In today’s The Toast series, we honor 2023 Oscar nominee Jamie Lee Curtis, whose nearly 50-year career started with the iconic horror film Halloween (1978), and continues with the recent smash hit Everything Everywhere All At Once (2022).
Few modern actors are multi-monikered. Perhaps none? But 2023 Oscar nominee Jamie Lee Curtis impressively is. Jamie Lee Curtis is Scream Queen, Sex Symbol, and unofficial Comedy Goddess thanks to cult classics Trading Places (1983) and A Fish Called Wanda (1988). She embodies that highly coveted acting quality of “versatile.” How’d she get so good?
Flashback to 1978. A young Jamie Lee Curtis burst on to the big screen with a “big scream.” She starred in the horror masterpiece film Halloween (1978). A mere nineteen years old, she was off and running. Now forty-five years later, she’s been nominated for her first Oscar, a Best Supporting Actress nod for the film Everything Everywhere All At Once (2022), playing a hilariously curmudgeonly IRS agent. Noteworthy – Curtis is already a BAFTA winner for Trading Places (1983), but here’s guessing she’d love an Oscar to keep that BAFTA company.
A star of action blockbusters such as True Lies (1994), one hugely popular Disney remake called Freaky Friday (2003), and a multitude of genres before and after, Curtis is a long-standing star who truly makes movie-watching a fun, eye-opening experience. She respectfully carries on the tradition of her Hollywood parents, acting greats Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis, and yet she’s a bona fide star in her own right. In honor, here’s a look back at some of Jamie Lee Curtis’ most memorable performances.
Jamie Lee Curtis Films
1. Halloween (1978)
Here’s the “quintessential” scary Halloween movie. Perfect title aside, director John Carpenter’s brilliant slasher flick has won tons of fans for a plethora of reasons. Some adore the movie for its music. Downright chilling piano riff, yes? Meanwhile, others find masked Michael Myers to be the ultimate villain to keep them awake at night. He’s sheer perfection. And then there’s Jamie Lee Curtis. All agree that her understated performance as an ordinary high schooler Laurie Strode, who must fend off the terrifying Michael Myers, is sublime. 1970s cinema is known for its naturalistic vibe, and Curtis embodies this beautifully. Her Laurie Strode is completely believable from start to finish, which says a lot given the frighteningly gripping scenes at the film’s finale. Never over-acting, her subtlety wonderfully (and ironically) heightens our sense of fear. She’s our Scream Queen who would spawn a whopping 12 sequels in this still-running horror franchise. The story of a mental patient escapee who has a thirst for some “hometown blood” on Halloween continues to fill our nightmares.
2. Trading Places (1983)
Enter Jamie Lee Curtis switching gears to comedy. She plays Ophelia, a quirky and hospitable prostitute, enmeshed in the hilarious, modern 1930s screwball comedy Trading Places. Here’s a complex plot with a lot of fun twists and turns involving four men (characters Randolph and Mortimer, wealthy schemers who decide to “switch the lives” of two very opposite people) and Winthorpe III and Valentine (the two pawns, one wealthy and one poor, played by Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy respectively). Curtis makes magic with her talented cast. Up until now, Curtis had been a Scream Queen. But audiences quickly saw how adept she was at garnering a laugh. Light and buoyant, effervescent and scene-stealing, she’s a great addition to this memorable film. She won her first major award, a Best Supporting Actress BAFTA, for her contribution. Congrats, Ms. Curtis!
3. Perfect (1985)
Cue those 1980s leotards and leg warmers! It’s Jamie Lee Curtis as Sex Symbol. New moniker aside, Curtis’ Los Angeles fitness instructor Jessie takes us on a romantic ride as the subject of New York City journalist Adam’s news-worthy story about how gyms are the new hot spot for singles. Who needs a traditional bar or pub to find your true love? Now full disclaimer – this film was not successful. Not commercially or critically. But stars Jamie Lee Curtis and John Travolta never disappoint. And in a way, this movie is a true emblem of those colorful, glossy ‘80s. Perfect doesn’t go deep. There’s untapped potential most definitely, in terms of plot, character development, and finale. But if you want to see two “awesome, rad, totally tubular” Hollywood stars in their prime, Perfect is worth a watch. It’s an ‘80s romance that embodies the spirit of that notoriously superficial, flashy decade.
4. Dominick and Eugene (1988)
The quietest film on this list, Dominick and Eugene is an obscure, yet must-see piece of Curtis’ filmography. She plays medical student Jennifer, the kind-hearted girlfriend to Eugene, fellow medical student played by Ray Liotta of future Goodfellas (1990) fame. Eugene has a mentally challenged twin brother Dominick, played brilliantly by Tom Hulce of hugely successful Amadeus (1984). Intriguing in that we’re not quite sure if this film is a drama, mystery, or romance, Dominick and Eugene keeps us guessing. Eugene lives with Dominick and looks out for him, but he has the chance to move away to prestigious Stanford University in California to further his medical studies. He also has a new relationship with Jennifer. Meanwhile, Dominick is struggling with some unsavory criminals in their tough, working-class neighborhood.
No spoilers, but this movie has a fantastic, riveting finale. Curtis shines in “natural” roles like these. She seems effortless on-screen, and conveys a wonderfully caring heart. Her tone is pitch-perfect.
5. A Fish Called Wanda (1988)
This flick is ranked by the British Film Institute as the 39th Greatest British Film of the 20th Century. Now when you factor in the thousands of British films made in the last century, #39 is a big accolade. And Jamie Lee Curtis as the titular jewel thief named Wanda is a huge reason for the film’s success. Full of brains, sass, and sex appeal, her American jewel thief Wanda, hitting those nook and cranny streets of jolly ol’ England on a big jewel heist mission, is pretty exciting. Then add in a stellar ensemble cast which includes John Cleese and Kevin Kline, and you can’t go wrong. A Fish Called Wanda is a smart, naughty, highly entertaining film. But does she get the diamonds? And does this film actually have a fish in it? We, of course, have to watch to find out!
6. My Girl (1991)
It’s Jamie Lee Curtis in possibly her most maternal role, definitely displaying that previously mentioned “wonderfully caring heart.” Set in a sweet Pennsylvania town circa 1972, My Girl is about an 11-year-old girl Vada, who is dealing with the long-ago loss of her mother, her possible imminent gain of a stepmother (Curtis’ character), and a surprise turn of events with her best friend and first love, Thomas J. (played by child star Macaulay Culkin). Throughout all of this, her dad (actor Dan Aykroyd) valiantly attempts to be both mother and father to Vada, to varying degrees of success. A touching coming-of-age story, My Girl is a tearjerker. And Curtis is solidly warm and thoughtful as the potential “new mom.” Noteworthy – Curtis successfully teams up with Dan Aykroyd again, her old acting pal from Trading Places.
7. True Lies (1994)
What was illustrious director James Cameron up to before 1997’s megahit Titanic? He was making an action blockbuster called True Lies. This movie is no formulaic action blockbuster, though. Sure, it has Arnold Schwarzenegger. And sure, there are enough explosives, gun fights, and chase sequences to leave you gasping for air. But True Lies uniquely and cleverly weaves humor and romance into all the action. Based on the 1991 French film La Totale!, True Lies is a surprisingly convincing film that unpacks a lot. And as for Ms. Curtis? Her role as “uptight, conservative” wife turned sexy spy is one of the most talked about character transformations in all of ‘90s cinema. That hotel room dance!
Jamie Lee Curtis excels portraying the dowdy, the sexy, and ultimately, the shocked when she learns that her long-time husband (Schwarzenegger’s character) is a US government spy. She truly embodies “multi-faceted.” This is one of her most unforgettable roles.
8. The Tailor of Panama (2001)
This film is an excellent contrast to the intentionally over-the-top spy action of True Lies. It stars Geoffrey Rush as the ingenious tailor, and Pierce Brosnan as the MI6 British agent sent to Panama, and who ends up using the tailor for intel related to political corruption in the country. Quietly smart and inventive, The Tailor of Panama proves intriguing and atmospheric. We’re glued to the tailor’s creative embellishments of his political and business elite patrons. And Pierce Brosnan of James Bond fame? He’s always exciting in spy thrillers. Even better, it’s all set in “palm tree heaven” Panama. We can feel the heat and imagine the whir of the ceiling fan. Though Jamie Lee Curtis plays a supporting role (this film is definitely a vehicle for Rush and Brosnan), it’s still fun to watch her in a different kind of spy film from True Lies. Jamie Lee Curtis goes tropical, and it’s 90 degrees sizzling.
9. Freaky Friday (2003)
Many might say that no Freaky Friday could ever top the 1976 Disney original starring fierce Jodie Foster and loveably loopy Barbara Harris. And while the jury’s out if this 2003 version did, no one can deny that the 2003 remake was a smash hit. Lindsay Lohan and Jamie Lee Curtis’ on-screen chemistry is amazing. They totally sync up as a mother/daughter duo who have some learning to do about their respective lives. Hijinks ensue when these two characters swap bodies one day due to a magical restaurant fortune cookie. One character is suddenly thrust back to high school (Curtis), and the other catapulted into motherhood, career, and an imminent marriage (Lohan). Curtis is particularly memorable for her facial expressions, and her hilarious interpretations of modern millennial speech. This movie is a hoot, and Curtis breathes fresh air into a beloved classic.
10. Knives Out (2019)
Here’s one of the best “whodunits” to come along in decades. Jamie Lee Curtis plays Linda Drysdale, daughter of newly deceased mystery writer Harlan Thrombey (played by legendary Christopher Plummer in his final role). But who killed this famous writer? Linda is one of many murder suspects in this colorfully dysfunctional family. Taking place in a lavish New England countryside estate, Knives Out gives off major Agatha Christie mystery vibes. Many viewers love this, and its sparkling ensemble cast. It boasts Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Daniel Craig, Ana de Armas, and many more.
Curtis is exceptionally strong as the simultaneously grin-worthy and cringe-worthy “top daughter.” She’s strikingly secure in her innocence, and adamant about her inheritance. But, is she innocent? Watch and connect the dots. And if you enjoyed it and its standalone 2022 sequel Glass Onion, here are 16 similar whodunits you’ll love.
Easygoing and memorable on-screen, Jamie Lee Curtis has made her mark time and time again in modern Hollywood. Her famous mom, Janet Leigh, was known for a Hitchcock Psycho (1960) shower scene. And years later, Jamie Lee Curtis became known for a chilling Halloween (1978) scream. How brilliant. But we get the sense from this Hollywood icon that it’s all wonderfully “just in a day’s work.” So, here’s wishing this true pro the very best of luck for the Oscar night this March 12.
I'm a published poet, travel writer, and "vintage" pop culture blogger. I love movies, and especially those dusty old classics. I "heart" the rich history of film.