As Halloween Kills quickly approaches, Eddie Mouradian takes a look back at scream queen Jamie Lee Curtis and her most essential films
Jamie Lee Curtis is a Top 5 All-Time actress for me. She’s right up there with Julia, Sandra, Michelle (Pfeiffer, not Williams, although I ride hard for Jen Lindley), and Melissa McCarthy, in a probable tie for 5th place with Kathleen Turner. Poor Glenn Close, always a bridesmaid. As a child of the ’80s and 90’s my touchstones for Jamie Lee Curtis are perhaps a bit off-center. What tween didn’t watch the Mel Gibson-as-old-man drama Forever Young on repeat? If there was a nine-year-old in 1990 who didn’t think the ABC sitcom Anything But Love co-starring Richard Lewis (!!!) was appointment television, I never want to meet them.
The crystallization of my affection for JLC comes from a much more basic place: The Halloween franchise. Growing up, I was a bit of a scaredy-cat when it came to horror films. I loved going to the movies as a kid, your typical indoor kid activity, along with helping my teacher photocopy during lunch and reading under a tree, but the experience was often fraught. The movie theater was where Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees of Freddy Krueger were lurking around every corner, on any poster, or worse yet, sometimes on a bucket of popcorn. An overweight kid not being able to trust his snack? Well, that’s scarier than anything Freddy could conjure up in my dreams. Instead of my 7th viewing of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, I lived in fear that we would wind up in the wrong theater with one of the Big Three, Freddy, Jason, Michael Myers, popping up onscreen. I quite simply would have never recovered.
That changed as I got older, met my best friend Carla, and we started prowling the horror section of Blockbuster Video. We particularly gravitated towards the Halloween films and devoured them. The storyteller and movie nerd in me was fascinated by both Laurie Strode and Jamie Lee Curtis.
Timing has a lot to do with it, too. Coming to the Halloween franchise in the Dimension Films/Scream-era of horror movies helped, along with the announcement of Jamie Lee Curtis’s coming back to the franchise with Halloween: H20, which was a huge big enormous deal. I am a marketing department’s dream because I’m easily swayed by hype and will also buy any pair of shorts targeted at me long enough on Instagram. The press about the return of Laurie Strode had me desperately waiting to call Moviefone for my tickets and scouring my Premiere magazine for the latest news. With references to Blockbuster, Moviefone, and Premiere magazine, I just want to confirm to readers that I am, in fact, 150 years old.
There’s also quite a bit about Jamie Lee Curtis, the celebrity, that appeals to me. I hate to play the “they don’t make them like that anymore,” but… her no-nonsense persona, and naturalistic acting style, make her accessible in a way that I just don’t see in our current roster of celebrities. As a second-generation movie star, she has this air about her (yes, contributed to her privilege, which she always acknowledges) that this ::motions to everything:: is all nonsense. Last year I went on The Mixed Reviews podcast to talk about the Jamie Lee Curtis filmography. There I outlined my theory that the current day analog to Jamie Lee Curtis is Dakota Johnson. You can see a young Jamie Lee Curtis taking down an Ellen because she’s not here for anyone’s bullshit. Ugh. I love her.
At the Venice Film Festival this past September, Jamie Lee Curtis was awarded the prestigious Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement Award, the kind of accolade that is long overdue for an absolute legend. So, taking my cue from the Italians, as I do with both my film lists and Mario brothers, I decided to rank the 10 Essential Jamie Lee Curtis films. And while Jamie Lee Curtis is more than Laurie Strode, it must say that Halloween films do take up more than one spot on this list. You’ve been warned.
10. Perfect (1985)
The movie that primarily exists on this list as a meme. John Travolta is a reporter going undercover to expose the shocking connection between hot people at the gym having sex with other hot people at the gym? For a Rolling Stone magazine cover story? I don’t know. Jamie Lee Curtis is L.A.’s hottest aerobics instructor Travolta tangles in and out of their leotards. Misunderstandings and hip thrusts ensue. This movie is insane but worth the watch because of it. This film narrowly beats out The Fog for my 10th spot because I find that movie a little slow, and it has 100% less Travolta in sweatshorts.
9. Halloween (2018)
David Gordon Green’s direct sequel to the original 1978 film retcons the muddled mythology of the Halloween series (Laurie and Michael are siblings! Also: Druids!) to bring it back to basics of The Shape stalking a PTSD-riddled Laurie Strode. While the movie sometimes gets mired in paying homage to the very films it’s trying to ignore, Jamie Lee Curtis gives a fierce, terrifying performance. This version of Laurie Strode is a woman who has never recovered from the silly minor trauma of being hunted by an entity of evil who killed her two best friends. Wahhhhh, am I right? To so fully reimagine Laurie Strode is a risk, but it works, landing the character squarely in Sarah Connor – Alice Ripley territory.
8. Trading Places (1983)
Real talk, I don’t love this movie. To be fair, I don’t have much connection to it from my childhood, when it was on endless rotation in HBO, but it just hasn’t aged particularly well for me as someone kind of new to the film. I’m not only referring to the scenes of Dan Aykroyd in blackface but also the central premise of the film that involves two rich old white men betting on the reversal of fortunes for homeless grifter Eddie Murphy and uptight businessman Dan Aykroyd. That said, it’s impossible not to include this movie when discussing Jamie Lee Curtis, as this is the film that helped her break out of the Final Girl typecasting that she was in for the early part of her career. As a sex worker who takes pity on the recently outcast Aykroyd, JLC was BAFTA-nominated and proved that she was much more than a Scream Queen. Jamie Lee Curtis is never cast in A Fish Called Wanda without Trading Places, and for that, we as a society are eternally grateful.
7. Blue Steel (1990)
Jamie Lee Curtis starred in Kathryn Bigelow’s third feature film? Who knew? A movie that truly doesn’t exist, Blue Steel is a mean, brutal, weird story about rookie NYPD office Megan Turner (Curtis), who becomes the object of obsession for a survivor (an alarmingly creepy Ron Silver) of a robbery she stopped with lethal force. My favorite subgenre of film is the “… From Hell” movies that were so popular in the ’80s and ’90s. The Nanny From Hell (The Hand That Rocks The Cradle), The Roommate From Hell (Single White Female), The Temp From Hell (The Temp) – you get it. Audiences revolted as they expected “Robbery Survivor From Hell” and got a more complicated, murky film. Bigelow’s taut direction and Curtis’s gritty, grounded performance make this one of her best. I would love to see what they could do together now, decades into their careers.
6. Knives Out (2019)
For my money, one of the most imminently rewatchable films of the last five years. Jamie Lee Curtis shines as a member of the Thrombey clan, an awful, privileged, and possibly murderous family. All of them are Detective Benoit Blanc’s suspects in the death of the family patriarch, celebrated novelist, Harlan Thrombey. She’s all exasperated sighs and razor-sharp retorts, as the only member of the family worth (slightly) your affection (fine, maybe Joni, too). It’s a proper supporting performance that should’ve gotten a bit more buzz at awards season. This hit film came on the heels of Halloween (2018) after almost a decade away from major studio fare. It was a significant 1-2 punch, making Jamie Lee Curtis, at 60, one of the most bankable actresses in Hollywood.
5. Freaky Friday (2003)
Jamie Lee Curtis snagged a Golden Globe nomination, some light Oscar buzz, and a $110 million box office hit with the mother-daughter body-swap comedy remake. Curtis is a genuine hoot as a bratty teenager trapped in the body of her fortysomething mother. It is a performance that is simultaneously over-the-top, deeply funny, and genuinely moving. Despite being married to improv genius Christopher Guest, Curtis famously is not much of an ad-libber. One of the rare exceptions being her iconic delivery of “Make good choices!” to pre-body switch daughter Lindsay Lohan (who, in my opinion, gives her best performance in this film).
4. Halloween: H20 (1998)
OK, OK, OK – hear me out. I can’t properly state how major it was in 1998 that Jamie Lee Curtis was reprising her role as Laurie Strode after 17 years away from the Halloween franchise and the horror genre. Y’all, it was a thing. And for me, while the movie doesn’t always live up to that promise, Curtis’s performance does. This entry keeps the Halloween II stuff, so not only are Laurie and Michael canonically siblings, but she survived him twice – with a significantly higher death count to have witnessed. RIP literally every single staff member of Haddonfield Memorial Hospital. I know that the sibling twist from the second film is, to put it mildly, controversial. For the purposes of this film, it informs Curtis’s best performance as Laurie Strode. She hits many of the beats the 2018 film would retread with a more subtle world-weariness, as Laurie is hiding her scars instead of wearing them so openly. The movie doesn’t always work, but it does include two of my favorite series moments, both dependent on Curtis’s performance: the electric first-time Laurie sees Michael through the window and the ending, which is only rivaled by the original. Wildly underrated in every way, please don’t yell at me.
3. A Fish Called Wanda (1988)
You may be asking yourself: How is the best movie on this list alllllllll the way back at number three? The answer is: I don’t know! Yes, I am the one in control of this list, but it’s not easy folks. I love A Fish Called Wanda. Curtis, again BAFTA-nominated, cements herself as one of the go-to comedic actresses of her generation against Monty Python icons John Cleese and Michael Palin, as well as Kevin Kline in a rare comedic performance so undeniable it won an Oscar. Curtis’s work is much more subtle, as she is essentially playing the straight woman trying to run a scam on clueless Cleese with the help of even more clueless Palin and Kline. The performance – and the film itself – doesn’t work if she’s not pitch-perfect.
2. Halloween (1978)
I mean, after all, this can you even believe her feature debut in a movie franchise I have mentioned a dozen times is only number 2 on my list? Much like Michael Myers himself, I’m just a little scamp! Halloween and Laurie Strode is the template for so many things that come after it, not the least of which is the hope that you can launch a real-life movie star out of a starring role in a low-budget horror movie. There is nothing I can say about the path that Halloween blazed that hasn’t been said a thousand times by people much smarter than me. But the iconography of Laurie Strode is somewhat unparalleled in any genre of film. With the release of Halloween Kills, Jamie Lee Curtis will have portrayed the same character in each of the last six decades. By my crude calculations, a feat no other actor can claim (If I’m wrong, let me know at @eddie_mouradian – I’m genuinely interested!)
1. True Lies (1994)
The best pure encapsulation of Jamie Lee Curtis’s talent and pure movie star charisma. It’s also the closest Curtis has come to the kind of awards recognition that has alluded her throughout her career, winning a Golden Globe and being nominated for a Screen Actors Guild award. That category confusion (she was put in lead for the Globes and supporting in SAG) may have led to her not cracking either category at the Oscars, although it’s easy to imagine her in 6th place for either.
As Helen Tasker, the neglected wife of secret agent Arnold Schwarzenegger, Curtis plays everything. She sends up her own Perfect sexpot image with the funniest striptease in cinema history, gets to be bold, brave, and defiant in the face of danger, and is fiercely funny everywhere in between. Like his ex-wife Kathryn Bigelow, Cameron knows what they have with Curtis in terms of talent and audience surrogacy, unleashing her at full force, which ultimately makes her more formidable a lead than Schwarzenegger himself. While not the best film on this list (you can fight over entries #2 and #3 for that honor), it is the best Jamie Lee Curtis performance. Either Jessica Lange or Dianne Wiest has Jamie’s Oscar from 1994, and I won’t rest until it’s returned to its rightful home.