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Jamie Lee Curtis: Hollywood chutes and ladders

Los Angeles -- What I liked best about Jamie Lee Curtis in “Halloween” was that she seemed too smart to get into such a terrifying situation. She wasn't one of your air-brain screaming teenagers, always running right into the arms of the killer. She was a cool, intelligent young woman who found it hard to believe she was really being pursued by a berserk maniac. That made the movie a lot more effective.

Curtis projects that image in most of her movies, and now, walking past the pool at the Sunset Marquis Hotel, she projected it in person. Her handshake was firm, her voice was sensible; she seemed more like a young executive than like the Princess of Horror who followed up, “Halloween” with “The Fog” and “Terror Train” and various other Dead Teenager projects where half of her dialogue was screams.

During her horror period, Curtis was frank about what she was doing: She was, she said, learning her craft, learning to walk before she ran. Then she started to edge out of the screaming victim mode, with more challenging projects like the hit comedy “Trading Places,” where she co-starred with Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd; the made-for-TV “Money on the Side,” about housewives who dabble in prostitution, and “Love Letters,” a great movie that nobody saw, because the studio dumped it. In that one, she was a disc jockey for a public radio station, fell in love with a married man, and learned some hard lessons about the man, herself, her own mother, and marriage.

If you were a Hollywood casting agent and you had doubts about Jamie Lee Curtis and you saw “Love Letters,” you would have known she could play just about anything. Apparently that's what happened; on the basis of her great but unseen performance, Curtis got the lead opposite John Travolta in “Perfect,” which has, as they say, very good advance word-of-mouth.

A key scene in the movie was shot right here, next to the pool at the Sunset Marquis, which is the sort of hotel where you notice that Cyndi Lauper is talking with three professional wrestlers on the other side of the pool. Curtis sat down, ordered Perrier, and said, “I think it's a great movie. I think it's even greater than great. I think it's almost a really great movie.”

The movie is based on a Rolling Stone article by Aaron Latham about the whole Southern California world of gymnasiums, aerobics classes and obsession with physical fitness. In the movie, Travolta plays the magazine reporter, and Curtis is the aerobics instructor he meets while he's doing research for his story. If the plot sounds just slightly as if it needs an IQ infusion, Curtis says the movie is not about pumping iron and looking great, but about what it all means, and how the aerobics classes of the 1980s may be the singles bars of the 1960s.

“The issue of Rolling Stone the article appeared in was the ‘Looking for Mr. Goodbody' issue, with Christie Brinkley on the cover, wearing a leotard and lifting weights,” she said. “The movie is more about journalism than about bodies. Travolta comes to California with the idea that he's going to trash the health club scene. My character has been burned by the press before. I was an Olympics athlete who boycotted the Games, and I trusted a reporter who said he wanted to write about my beliefs, but wound up writing about my affair with the coach. My swimming career was ruined, and now here comes Travolta, who also wants me to trust him.”

Curtis said people have the idea the film consists of her and Travolta pumping iron together, "but that's literally the backdrop. It's more about why people are working out; the film makes an interesting comparison between New York and Los Angeles.”

Why, I asked, is there this sudden emphasis on physical fitness in Hollywood? When Travolta himself posed for the cover of Rolling Stone, proudly exhibiting the new muscles he'd developed under Sylvester Stallone's training for their movie “Staying Alive,” a lot of people thought he made himself look ridiculous. But now lots of actors seem to be flexing their muscles, on screen and off.

“I think it's as simple as this,” she said. “There was a big drug time out here, and now it's over. There was a time devoted to taking advantage of one's body by alcoholism, drug-taking, smoking. Now all of those things are unfashionable and health regimes are in. I sometimes think that underneath it all is the thought that the world could end tomorrow, so why not experience your life now, and be as healthy as you can?

“In movies, it has now become the norm for an actor to be in the best physical shape possible. The realism of how actors look is changing. Everybody's all pumped up and looking terrific. I've been a part of the physical thing for quite a while, but my biggest concern is that I'll get typed as an aerobic actress. You know: Hi, I'm Jamie and I work out, so buy my books and videos. I keep myself in shape, but there's more to me than that.”

Have you already been to the gym today?

“Oh, God, no.”

Have you worked out?

“I had breakfast. I probably work out three times a week. And I lift a few 5-pound weights. I'm by no means a bionic person. You can carry anything to an addictive extreme. Like compulsive exercising: People who work out at extreme levels and start starving themselves and getting obsessed with how they look are gonna get all screwed up. They're gonna go back to drugs and alcohol. When you get fed up with something, it's like -- get away from me! Give me a cigarette! A little moderation, that's what they need.”

She looked around the pool area, at the rows of tanning bodies and at the cool California pastel pinks and blues and turquoises, and said. “Just the look of this place suggests a whole California feeling. When Travolta moves in here, he's very much a New York guy, and he comes out here, and it's all dreamy.

If “Perfect” does, as Curtis believes, rehabilitate Travolta's career after the box-office failures of “Blow Out” and “Two of a Kind” and the critical debacle of “Staying Alive,” it also may provide Jamie Lee Curtis with her own springboard into major acting roles. I asked her how she'd evaluate her own career right now.

“I'm coming along just fine. God, I feel like a racehorse, training for the Derby.  Coming along just fine, thank you.  Doing ‘Love Letters' was important for me. Doing it, I felt different, I felt confident. Afterwards, I knew I was capable of serious acting. I'd been in the horror pictures, and when I went up for anything else, it was always no, no, no, until I began to doubt myself.”

Was there a tendency for people to think all you could do was scream?

“Not necessarily that. It was more that they saw me as a very innocent person -- the innocent girl victim. In a way, though, that was lucky; the kinds of roles I played were better than if I'd done eight horror films as the bad girl, always mouthing off, sleeping around, a tough cookie. That kind of typecasting would be harder to break out of.

“What I usually played was the stand-up, all-American girl. She was always educated and she always fought back and she was strong, and yet she was vulnerable. I was playing the kinds of roles they're writing now for women in the major films; I just happened to be in horror films.”

What will happen after “Perfect”?

“I'll get on more lists. They take you off this list and put you on that list. It's like tennis ladders. I'll go to the bottom of the next ladder.”

Jamie Lee Curtis on her Leading Men:

John Travoltareminds her of her father Tony Curtis: “They were both very handsome men who had to put up with that image, and my father never got the credit he deserves.  John will, because the public is more ready to accept someone who is good-looking and [they] still [will] believe he can act.”

Eddie Murphy:I wish I could say I know Eddie and have great stories to tell.  But in ‘Trading Places' most of my scenes were with Dan Aykroyd. I got to know Eddie just sort of sitting around. I think he's as serious as he is funny.  He's very quiet. I was amazed at how much he sleeps. When he wasn't working, he was in his dressing room.  He's not this crazed human being who runs around all the time. He's shrewd and smart and funny, and he knows to save it for the cameras.”

Dan Aykroyd:“I think he's very sexy. He could be a leading man. I think it's funny that he's always been a second banana. He's been in some of the biggest movies, ‘Blues Brothers,' ‘Trading Places,' ‘Ghostbusters,' but who do you think of? John Belushi, Eddie Murphy and Bill Murray.”

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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