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 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)
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)
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
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.
Easy Money (1983)
Sister, Sister (1987)
Heart of Midnight (1988)
The Big Picture (1989)
Miami Blues (1990)
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)
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)
The Spectacular Now (2013)
Hateship Loveship (2013)
Alex of Venice (2014)
Welcome to Me (2014)
The Hateful Eight (2015)