Dec 30, 2008

Hall of Fame: Jennifer Jason Leigh

The Hall of Fame is going to be a series of posts celebrating the greatest Directors, actors [male and female], and perhaps other technicians, in cinema now and throughout the years.
There are strict rules for inclusion. The Hall of Fame is not about one outstanding piece of work; it’s about a career, a body of work. There is no minimum age, but inductees must have had a career lasting at least a decade in the discipline for which they are being included. They must also have worked regularly (Erick Zonca, with his two films as a Director in a decade, great as they are, won’t be inducted). Most importantly their body of work, as a whole, must be of high quality and constitute a contribution to their discipline in cinema.

I’ve wracked my brain to come up with the first inductee, and I can’t think of anyone more deserving than Jennifer Jason Leigh.

"I'd much rather be in a movie that people have really strong feelings about than one that makes a hundred million dollars but you can't remember because it's just like all the others."

Birth Name: Jennifer Lee Morrow
Occupation: Actor
Born: 5th Feb 1962, Hollywood
Family: Mother: Barbara Turner, Father: Vic Morrow, Sister: Carrie Morrow
Half-Sister: Mina Badie, Stepfather: Reza Badiyi
Spouse: Noah Baumbach
Film Debut: Eyes of a Stranger (1981)
Latest Film: Synecdoche, New York (2008)

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Jennifer Jason Leigh’s film acting career spans more than 60 feature films and my entire life. She’s one of the most critically acclaimed actresses of her time and commands universal respect from her peers, and yet she’s never even been nominated for an Oscar and if you talk to a casual movie fan about her they’ll likely respond with “who?” That’s largely her own choice, she’s studiously avoided the limelight over the years, very little is known about her private life and she’s so transformed from role to role that even colleagues have been known to fail to recognise her. On the set of Short Cuts Robert Altman mistook Leigh for a production assistant and asked her to get him a coffee, while director Paul Verhoeven (with whom she made Flesh and Blood) has said of her “…She can be anything. Yet in real life it's almost as if she doesn't exist, as if she's always waiting for acting, and the acting is the real life…

Jennifer Lee Morrow was born to a theatrical family, her father was an actor and stunt man (tragically killed in the infamous accident on the Twilight Zone set when Leigh was almost 20) and her mother was a writer for stage and screen. Leigh first appeared on film, in an uncredited, non-speaking role, at 9, when she played ‘girl playing with a rubber ball’ in Death of a Stranger. At 14 she began attending workshops given by Lee Strasberg (which seem to have made a great impression, given her immersive preparation for each part) and attended the Stagedoor Manor summer camp (other graduates include Zach Braff). At 16 Leigh landed her first breaks, with roles in TV series Baretta and Disney TV movie The Young Runaways. At this age she also adopted her stage name, taking Jason from family friend Jason Robards. Six weeks shy of graduation, in 1981 Leigh dropped out of high school to take her first really substantial role in Eyes of a Stranger.

It was a 1981 TV movie that really made people sit up and take notice of Jennifer Jason Leigh. The Best Little Girl in the World was the story of an anorexic teenager, a harrowing film and a demanding part, for which Leigh did what would become her customary immersive preparation. Already a slight woman with a slender 5’ 3” frame, Leigh dieted down to just 86lbs for the part. The transformation wasn’t simply physical though, even at this early stage Leigh is able to make you look past the actress and see the character. This was also the beginning of Leigh’s penchant for difficult, different, challenging roles; she’s said, "I could never play the ingĂ©nue, the girl next door or the very successful young doctor. That would be a bore." She’s done the first two, but always interestingly, always stretching and changing herself.

The breakthrough part came in 1982, as the girl next door, in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Stacy Hamilton is no cookie cutter dream girl though; she’s real and complex. This is probably as much down to Cameron Crowe’s very funny, and very well researched screenplay as much as it is to Leigh, but Leigh plays the corrupted innocent so well here that no less a critic than Roger Ebert ended up not reviewing her performance, but being taken in by it. He asked “How could they do this to Jennifer Jason Leigh? How could they put such a fresh and cheerful person into such a scuz-pit of a movie?” He’s really talking about Stacy here, and how she’s beaten down by the movie. Now that’s a good review. Ebert, despite gving the film a 1 star review, also had more nice things to say about Leigh, noting that “I didn't even know who Leigh was when I walked into "Fast Times at Ridgemont High," and yet I was completely won over by her. She contained so much life and light that she was a joy to behold.” That's something that's still true of her every performance.

" mainstream movies the woman's role is mostly just to prove that the leading man is heterosexual. I'm not good at that, and I'm not interested in that."

In the 1980s Jennifer Jason Leigh built a strong career, specialising in roles in exploitation films, throwing herself into every character with amazing gusto, and usually ending up outclassing both the films and everyone else in them. A good example of this is almost (rightly) forgotten cop movie Under Cover, in which Leigh plays one of two cops sent back to high school to bust a drugs gang. It’s an awful, awful movie, but with her small part and dreary material Leigh still manages to pull out a couple of great scenes (particularly the one in which she first enters the classroom). It’s a shame that Paul Verhoeven’s Flesh and Blood was neither his nor Leigh’s best work – her English accent isn’t great, and she seems ill at ease at times, because as actress and director they would seem to be made for each other; two artists dedicated to pushing the boundaries. There were standout films as well as standout performances in this period though, particularly Robert Harmon’s brilliant exploitation horror The Hitcher, in which Leigh’s character suffers one of the most appalling fates in cinema.

In 1989 Leigh’s career kicked up a gear, the catalyst her astounding performance as Tralala in Uli Edel’s challenging Last Exit to Brooklyn. The part called on both Leigh’s skill and her daring, as it culminates in a shattering sequence in which Tra’ is gang raped by almost the entire male population of a bar. Tralala is a difficult part, a young woman with a tough exterior but a hopeful, vulnerable, interior, which comes to the fore when she meets, and appears to fall for, a sailor on leave. This performance was counterbalanced by another as a hooker, in George Armitage’s noirish 1990 comedy Miami Blues. Susie Waggoner was Tralala’s inverse; a dreamer who wanted nothing more than to be, literally, Susie Homemaker and Leigh is effortlessly sweet and warm in the role. 1991 marked perhaps the only time you could say that Leigh phoned in a performance. She has made her frustration with Ron Howard’s Backdraft known over the years, and is alleged to have told Howard that she wanted to play the fire, because it clearly had the best part in the film, but her boredom is quite plain to see in her only standard issue girlfriend role. It mattered little though, because Backdraft was a hit, and 1991 also brought Rush, the film is a rather overwrought adaptation of Kim Wozencraft’s fact based novel about her time as a drug addicted narcotics cop, but Leigh’s innocent adrift is yet another piece of stellar character acting.

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1992’s Single White Female ushered in something odd for Jennifer Jason Leigh; mainstream success. It should, like many of Leigh’s exploitation films, have been a pretty bad movie; it’s formulaic almost to the point of tedium, but tense direction from Barbet Schroeder and excellent performances from both Leigh and Bridget Fonda make Single White Female a better film than it really has any right to be. For her subtly deranged performance Leigh won one of her few major awards – MTV’s Best Villain trophy (She was the only woman nominated, with Michelle Pfeiffer snubbed as Catwoman, a role Leigh had auditioned for). Continuing to work at what seemed a furious pace Leigh spent time with phone sex workers in order to portray one in Robert Altman’s Short Cuts, channelled Rosalind Russell (giving her Katharine Hepburn’s voice) while revealing an unexpected talent for screwball comedy in the Coen brothers underrated The Hudsucker Proxy, then studied and mastered Dorothy Parker’s unique tones for one of her most acclaimed performances, in Alan Rudolph’s Mrs Parker and the Vicious Circle, before appearing as an abused daughter in Stephen King adaptation Dolores Claiborne.

By 1995 it had already begun to seem perverse that Jennifer Jason Leigh had never, despite critical plaudits for her every on screen appearance, even been nominated for an Oscar. It was widely expected that Georgia, a screenplay by her mother Barbara Turner in which she plays a drug and alcohol addicted singer who has to live in the shadow of her famous sister would right this much remarked upon wrong. Mare Winningham, as the sister, got a nomination but Leigh, once more, was snubbed, despite some of the best notices of her estimable career. 1995 also marked the end of Leigh’s short and tentative flirtation with the mainstream as, bar a lead role in period romance Washington Square (for which, in her obsessive way, she compiled 11 folders full of research just on the etiquette of the period) her choices became ever more different and daring. Mini series Thanks of a Grateful Nation saw Leigh give an exceptional performance as the working class wife of a gulf war syndrome victim, winning her a Golden Satellite Best Actress award in the process, but her other major project of 1999 was even more interesting.

"I like the comparison to Depp because with him, the way he transforms himself from role to role, he's just this miraculous changeling and people really get behind it. But with me, people sometimes have a problem."

Canadian auteur David Cronenberg, who directed her in eXistenZ, in which she played a revered computer game designer, said of Leigh “I had my eyes on her for some time. Tough. Unusual. Not afraid to do strange things. When we started talking she was already working herself into the role… She is a brilliant and serious actor, and like a lot of brilliant and serious actors, she is punished.” Leigh paid off his faith in her; Allegra Gellar is one of her most indelible roles, combining intellect, sexuality, a tinge of madness and danger within one fantastic, fascinating performance. Leigh’s next, The King is Alive; Thomas Vinterberg’s Dogme adaptation of King Lear, came and went more or less unnoticed, but her next step was an unexpected one.

Even though she had worked with him on a production of Cabaret it came as major surprise when Leigh teamed up with Scottish actor Alan Cumming for a shared directorial debut with The Anniversary Party. Starring many of their Hollywood friends (including an increasingly rare role for Leigh’s best friend of many years, Fast Times co-star Phoebe Cates). Their script wasn’t especially groundbreaking, but Leigh and Cumming’s free camera and the strong performances they draw from the cast (especially the underappreciated Jane Adams) make for an interesting and relatively accomplished debut. Asked recently if she would direct again Leigh said that she had written a screenplay, but by the time she had finished it she no longer liked it. After The Anniversary Party Leigh was absent from cinemas, bar a tiny role as Tom Hanks’ wife in Road to Perdition, for a while before turning up in Jane Campion’s disappointing In the Cut. Campion had asked Leigh to play the Holly Hunter part in The Piano, but she had been knee deep in Rush at the time. Leigh is terrific in In the Cut, and the silly mystery would always have been a problem, but it might well have been better had Leigh and the out of her depth Meg Ryan had traded roles.

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In the Cut marked something of a comeback. After it came a quick one two with The Machinist, in which Leigh played her fourth sex worker, the prostitute who befriends client Christian Bale out of concern for his physical, and soon his mental, condition. Then The Jacket saw her playing a doctor (but not the successful young kind she was afraid of) caring for Adrien Brody, who may be mad or may be a time traveler. Co-star Keira Knightley spoke of her experience opposite Leigh; “In my big scene with Jennifer, I nearly forgot what I had to do because I spent the entire time staring at her, going, 'How do you do that’?” Those films were released close to one another, but between them she made Palindromes for Todd Solondz, a little seen film in which she plays one of the many incarnations of Aviva, a 12-year-old runaway. Leigh was 42 at the time, but she’s utterly convincing as a frightened adolescent in a performance that should be more widely seen.

In 2005 there was a personal change in Jennifer Jason Leigh’s life; she married writer/director Noah Baumbach, after several years quietly dating. This became a professional relationship with Margot at the Wedding, a caustic drama about sisters Pauline and Margot (Leigh and Nicole Kidman) reuniting for Pauline’s wedding to Malcolm (Jack Black), playing one of her most ‘normal’ characters ever Leigh excels, making Pauline feel completely and utterly real in a way that none of the other actors manage with their characters. A supporting role, buried beneath layers of old age make up, in Charlie Kaufman’s Synechdoche New York is Leigh’s most recent work, she pulled out of Scottish director David MacKenzie’s Spread, and there is a rumour that was due to her being pregnant, but there’s been no confirmation of that story.

"I think I live in this mythical world where doing the parts I do is not going to hurt me, and telling people my age is not going to hurt me. And it actually does. It's a bit sick-making but, you know, I can't change who I am."

Leigh has, despite her stellar filmography, become famous for refusing roles. Among the most notable is Pretty Woman, which, the story goes, she refused when director Garry Marshall told her that her character had only been a prostitute a few weeks “so it’s still kind of fun for her”. She also refused Chloe Sevigny’s infamous role in The Brown Bunny, which would have required her to perform fellatio on Vincent Gallo. Surprisingly Leigh actually wanted to take this part, she has said only that “things didn’t work out” and that she’d probably have done it had she not been in a relationship (with Baumbach).

So, why does Jennifer Jason Leigh belong in my hall of fame?
Firstly: she’s quite possibly the best actress alive, and has been consistently brilliant even in films that ask little of her and provide her little to work with.
Second: she’s an incredibly hard worker, her preparation is legendary, running to part time jobs, changes in her living arrangements and in-character diaries.
Thirdly: she never seems to have been chasing a paycheck, and if she has taken a role simply for the money then she’s hidden it well, beneath another great performance.
Fourth: despite many outrageous snubs, she doesn't seem to be chasing the elusive Oscar, instead she's contentedly taking parts that offer her the chance to do interesting things and to challenge herself.
Fifth, and this is where she genuinely advances her craft every time she appears on film: when you see Jennifer Jason Leigh in a film you never, ever see Jennifer Jason Leigh. She’s not there, Tralala is, or Allegra Gellar is, or Pauline is. She’s so completely consumed by her characters that she seems not to act but to become them. That’s her greatness, and that’s why, if you haven’t already, you need to see her films. Right now.

"People can have so many ill-conceived ideas about me based on the parts that I play. I've had guys, when I've been single, come out of the woodwork to date me and I've found out very quickly that they were expecting some kind of whirlwind, some dramatic crazy person - and that's just not me."


  1. Great work Sam! Good to see a comprehensive piece praising the most underrated actress around (and my personal all-time fave).

  2. Thanks Mr. Centaur. Do keep an eye on the site over the next week or so. I've got an announcement coming that you won't want to miss.