shower curtains Noun, e.g., It was shower curtains for Angie Dickinson in “Dressed to Kill” (1980).
Definition: The unexpected and violent death of a prominent star early in a film.
History: The term was inspired by the scene midway through “Psycho” (1960) in which Janet Leigh is whacked in the shower. Aside from referencing the shower curtains bloodied by Leigh, “curtains” was a popular slang word for death. In its origin, the term may have been a stab at Alfred Hitchcock over what some considered the scene’s over-the-top exploitation of sex and violence. In any case, shower curtains came to stand for filmmaking’s most shocking kind of plot twist.
What made Leigh’s early exit particularly shocking was that under the “studio system” murder in reel two was no way to treat a leading lady. Even so, Hitchcock may have premeditated murdering a leading actor as early as 1939, the year he came to Hollywood from England. As the story goes, that same year a young RKO executive named Artie Mars was urging his financially struggling studio to juice the marquee of “Five Came Back” (1939) by casting the studio’s three biggest stars in bit parts. The idea was that all three would die in the first reel—one during a plane crash and the others in the Amazon jungle. This was the era when stars were salaried and the time spent by the stars on the film would have been brief.
But the idea was nixed by RKO production chief Pandro Berman, who feared images would be tarnished showing Ginger Rogers hurled from a plane at 16,000 feet, Cary Grant deep-sixed by a poison dart in the neck, and Fred Astaire disappearing into the jungle and presumed consumed by cannibals. Berman was also concerned about the response of moviegoers arriving late at the theater expecting too see Grant, Astaire and Rogers only to see Chester Morris, ingénue Lucille Ball, Wendy Barrie and John Carradine.
Hitchcock’s solution to theater latecomers was the warning in “Psycho’s“ trailer that no one would be admitted to the theater once the film began. As for tarnishing Leigh’s screen image, Hitchcock, famous for calling actors cattle, had no compunctions about butchering one.
Examples of shower curtains include the knifing of Angie Dickinson in an elevator in “Dressed to Kill” (1980), the ejection of Steven Seagal into the wild blue yonder in “Executive Decision” (1996), the slicing of Drew Barrymore in “Scream” (1996), and the shooting of Kevin Spacey in a kitchen in “LA Confidential” (1997).
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