with the performative. While studying at UOP, Curtis learned of a new Nancy Drew series and decided to audition for it but she didn’t make the cut. Her audition led her to try out for a role in the television show Operation Petticoat (1977-78) which landed her a seven-year contract. However, the series would only end up lasting for two seasons. She soon made her film debut in John Carpenter’s 1978 slasher flick Halloween as a young student Laurie Strode who catches the eye of psychopath Michael Myers. The low-budget effort went on to become the highest-grossing independent film of its time and is now considered as a cult-classic. Curtis earned $8000 for her part but she was more excited about having her name credited. “I was finally able to say, ‘That’s mine. I did that. That’s all me,'” she later told Rolling Stone, calling the experience her “emotional coming out.” She would reprise the role in the sequels Halloween II (1981), Halloween H20: 20 Years Later (1998), Halloween: Resurrection (2002), and Halloween (2018).
The unprecedented success of Halloween helped Curtis get more roles in slasher films like Terror Train and Prom Night, earning a Genie Award nomination for Best Performance by a Foreign Actress for the latter. She also appeared in Carpenter’s The Fog but all three of her aforementioned 1980 films received negative reviews. Her vast experience in the horror genre got her the title of “scream queen,” one that she would soon discard in order to establish herself as a comedic actress. She won a BAFTA Award for Best Supporting Actress for her fantastic performance in the 1983 film Trading Places and a BAFTA nomination for Best Actress for her work in the cult-comedy A Fish Called Wanda back in 1988. After the unwanted string of poor performances in 1980, she managed to turn things around and landed her first starring role on television opposite Richard Lewis in the situation comedy series Anything But Love (1989-1992) for which she received a People’s Choice Award and the Golden Globe Award for Best Actress. She also won a Golden Globe for her performance in James Cameron’s 1994 action comedy True Lies. The film explores the vast world of international espionage through the intimate relationship of a secret agent and his wife. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Curtis put up funny and engaging performances as they deal with one problem after another.
Halloween might have been the film that introduced Curtis to the world but millennials probably saw her first in the 2003 Disney comedy film Freaky Friday where she stars opposite Lindsay Lohan. In the latter half of her career, Curtis has also ventured into taking on voice roles in animated films like The Little Engine That Could and Studio Ghibli’s amazing work From Up on Poppy Hill. Alongside her on-screen work, Curtis regularly writes children’s books, all of which are published by Harper Collins and offer yet another fascinating insight into her vast imagination.
Her latest film, Knives Out, came out last year to glowing reviews and grossed over $300 million at the global box office. Despite winning several awards including the BAFTA Award Golden Globe Award, Saturn Award and American Comedy Award, the actress maintains that her greatest achievement was recovering from opiate addiction in 1999 after reading and relating to Tom Chiarella’s account of addiction which is a testament to her outlook. Curtis is set to reprise the iconic role of Laurie Strode in the 2021 horror sequel Halloween Kills as well as the 2022 film Halloween Ends. It will be fascinating to observe how the veteran actress interprets the character that brought her stardom 42 years ago.