When Jamie Lee Curtis won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role in Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022), it marked the highest point of an enduring and versatile 45-year career that began with her “scream queen” performance in the 1978 slasher film Halloween.
But it hasn’t always been a smooth journey. At various points over the years, it looked as though her acting career might be over. Paradoxically, one of the lowest points of her professional life followed one of her greatest commercial triumphs.
After appearing in one of the biggest box office hits of the 1990s with True Lies, Curtis found herself in an unexpected career slump. It was up to her to orchestrate her own comeback, which is exactly what she did—with a little help from the Halloween franchise that first made her famous.
A Smash Hit with True Lies
Curtis starred alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger in director James Cameron’s spy action comedy film True Lies (1994). She portrayed Helen Tasker, a bored housewife who learns her husband is actually a secret government agent and quickly becomes embroiled in a deadly terrorist plot.
True Lies was a tremendous critical and commercial success, debuting No. 1 at the box office and earning more than $365 million internationally. Curtis received rave reviews and a Golden Globe award for her performance. She called the film “without question, the greatest experience of my professional life so far.”
But the success of True Lies failed to give the boost to Curtis’ career one might expect. On the contrary, few roles were coming her way, and the films she made in the years following True Lies were among the biggest critical and box office failures of her career.
David Grove, author of the biography Jamie Lee Curtis: Scream Queen, said Hollywood ageism may have been a factor. Curtis was 36 when True Lies was released, which Grove called “approaching middle-age status in Hollywood.” He noted that Curtis’ movie star mother, Janet Leigh, fell into a similar slump upon reaching at the same age in the mid-1960s.
“Despite the success of True Lies, the triumph strangely didn’t transfer momentum into the next phase of Jamie Lee Curtis’ film career,” Grove wrote. “... By the mid-1990s, Curtis was entering a phase of her career where she was now being viewed more as a mother figure, an older actress, rather than a heroine.”
A True Career Slump
Following True Lies, Curtis appeared in the comedy films House Arrest (1996) and Fierce Creatures (1997), the latter of which reunited her with her old A Fish Called Wanda co-stars Kevin Kline, John Cleese, and Michael Palin. Both were box office bombs that received almost universally terrible reviews.
The Washington Post wrote Curtis and her House Arrest co-star Kevin Pollak were “anything but a sizzling screen couple.” Her experience with Fierce Creatures was even worse, as the film was plagued with production problems, and Curtis quarreled openly with Cleese on set. Cleese later called the movie one of the greatest regrets of his life.
A career resuscitation seemed imminent when Curtis was signed to star in Virus (1999), a high-budget science-fiction horror based on a popular Dark Horse comic book. Instead, it proved to be a troubled production with a “scorched earth relationship” between the cast and crew, according to Grove. Virus became one of the biggest box office flops of the 1990s.
“It was the worst experience of my acting career. It went on for five months, and it seemed like it would never end, and the whole time I was wishing I’d never made the film,” Curtis said, according to Grove’s book. “I just kept wondering how bad the film was going to turn out to be and how it would affect my career.”
Once filming on Virus wrapped, Curtis was anxious to move on and breathe new life into her career, Grove said. With her 40th birthday approaching, she realized it would also soon be the 20th anniversary of the movie that first launched her into stardom. That inspired her to make a new Halloween film, according to Grove.
Curtis pitched the idea to Dimension Films, the genre division of Miramax that owned the Halloween series at the time. Although initially skeptical, the studio was intrigued by the idea of Curtis returning to the franchise, and she became the star and uncredited executive producer of the sequel Halloween H20 (1998).
Back on Track
Grove called the film “Curtis’ baby,” and she showed no hesitation in taking credit for the production, saying: “When we did the film, people would ask me whose idea it was to do this, who was behind this? The answer was simple. I was. It was all my idea. I made it happen, and I was very proud of that.”
Despite negative reviews, Halloween H20 was a box office success and “a personal triumph for Curtis, if not as an actress then certainly as a businesswoman,” Grove wrote. Two decades later, Curtis expressed regret for making the film, especially without the involvement of original Halloween director John Carpenter and producer Debra Hill.
Nevertheless, the unqualified commercial success helped get Curtis’ career back on track at the time. The comeback was complete when Curtis was approached to replace Annette Bening, who had just dropped out of the production of Freaky Friday (2003). Curtis co-starred with Lindsay Lohan in the live-action Disney film about a mother and daughter who switch bodies.
Freaky Friday became an unexpected commercial success, earning more than $160 million on a budget of just $20 million. Curtis received particular praise, earning another Golden Globe nomination as well as some of her best reviews. Jan Stuart of Newsday, in particular, noted the spectacular rejuvenation of Curtis’ career, calling her “one of the more unsung and deserving second fiddles working in Hollywood today.”
Although Curtis would have to wait two more decades before earning Oscar gold, the comeback she orchestrated during one of the most challenging periods of her career demonstrates the talent, durability, and Hollywood know-how that has helped keep her in the limelight.
Colin McEvoy joined the Biography.com staff in 2023, and before that had spent 16 years as a journalist, writer, and communications professional. He is the author of two true crime books: Love Me or Else and Fatal Jealousy. He is also an avid film buff, reader, and lover of great stories.