The best Jamie Lee Curtis films showcase a multi-talented actress whose career spans a number of genres, notably comedy and horror. Throughout the years, she’s helped deliver some of their finest examples including Halloween, A Fish Called Wanda and Trading Places.
Perhaps Jamie Lee Curtis was always going to be a star. She is after all the daughter of Hollywood royalty Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh. Speaking of royalty, she is Lady Haden-Guest nowadays; the result of her husband – writer, director and star of This Is Spinal Tap Christopher Guest – inheriting the peerage from his father, the former Labour Party politician Leslie Haden-Guest, in 1996.
But as the best films of Jamie Lee Curtis prove, her career as a film star isn’t the result of nepotism or favours from family friends, but a genuine talent for powerhouse performance, a knack for adding nuance, humour and charm as a support player, and diverse range allowing her to tackle not only various genres but very different types of character.
Fittingly, her career began by following in the footsteps of her mother, who is perhaps still best known for her part as Marion Crane in Hitchcock’s shower scene and the tag of “scream queen”, a baton Curtis would run with in breakthrough film Halloween (from director John Carpenter) and other slasher horror movies such as Prom Night, Terror Train and Halloween’s first sequel.
Freeing herself from being typecast as the horror film “final girl”, Curtis made her mark on a wider audience for a couple of reasons in John Landis’ Trading Places (one had something to do with her comedic talent, the other had a lot to do with going full frontal).
But importantly, her spirited humour and beguiling sexiness would soon be celebrated properly by John Cleese in the delightful A Fish Called Wanda. The anarchic comedy, in which she found wonderful chemistry opposite Kevin Kline’s egomaniac Otto and Cleese’s nice-guy lawyer Archie, remains a favourite of many when it comes to Jamie Lee Curtis films.
In amongst these great movies are other special performances including the combination of strong female character and larger-than-life farce in James Cameron’s action-adventure True Lies, bonafide leads in films such as Kathryn Bigelow’s Blue Steel, and emotionally rich support turns in the likes of My Girl and Forever Young.
Here’s a selection of my favourites…
10. The Fog (Carpenter, 1980)
John Carpenter’s The Fog has a classic campfire ghost story quality about it that makes it infinitely watchable. It’s doubtful Curtis would class this as one of her best performances in part because her appearance here is more a favour from the director. Indeed, her character is a sort of sounding board for actor Tom Atkins to play off. But it’s still a thrilling experience for audiences from a director at the top of his game; the deep focus widescreen frame’s extremities invaded by the supernatural fog. Like the rest of the cast, however, Curtis is upstaged by Adrienne Barbeau, who steals the show. But, all things considered, The Fog is one of Jamie Lee Curtis’ best films.
9. Road Games (Franklin, 1981)
This Australian thriller featuring Stacy Keach alongside Curtis is another of the actress’s early-career movies in which she plays a surviving victim. In director Richard Franklin’s film however, Curtis takes a backseat to Keach’s truck driver who does most of the heroics. Interestingly, Curtis was hired because U.S. distributors insisted on an American co-star with the Halloween actress taking over the role from the originally cast Oz actress Lisa Peers. Indicative of Curtis’ talent, later, Franklin said he wished he’d re-written the part to include her in more scenes.
8. Freaky Friday (Waters, 2003)
Curtis’s early film career may have been distinguished by her reputation as the Scream Queen in exploitation horror but she had a knack for comedy too. She gets to play with character for laughs in Mark Waters’ body-swap comedy alongside Lyndsay Lohan. It’s predictable stuff along a plot line and thematic arc we’ve seen more than a few times before and since. But it’s also fun, the jokes hitting more than they miss, and sees the actress having a ball with the character.
7. My Girl (Zieff, 1991)
There’s some touching moments between Curtis’s divorcee and the pre-teen she befriends in My Girl. Anna Chlumsky’s sparkling performance as a funeral director’s daughter is aided by the guiding hand of Curtis as experience and raw youth combine to deliver a likable mix. That Curtis’s character’s story arc is perhaps more interesting than the film’s focus is a mark of the actress’s on-screen presence.
6. Fierce Creatures (Young/Schepisi, 1997)
This sequel-in-spirit to A Fish Called Wanda brings together the leads – Curtis, John Cleese, Kevin Kline and Michael Palin – under the guidance of a Cleese script for more slapstick comedy with a transatlantic slant. Curtis’ confidence shines through the character of Willa Weston, a go-getter media executive who Cleese-as-writer clearly lovingly created for her. She’s perfect foil for Kline’s faux machismo which results in bringing out her comedic strengths that, through Cleese, is all about head-turning sexuality and pin-sharp smarts.
5. Blue Steel (Bigelow, 1990)
In a convoluted affair from director Kathryn Bigelow, Curtis stands out as a rookie cop fighting a police department that doesn’t believe women can cut it, a justice system blaming her for the fatal shooting of an unarmed man, and a psycho-killer (again!) who takes a romantic fancy to her. Blue Steel, released following a decade of testosterone-fuelled machismo, is somewhat refreshing with its female protagonist even if it defaults to typical gender stereotypes.
4. Trading Places (Landis, 1983)
Trading Places is the film a lot of people associate with Curtis. That it marks her departure from horror is part of the reason, just as the fact John Landis’ film became a huge audience favourite and one of the best comedies of the 1980s. Curtis’ performance is another reason why people remember the actress, her good-hearted prostitute adding an unexpected warm touch to the film’s cynical themes. But the biggest reason people remember Curtis in Trading Places is not based on performance, Landis’ direction, or the work of her co-stars Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy but for the scene in which she strips in front of Aykroyd’s hapless Louis Winthorpe.
3. True Lies (Cameron, 1994)
Curtis mixes a wonderful sense of alluring sexuality with a self-determined courage that distinguishes her character – a 9 to 5 housewife to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s spy – as a woman capable of transcending any perceived boundaries encasing the American Dream’s idealistic sense of family. Curtis’s transformation from nervy, bookish office worker to seductress clad in alluring figure-hugging attire is testament to the actress’s range as well as her comedic ability.
2. Halloween (Carpenter, 1978)
Curtis’s acting debut remains one of her best films. It heralded early-career typecasting as a 1980s Scream Queen but this did nothing to hamper a blossoming career. Indeed, slasher lore determined there would be a “final girl” who, despite mounting odds, could conquer the villain and survive where others had failed. Her feisty, steely self-preservation and courage made her an ideal foil, her every-girl characters the sorts of people audiences could get behind. Halloween started it all.
1. A Fish Called Wanda (Crichton, 1988)
To think that Curtis wasn’t even sure what she was talking about in the John Cleese-scripted film makes it even more surprising that she should turn in a career-best performance in this distinctly British comedy. But that shows how good A Fish Called Wanda is. There’s the distinct charm of Ealing’s heyday courtesy of director Charles Crichton (who made The Lavender Hill Mob for Ealing Studios in 1951) with post-Monty Python farce delivered in typically energetic fashion from Cleese (in a writer and actor role) and Michael Palin.
Curtis gives the film a transatlantic flavour alongside Kevin Kline (in arguably one of his best roles), together ensuring the film had a better chance of success in North America. She’s the eponymous Wanda – a tigerish go-getter with a penchant for deception and a wily wit – who uses her sexuality to mould the men in her life to her every whim. There hasn’t been a more sensuous yet funny performance by an actress before or since.
Over to you: what are your fave Jamie Lee Curtis films?