Beware: Soft Shoulders—Jamie Lee Curtis' Career Has Changed Course

updated 08/22/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/22/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

It isn't every actress who improves her reputation by flashing her flesh on the big screen. But after spending five years eluding homicidal maniacs in low-budget shockers like Halloween, Prom Night and Terror Train, Jamie Lee Curtis, 24, is changing her image to glamour queen. So far she has been an eye-opening success. After one made-for-TV flick in which she was cast as a Playboy centerfold and another as a housewife turned hustler, she has broken through as Ophelia, a hooker with the proverbial heart of gold in the summer hit Trading Places (opposite Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy). Next month she will display more of her talents as the star in a dramatic film, Love Letters. Suddenly, Hollywood is admiring her for something other than her bloodcurdling shrieks, which both pleases and amuses Jamie. "I certainly don't feel glamourous," she says. "I feel like I'm this nerd. I look at my body and go, 'Oh, God.' "

Though she considers herself "cute at best," Jamie is comfortable with her new screen image. "I'm not going to say I don't want to be a sex symbol," she declares. "I love the women who say, 'I don't want to be called a sex symbol," and then you see a poster of them with their hands down their pants. I mean, come on, sweetheart." The irony of this career switch is not lost on the one-time star of slash-trash pictures. "For five years I was called an exploitation queen for doing horror films. I never took my clothes off. I never swore. I never smoked dope. But I had every women's group in the country after me," she says. "Then I do two movies in which I take my clothes off. And now I'm considered legit. You tell me where the morality is."

Considering her Hollywood lineage, Jamie was a natural for horror films. Mom Janet Leigh was knifed to death in the shower scene in Hitchcock's Psycho, and Dad Tony Curtis starred in The Boston Strangler. But after Halloween II in 1981, which she did "out of loyalty" to producers John Carpenter and Debra Hill, Jamie set out to attract scripts with dialogue more meaningful than "He-e-e-e-lp!" She even nixed the idea of a part in Psycho II. "There are two things I'm trying to avoid emphasizing in my career now—my parents and horror films—and here they were together, a classic horror film that my mother starred in."

Instead, she landed the part in Trading Places. Although Ophelia and Curtis have very different backgrounds, Jamie did no research for her well-received performance. "I'd love to say I went out and turned a couple of tricks on 42nd Street, but I didn't," she says. She did, however, attempt to look the part when she auditioned for Ophelia (whom she calls "Oh Feel Me") wearing purple spandex pants, jewelry and lots of "hooker makeup." Director John Landis credits Jamie with making a cliché character "fresh, extremely warm and sympathetic." Prior to production, Curtis fretted that Murphy and Aykroyd might improvise their way through the movie, but she found her co-stars surprisingly reserved. "It wasn't all yuk-yuk and hah-hah," she says. "They do not use up good material off-camera."

Curtis is funny, outspoken and savvy beyond her years. "Jamie has always been very open," says her mother. "Things go right from her head to her mouth and plop right out." Once, during a six-month stretch of unemployment, she sent her agent and manager a suicide photo of herself hanging from a dog leash. Printed underneath was a familiar list of casting directors' excuses: "Too young, too old, too tall, too short, voice too low—too late."

Outrageous? Perhaps. But as Hollywood kids go, Jamie has managed to emerge remarkably down-to-earth. When she was 3½ her parents divorced and her mother later married stockbroker Bob Brandt, who raised Jamie and older sister Kelly, 27, a stockbroker turned actress who made her film debut in a walk-on in Trading Places. Though very close to her mother and stepfather, Jamie has softened her once-hard feelings toward her own dad. "I've gotten over needing him to be a father figure," she says. "He's my friend, and when he's in town we play."

Jamie attended Choate, an upper-crust New England boarding school, and then spent six months at the University of the Pacific before opting for acting. Her first job consisted of two lines in an episode of Quincy, before Halloween gave her a stab at fame.

Jamie's first major departure from the horror mold came late in 1981 when she starred in the NBC-TV film Death of a Centerfold: The Dorothy Stratten Story, based on the life of the former Playboy model who was murdered by her husband in 1980. With her brown hair, angular face and slim body, Jamie feels she was physically miscast as the blond, zaftig Stratten. American viewers saw her in flimsy lingerie, but Europeans glimpsed a steamier version. "They got to see one breast for about 12 seconds," she cracks. Then came the ABC movie Money on the Side and her performance as a housewife-hooker. "It was some of the best work I have done," she says. Love Letters (shot in 20 days in Venice, Calif. for $700,000) is more of a dramatic stretch: She plays a young woman obsessed by her affair with a married man. As she did in Trading Places, Jamie once again strips for action.

Roles in the raw have made Curtis fanatical about staying in shape while filming. "The minute it goes on film, it's there forever," she says. "If I'm going to do it, I damn well want my body looking the best it can." To keep her form firm, she does 50 sit-ups a day, diets ("fruit, water, granola—and sex") and attends aerobics classes three times a week. But nude scenes have required some other adjustments. "I'm no exhibitionist," says Jamie. On Love Letters she requested a closed set. Between takes, however, she did not don a robe. Instead, she stood topless with her hands covering her breasts. "Then it becomes more natural and people don't stare," she explains.

While her on-camera style heats up, off-camera Jamie is a one-man woman. She is engaged to Michael Riva, 35, a divorced production designer (Ordinary People), whose grandmother happens to be Marlene Dietrich. Jamie met Michael while they were both working on Halloween II. "No one knew about the romance until the end of the movie," she says. "We called it Winnebago passion." Jamie and Michael hope to marry within a year. "I think it's going to be one of those 'Okay, let's do it' things," she says. Her dream is for a "tiny version of a huge wedding. I want all the pomp without having to stand in line for an hour and a half." Until then, they are living in an airy duplex apartment in a landmark Santa Monica neighborhood two blocks from the ocean. Since "our schedules are screwy," the two relish their time together. She likes to paint watercolors. He has a passion for battery-operated, high-tech toys. Both eschew the Hollywood party scene. "I rank parties second to nuclear war in terms of things I really enjoy being part of," says Jamie.

For the moment she is savoring her newfound industry respect, poring over scripts that never would have come her way during her gory days. "I never had to worry about choosing the right parts before," she says. "Now that I do, it's uncomfortable." One fear is that shedding her old image will mean shedding her threads for meatier parts in the future. "The only problem with having exposed myself is I have to keep it up," she observes. "There's nothing people like better than to say, 'She's lost her body.' " Nobody ever said trading places was easy.

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