That's one of the stock questions that I was inevitably asked during my years as a working critic. It's also a no-win question because the person asking it usually expects your choices to mirror his/hers or expects, at the very least, a litany of all the usual suspects - you know, Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Rosalind Russell, Meryl Streep, yada, yada.
But mine have always been Shirley MacLaine (a sentimental, childhood favorite), Ginger Rogers (for her amazing versatility in every genre imaginable) and ... Janet Leigh, admired because she was such a pleasing screen presence and a particularly unassuming actress. I sensed that her success had something to do with being a damn good team player.
Which made her even more pleasing. And affecting.
Her evolution from a scrubbed, sweet-faced starlet to a no-nonsense woman with an abrupt comic manner and tough resilience was one of genuine growth. Her sexual appeal was the real deal - she's what James Agee would have called "a dish" - and she never trivialized it, her credibility as an actress being more important to her.
She had grace. Style.
This came through when we shared a podium at a book fair sponsored by the Sacramento Public Library so many years ago. Leigh was there to talk about her new career as an author (she had written two books - a novel and a reminiscence of the making of Hitchcock's "Psycho") but mostly about her former career as a studio-schooled actress - the tough moguls who gave her orders and roles (some choice ones) and the actors and directors who taught her the craft of movie acting.
None of her comments was negative. I brought up "Bye Bye Birdie" because I had read that she was not so much disappointed by the film but by its director, George Sidney, who betrayed her. Leigh had worked with Sidney immediately prior to "Birdie" on two films - the all-star extravaganza "Pepe" and the hilarious "Who Was That Lady?" - and, once he coaxed her to do "Birdie," he became smitten with its ingénue, Ann-Margaret, turning the film into a showcase for her, at the expense of the material and the other stars.
Her response was simple: "Of the movie musicals I made, I prefer 'My Sister Eileen.'"
That said, we moved on to discuss a filmography that included unexpected turns by Leigh under the direction of a collection of mighty auteurs - Alfred Hitchcock ("Psycho"), Anthony Mann ("The Naked Spur"), John Frankenheimer ("The Manchurian Candidate") and Orson Welles ("Touch of Evil"), among others. She made a Martin-and-Lewis comedy ("Living It Up") and pretty much came of age on film in a string of titles with her ex-husband, Tony Curtis. Janet and Tony - they were very much an item.
I wish she could have read what critic Carrie Rickey had to say about her in a 2010 essay on Carrie's Flickgrrl blog for The Philadelphia Inquirer.
"One of her distinctive features was the chorus-girl bod that was such a startling contrast to her woman-of-the-world voice," Rickey wrote.
That pretty much encapsulates Leigh's singular appeal.
Note in Passing: Although not generally known as a singer, Janet Leigh vocalized - and pleasingly - in a few film musicals, among them "Birdie," "Eileen" and "Two Tickets to Broadway." She also sung in Jack Webb's "Pete Kelly's Blues" (1955). And she proved herself a pretty good dancer, too, especially in "My Sister Eileen," where she held her own against the likes of Bob Fosse, Tommy Rall and Betty Garrett.
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Janet Leigh is being celebrated throughout October by Turner Classic Movies as its Star of the Month with a list of 34 Leigh films including everything from her debut vehicle, Roy Rowland's"The Romance of Rosy Ridge" (1947) to a later work such as Mel Stuart's unfortunate Trish Van Devere vehicle, "One Is a Lonely Number" (1972) to Blake Edwards' lost ”The Perfect Furlough” (1958), one of her films with Curtis (below).
On tap are Stanley Donen's delightful "Fearless Fagan" (1952) and the aforementioned "My Sister Eileen," Richard Quine's original 1955 film musical, which boasts a solid score by Jule Styne and Leo Robin and clever choreography by Bob Fosse (then billed as Robert) - who also co-starred in the role that Quine played in the Roz Russell version of the material.
And, yes, "Bye Bye Birdie" is in the mix, too.
The ensemble cast of Richard Quine's fabulous "My Sister Eileen": (from left) Richard York (aka, Dick York), Lucy Marlowe, Robert Fosse (aka, Bob Fosse), Janet, Jack Lemmon, Betty Garrett, Kurt Kasznar and Horace McMahon, all atop a marquee