Friday, August 14, 2015

In Character: Jennifer Jason Leigh

From the onset of her film career, Jennifer Jason Leigh has played roles most actresses (of any age) would be terrified to play. Her characters are raw, addicted, abused, as naked emotionally as they are physically. Many of these roles are familiar character parts – The Town Slut, The High School Virgin – but Leigh has made these women unforgettable. In addition to the dangerous characters she inhabits, credit must be given to the arc of Leigh’s career. Very rarely do you see a non-independent film pop up in her filmography, let alone a major blockbuster. She’s carved her own path, done it her own way, and turned herself into one of the finest talents of hers or any generation.

Five Essential Roles
Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)
Rarely is adolescent female sexuality depicted with as much nonchalance as it is in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. When young Stacy loses her virginity to an older man (in a shitty dirty dugout, no less) she doesn’t treat it as a big deal. Just something to get out of the way. While her indifference and naïveté are nearly heartbreaking, she’s never “The Victim,” not even when the school douchebag knocks her up and refuses to help pay for an abortion. Instead, she’s just a young gal trying to get by. You don’t ever feel sorry for Stacy, not exactly. You just know that life will get so much easier for her when she gains some perspective. Such an insightful and brave performance. (Side note: a lot of movies and TV shows owe a debt to Stacy’s static POV shots during her lost virginity scene.)

Last Exit to Brooklyn (1989)
“Sex and pain are linked throughout the movie,” Roger Ebert noted in his glowing review of Last Exit to Brooklyn. It’s a perfect way to describe the film, as well as one of its main characters, the doomed prostitute, Tralala. There’s no pleasure in sex for Tralala. She uses sex as a tool – for money, acclaim, false prestige – which ultimately leads to a devastating conclusion. When you read breakdowns of Leigh’s career (including the one at the top of this article), they always mention Leigh’s penchant for playing women like Tralala. Women of the night, junkies, drunks. And it’s true, Leigh does inhabit these characters often, but she always does it so goddamn well. That noted, Tralala is easily one of the saddest, most lost, most shattered characters Leigh has ever played. She (the actor and the character) certainly doesn’t make Last Exit to Brooklyn easy for us.

Rush (1991)
Kristen Cates
Rush is a ‘90s gem that poses a familiar plot archetype: the hardened veteran cop partners with the doe-eyed rookie. But what makes Rush unique is how raw the movie feels. Jason Patric assumes the seasoned cop role, Jim Raynor, an undercover narc who becomes addicted to drugs in order to maintain his cover. Soon into their professional partnership, Kristen inadvertently gets hooked on smack, all while the two develop a romantic relationship. Kristen is Leigh at her most vulnerable, a trait the actor has always been able to tap into flawlessly. Kristen is strong enough to not pity, but weak enough to want to help. It’s deeply layered work, a great juxtaposition to Patric’s manic, but no less thrilling, turn.

Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (1994)
Dorothy Parker
Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle depicts the initial inception of the Algonquin Round Table, a group of creatives and critics who met nearly every weekday for a decade at the Algonquin Hotel in New York. That a fascinating idea in its own right, made all the better by the fact that the movie adaptation of the group stars Leigh as one of the group’s founding members. As depicted in the film, there was only one Dorothy Parker. A talented and accomplished writer of many media (two of her scripts were nominated for Oscars), Parker was renowned, witty, satirical, and, it must be said, a bit of a lush. Perhaps the film’s most key exchange is a compliment paid to Parker about her drinking:
“You’re hangover is going straight to the Smithsonian, Mrs. Parker.”
“Once it kills me and becomes famous, you mean.”
Leigh’s incarnation of Parker is fascinating. Often down, but never out. Half in the bag, but never blackout, her Parker is a woman’s woman in a time when many women were afraid to be women. If you haven’t seen Alan Rudolph’s Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, do seek it out immediately. I can’t think of a single reason not to.

The Anniversary Party (2001)
Sally Therrian
I absolutely love The Anniversary Party, a small film about life and love, starring everyone (seriously, the cast is insane). At the center of the film is Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alan Cumming, who wrote, produced and directed the film together, while also assuming the lead roles. The structure of the film is based around Sally (Leigh) and Joe’s (Cumming) sixth wedding anniversary. Having reconciled after spending some time apart, the happy Hollywood couple want to share their joy with their friends. Things quickly derail, which culminates in a ferocious argument between Sally and Joe (while zonked on ecstasy) that serves as some of the finest acting both Leigh and Cumming have ever done. The Anniversary Party is a gem of a film; it makes you long for more movies helmed by Leigh.

The Best of the Best
Georgia (1995)
Sadie Flood
You can’t unsee Leigh’s work in Georgia. I watched the film on Netflix for the first time last month (I’ve braved it twice since), and Leigh’s grueling work in it immediately reminded of Marion Cotillard’s startling turn in La Vie en Rose. Leigh’s performance is one of such confidence, of such brutal emotional intensity, that by the end, you’re surprised that the actress can even stand up straight. She gives Sadie Flood her all, leaving nothing behind and everything up a screen.

The film is about Sadie, a drug-addicted (though well-intentioned) barroom singer with little talent. Her life is complete chaos, a stark contrast to her sister, Georgia (Mare Winningham), a successful folk singer with a healthy family. Sadie idolizes Georgia, and although Georgia desperately wants Sadie to succeed, she knows she can’t help her sister unless Sadie wants to help herself. The movie showcases several musical numbers, the highlights of the film. A central performance of Sadie slowly, devastatingly butchering Van Morrison’s “Take Me Back” is almost too difficult to watch. It’s insufferable to see Sadie bomb onstage as she pours her heart out in such a reckless and desperate fashion. Simply put, when I first began drafting this post, I wasn’t sure which performance I would hail as Leigh’s best, but midway through my first viewing of Georgia, Leigh made the choice for me.

Other Notable Roles
in The Machinist
Easy Money (1983)
Flesh+Blood (1985)
Sister, Sister (1987)
Heart of Midnight (1988)
The Big Picture (1989)
Miami Blues (1990)
Backdraft (1991)
Single White Female (1992)
Short Cuts (1993)
The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)
Dolores Claiborne (1995)
Kansas City (1996)
Bastard Out of Carolina (1996)
A Thousand Acres (1997)
eXistenZ (1999)
The Man Who Wasn't There (2001)
Road to Perdition (2002)
In the Cut (2003)
The Machinist (2004)
The Jacket (2005)
Margot at the Wedding (2007)
Synecdoche, New York (2008) 
Weeds (2009-2012)
Greenberg (2010)
Revenge (2012)
The Spectacular Now (2013)
Hateship Loveship (2013)
Alex of Venice (2014)
Welcome to Me (2014)
The Hateful Eight (2015)


  1. Oddly, I've never really loved her. Like, I think she's great in Georgia, obviously, and Single White Female (like, chilling), but more or less I find her vastly overrated and in many instances I find her kind of awful.

    But I know I'm in the minority.

    1. Oh jeez. Well, I'm glad you appreciate SOME of her work!

    2. I completely agree with you, and find her mostly awful in everything other than the films she made when she was younger (Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Single White Female). She is irritating and self-conscious and always comes off like a caricature of the person she's trying to portray. No part highlights these points better than her role as Daisy in The Hateful Eight. It was a disgusting movie made more so by her constantly beat up character, extremely annoying voice and BAD acting.

  2. She plays "trashy" characters so well. I think she gets type cast a bit too much, but she's so good at it. If it ain't broke...

    Bastard out of Carolina is a film that always sticks with me, she and Jena Malone were amazing in that.

    1. I just think she likes taking on challenging roles, and many of those roles for women are for "trashy" characters, which to me is a fault of the movie market itself, you know?

      Bastard Our of Carolina is a rough ride. But definitely some great performances in that. Glad you're a fan of it.

  3. Hey there I was the anonymous who had requested Jennifer Jason Leigh on your last "In Character" post and gosh this got me emotional haha, I'm yet to see The Annieversary Party and Rush but your write ups have made me so freaking eager to watch them :) Also a thousand times hooray on Georgia coming at number 1. How are you feeling about her in "The Hateful Eight" ? Also last time you were talking about how you were doing actresses and sorry to bombard you with requests but here's who I'd love to see: Sissy Spacek, Anne Bancroft (R.I.P), Glenn Close, Holly Hunter, Allison Janney and Chloe Sevigny. Sorry if I do that a lot, I just love actresses haha and oh have by chance seen a film called Central Station ? If yes what do you think of it ??

    1. Hey! Thanks again for the push on this one. Been wanting to cover JJL for a long while. I thought she was the best part of The Hateful Eight trailer. That noose bit is hysterical.

      Great picks for potential people to cover! Love all those women.

      I haven't seen Central Station but it sounds really interesting.

    2. No worries, I love your writing so much and how passionate you're about film. It's incredibly inspiring to see that. And yes The Hateful Eight !!! I'm so looking forward to what she's going to do. Tarantino definitely picked her for a reason and here's me praying that he'll break her streak and at least give her an Oscar nomination.

      And yes Alex !!! I would just love to see what you'd pick the best performance of the actresses I suggested as they're filmography is so diverse. Thank you for considering them and hopefully we get to see them ;)

      And I'd highly recommend Central Station, it's such a moving film featuring a powerhouse performance by it's leading lady who I believe should've won (she lost to Gwyneth Paltrow) the Oscar. Also the cinematography and the score is just beautiful.

    3. Thank you so much! Definitely going to get to work on those subjects, and going to check out Central Station as soon as I can!

  4. The performances of Jennifer Jason Leigh & Mare Winningham in Georgia were the two performances that made me realise how difficult acting can be. So much could have gone wrong (too much? too little?) but they were both exceptional in career best performances (might I suggest a post on Winningham? Plus Swikar's suggestions are also good too).

    Jennifer Jason Leigh is one of my all time favourites. Always challenging herself, pushing herself further. I would also have mentioned her performances in Margot at the Wedding and Synecdoche, New York. Though, who am I kidding, she is almost always great. I'm so excited to see her in The Hateful Eight.

    1. Yes! Love what you said about their performances in Georgia. Couldn't agree more. Margot at the Wedding was the hardest film to cut from this post. I really love JJL in that movie. But I love her in damn near everything.

  5. Buddy, I enjoy your writing so immensely and you sure know how to pick your topics. Leigh is such an inspired choice for a # 1. I totally agree that her turn in Georgia is like The Best Of The Best for Jennifer Jason Leight. Seriously, there's just not even a question to why one would pick her unforgettable performance her as her best. And you're totally right, there are parts of her work there where you could think even of Marion Cotillard's unmatched performance in La Vie En Rose. It's a performance of such ferocious commitment you can't help but be in awe of her work. How was she able to do that is beyond my understanding. She's a genius actor and I hope to God she'll receive much praise for her work in The Hateful Eight because judging from what I've seen and read about her in the new Quentin Tarantino film, which I just can't wait to watch, suggests she steals the whole show. She was one of my favorite parts in Short Curts also. Man, I love this film.

    1. Hell yeah man. Such a powerhouse in Georgia, and I really hope she's the showstopper in The Hateful Eight. Can't wait for that film. I love Short Cuts too. And she is so priceless in that movie. Those phone calls, my god.

  6. Shit, there's so many great performances of her that makes everyone wonder.... why hasn't she been nominated for an Oscar or.... anything? She is probably the most underrated actress working today. She's that fucking good. With the exception of Last Exit to Brooklyn (which I've never seen), your list is spot-on. Plus, I don't remember a bad performance she gave in any film. I really hope The Hateful Eight gives her the recognition she's been overdue for.

    1. Fuck yeah man, agree with everything you've written here. It's insane that she hasn't been nominated for anything yet. So bizarre. Really hoping The Hateful Eight changes that.

  7. I've seen less than 10 of her films, but I have loved her in every one of them. What she accomplishes in SWF is just frightening. And she was great in The Machinist. Even though I saw it within a year or so of it coming out, it took me growing up and watching it within the last few years to realize how great she was in Fast Times. Great post.

    1. Thanks man! I agree, what she does in Fast Times is hard to see at first. But she, along with the whole film, gets better every time I watch it. And I love her unhinged work in SWF. So freaky.

  8. How close was 'The Hudsucker Proxy' to your shortlist? Weird, impressive performance.

    1. I agree, weird and impressive work, but it wasn't in my top 10. Just shows you how good she is, you know?

  9. She is underrated, but we all know what Tarantino does for a career, and we can hope hers will have a deserved revival - I definitely think she was one of the more interesting parts of the Hateful Eight trailer.

    1. Yep, fully agree. I'm really hoping he gives her a boost.

  10. I haven't seen some of your choices because if given an option I don't seek out bleak films. Most of her performances that I've seen have been "less bleak" - not junkies or hookers or beaten women.

    Someone else already mentioned The Hudsucker Proxy, but I'll second it. It doesn't get a lot of love among the Coen films, probably because it skews too close to Frank Capra territory and if there's one thing critics love to do it's to dump on Capra's films for being too happy - "Capra-corn"). In it she channels one of the "brassy, fast talking dames" from the screwball comedy era - think Jean Arthur in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington or Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday.

    I'd also mention The Big Picture because her performance in that is unlike anything I've seen her do in another film. Her character literally is bouncing on her feet most of the time we see her - a completely different personality type than she usually played.

    1. I love any chance to talk about The Big Picture. I called that one of Bacon's best performances in my In Character for him, and I too think Leigh is great in it. You're right, very against type performance, which I appreciate.

      I should give Hudsucker another go. Haven't seen it in a long time, but I was never really a fan, for some of the reasons you mentioned.

  11. I watched Georgia on Netflix recently, too, and she's AMAZING in it. Easily #1 for me as well. I still need to see The Anniversary Party, Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, and Rush, though.

    1. Love that you were a fan of Georgia as well. Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle is a lot of fun. Little hard to track down though.

  12. Fantastic actress. She always steals whatever movie she pops up in. I still haven't seen Georgia, but now i definitely need to check that one out. I also can't wait to see her in The Hateful Eight.

    1. Soooo excited for her in The Hateful Eight. And man, do check out Georgia when you can. She's devastating there.

  13. Here's one example of her dynamic range as an actress: In Anomalisa, where we first hear her voice, it's like "Ah. I'm in love!" because her voice work is so sweet and down to earth. Yet it's so hard to believe that is the same voice that plays the vile creature that is Daisy Domergue in The Hateful Eight which came out around the same time as Anomalisa.

    I've yet to see her early work, but hopefully that'll change.

    1. Exactly! So well put - couldn't agree more. She has the voice of an angel and a hellion. Love her. If you haven't seen Georgia... man, try to check that one out asap.