Originally published as “How to be Jamie Lee Curtis” in the July 15, 1985 issue of US magazine, this profile appears here with the author’s permission.
Show up at the opening-night party for Perfect in a strapless Betty Boop dress that makes you smile. Feel cute. Feel sweet. Don’t vamp out. Shimmy into the club like you’re doing it on tiptoes, because tonight, Jamie Lee Curtis, tonight you’re a Movie Star.
Bump into the paparazzi. Be polite. Be charming.
“Do me a favor, everybody, don’t take a picture for a second. I’m going to pull my dress up, okay?” Give them respect and they’ll return the respect, right? One scuzzball with his motor-driven camera and double-digit IQ moves in: How ‘bout if I just stick this thing in your face and blow out your retina? SNAP! He gets you with your hand down your dress. Who are these people? Why won’t they be your friends?
Your husband is older, 37. He is an actor, too, Christopher Guest. He flashes you a look that says: Understand that these people are like cockroaches. They travel in packs, sleep in doorways, multiply when you step on them; understand that they will survive you and the nuclear winter and sell their pictures to the Star.
Do not make a scene. Resist giving your real opinion. Which is: Wait a minute. This is my opening night. This is supposed to be the frosting. It’s supposed to be toasts and celebration, not ‘Entertainment Tonight’ reporters breathing down my décolletage and 20 photographers waiting for me to drool broccoli pasta on my dress.
You will not say these things. You will cope. You will sit with people you don’t like and try to locate the good in them.
Your husband will begin muttering, “So now do I get to be Mr. Norman Maine?” He is referring to the suicidally jealous actor husband of the successful actress in A Star Is Born. Go home to your hotel and listen to your husband tell you, essentially, that you’re selling out. Fall apart. Cry. Pull on your toes.
So what’s so terrible about getting yourself up cute in a strapless Betty Boop dress for your biggest opening night and smiling for the paparazzi? Tell him, “Look, hon, I can play the Movie Star role like this,” and snap your fingers.
He’ll say you’re just a different person, that’s all, and he doesn’t know that person.
Feel like you want to eat dirt and die.
At midnight, after the opening party for Perfect, Jamie Lee Curtis called me up. “It won’t work, seeing Chris and me together tomorrow.” She sounded like something had her off balance.
She saw me anyway, greeting me the next morning with her characteristic effusive hug. Having applied makeup, undetectably, to her beautiful blade of a face, she wanted me to notice how comfortably she has begun dressing. See the loose shimmy of a T-shirt dress? See how she doesn’t have to pour herself into pants that show her gluteus maximus clenching every time she takes a step? See how confident she is becoming?
But this was not the spunky, wise-cracking version of Jamie Lee I’d met before. This was a mass of insecurities curled up in the corner of a hotel sofa. Teary and solemn, Jamie Lee was nevertheless still trying to please.
“Jamie, you’re so good at—”
“—skirting the issues.” She said it before I could.
“Yes, and coping and defending and being charming and being smart, that I left here after our last interview and said to myself, ‘What did we talk about?’ I mean, most Americans in their mid-20s are still in the long tunnel of adolescence. But underneath all the coping and defending, there is usually a secret script. What is yours?”
She pulled at her toes like a baby. A slight shudder passed across her straight upper lip.
“I don’t know if there is a secret script there,” she said. “It’s something I’ve been wondering myself for a long time.” It was uncanny, she said. This was exactly what she and her husband had talked about late into the night.
“My problem is, is there a definitive me?” She began to stammer. “Is there, are you ever, don’t you feel, I mean, don’t you have different modes? Some people just have such integrity, they can remain constant in any surroundings. My husband is one. My stepfather, Bob, is one. To me, that shows great self-esteem. I just don’t have it yet. I’m trying my damndest…” The vampy, put-on baby Bacall voice began to break up. “I was a 70s kid—really lost.”
One wanted to comfort this child of a generation without character. One wanted to tell her she’s a good and decent person.
“Would you call yourself protean?” I asked.
Protean, I explained, means one who has the power of assuming many different shapes but has no essential form.
“Yeah, that’s a great word for me. No essential form to return to. That’s why Chris is so great for me. He’s like a nucleus. Really centered. Steady, consistent.
“So you’ll be the protoplasm that forms yourself around him?”
“Oh, God, if there was ever one little form that my protean nature could stop at for a few minutes—Chris, as my nucleus, will help me find my palm print.”
Never mind the metaphors, she could work them out later. What was important now about being Jamie Lee Curtis was her ambiguity. With young men curious about what it feels like to look pretty, and young women discovering that lifting weights makes them feel less vulnerable, Jamie Lee is the perfect mixed metaphor for her age.
She is girl and woman, boy-cut hair and D-cup breasts; she is Melrose Avenue and the floundering androgyny of the 80s; and she is Betty Boop dresses and the role-divided certainty of the 50s. She is a relief to men and a pal to gals. The more sexually mixed she is, the better. Now all Jamie Lee needs to be a star is a great part.
Doing a three-week publicity blitz for her biggest movie yet, Perfect, the hard part was her husband’s attitude.
Chris Guest was 20 years old in 1968, and sworn to his generation’s commandment, Thou shalt not sell out. Early in his career, he and some talented peers—two guys named John Belushi and Chevy Chase—appeared in a hit off-Broadway show called National Lampoon’s Lemmings. Belushi and Chevy went on to the brash, new Baby Boom network laugh show, Saturday Night Live. Not Guest, too pure. A talented musician, he became a member of a rock band and was in one feature. What happened? Those little creeps Belushi and Chevy got to be megastars, and old Chris, at 35 a Baby Boomer edging toward midlife, was still plodding down the Ho Chi Minh trail of artistic integrity.
This Is Spinal Tap, a hilarious sendup of the rock-band genre, conceived and written by Guest with his co-stars, was a critical rave and last year’s cult-movie favorite. But audience cards in the Midwest asked, “Why would you make a movie about such a bad band?” So, at 36, Guest presumably threw in the towel and joined Saturday Night Live, creating new characters and directing mini-movies, but also eating leftovers from Chevy’s table: “And now, here’s Chris Guest with the news…”
I wondered if Jamie Lee’s husband might be getting on her case for what he dislikes most about himself.
Jamie Lee, by way of contrast, was 10 years old at the zenith of the Movement, in 1968. She is 26 years old now and still looking for something to believe in, still window-shopping for salvation.
Meantime, she wants to be a movie star. And according to the mores of her peer group, there is nothing so bad about selling yourself, as long as you’re good at it.
Naturally, a reporter had to ask about her famous parents. What was it like growing up the daughter of Janet and Tony Curtis? Naturally, a reporter had to ask her about her childhood, her adolescence.
“I have no recollections of my childhood,” she said flatly.
“Tony or Bob?”
The voice had become detached from the heart. She sounded like so many children of divorce: they abandon their childhoods so no one can ever leave them again.
“Tony wasn’t around at all,” she said. “I’m speaking pre-15. Nothing.”
She said that she is very close to her mother, it’s just that children of divorce … never mind.
“My stepfather, Bob Brandt, really raised me. He’s a real businessman, very centered, very constant, not effusive. He and my husband are very similar.”
Her education was, well, eclectic. An indifferent student, she suddenly enrolled in her senior year at Choate, a high preppie establishment in New England—“an absolute living nightmare,” as she remembers it. She then entered the University of the Pacific. Still searching for a form, she latched onto the 50s and joined the Martini Club: the girls wore dresses and the guys put on ties and everybody drank gin martinis. She dropped out after six months.
It was enough, she decided, to get on with the real business of her life—becoming a Movie Star.
So, you want to know how to be Jamie Lee Curtis? Here’s how to land the big part.
Win your first movie role at 19. Sadism is in. Okay, you’ll do slash and trash. Perfect your scream. Scrap integrity. Just try to get work.
Consider a role as a wigged-out hooker in Trading Places who bares her breasts. Okay, you’ll do it, so long as it’s only for seconds. Count them. Seven seconds.
People shoots a modified slut shot of you, but not for the cover. The cover is for stars. Your breasts look like bursting papaya. Tell People: “No, I don’t have implants. Yes, I’d like to be the thinking man’s sex symbol.”
Invite your father to the opening of your new film (Love Letters). Surprise! He comes! With his 18-year-old sweetheart. You are now 24 years old.
Be a great schmoozer. Go to bars, get friendly with girls, guys, gays, the great unlabeled. Be a chameleon. Get a buzz cut. Everybody you know is playing with their gender; everybody is formless but having fun. Lose yourself in the funhouse.
Hey, is anybody around here heterosexual? Of course, you can’t ask.
Shrug it off when you hear the rumor you’re a dyke.
Go to a “hetero party.” Wear a 50s dress. Slow dance. Let the guys light your cigarettes.
You need a man.
You need a part.
Read about the new Jim Bridges film, Perfect, a 30s-style newspaper romance set in the California health-club scene. Bridges is the kind of serious director you need. Show up looking lean and sexy. You’re perfect for the part.
Last summer, when I saw Jamie Lee Curtis in L.A., she was hanging upside down by hooked boots in Dan Isaacson’s celebrity gym. She had given up smoking, drinking, drugs. She was not only fiercely preparing for her part in Perfect, she was seeking salvation through perfect fitness.
Her routine was daunting: after doing hundreds of squats, hip thrusts, free weights, she would go home and swim laps. Her coach told her that dinner had to be before seven. So she’d walk up to a restaurant on Sunset, stare at a piece of fish and a salad, and go home to bed by eight.
She went through magazines looking for a Real Man. In a May ’84 issue of Rolling Stone, she saw a photograph of Christopher Guest. “Whoever this is, he’s a real American boy—woof!” she said out loud, and called her girlfriends.
Then she called up his agent. “Hi, this is Jamie Curtis. I’ve never done this before…”
The agent said, “Yeah, I know all about it. You want to meet Chris Guest.”
She thought, Oh, my God, the word is out that I’m, like, desperate.
Chris never called. Two months.
She felt like a moron. Then one night, at a restaurant with a girlfriend, she looked across the room and—flutter! clutch!—it was him. They half-waved. He was with a girl and a guy. She thought, What does that mean? Of course, one can’t ask.
They met two nights later for dinner. They immediately confided in each other.
Christopher Guest told me that for him, a man whose mind had never opened the door a crack to that rain-soaked stranger called marriage, that night was clearly it. “We went right past sexual attraction to each other’s core,” he said.
She wore beige lace for the wedding two months later. There was a three-month delay before her husband fully registered her physical charms. They were walking down the street together one day, as he tells it, when a fan came gushing up to Jamie Lee, “and I looked at her and thought, ‘Wow, she’s astonishingly beautiful.’”
The couple wintered in New York, and she enjoyed being Mrs. Guest. Always she smiled when she came out of Saturday Night Live with him.
And the same sleazeographers were there every night. They did not shoot pictures of her husband.
She was ecstatic for him when his fans came up and didn’t recognize her. He liked her toes. He said they were like baby toes. He made baby-animal noises in her ears.
Here, then, is Jamie Lee’s conflict: is she going to be a strong, independent woman or a baby girl?
The last time I saw Jamie Lee, she was at the end of the publicity tour for Perfect. On pins and needles. Dizzy from press conferences and queasy about upcoming reviews.
“I’ve worked so hard to find my identity,” she said squirming, “and now all they want to know is where I got my body.” But all these clouds blew away when her husband entered the hotel room.
“Isn’t he great?” she whispered.
He did not smile. He never does. His face looked like the adorable boy some mother loved and had bronzed. In private life, he wore a white shirt and chinos. With a perfunctory handshake for me, he went right to Jamie Lee’s side, nuzzled into her neck and gave her a little present.
She showed him the log cabin she’d spent the morning building with Playskool Lincoln Logs. It’s the log cabin they want to build together in the mountains of Idaho, it’s her dream dollhouse. “But my floor fell out,” she told him adorably.
How to Survive Reviews:
Close in tight around your husband, your nucleus. Tell the press, “I expected worse.” Say, never mind, nobody’s Perfect. You will attain love and salvation by building a family tradition with your own bare hands. Build a log cabin in your mind. Go to sleep like a baby.
But next week, Jamie Lee, and next year and the year after, if you want to be a Movie Star, you’ll go on changing, grin-and-faking it, lurching out to hug those older and believed wiser. You know you will, in the hope that somewhere, someone will hold you still for the extra millisecond that might pin down this quivering fluid mass of protoplasm—and find the definitive you.