I’ve been an admirer of Jennifer Jason Leigh’s for 15 years or more, almost as long as I’ve been a serious movie lover. I don’t remember what the first film I saw her in was (it may well have been THE HUDSUCKER PROXY), but what I do remember is a book I had back then. It was called Young Hollywood, and profiled a lot of that generation of actors. I remember being surprised by Leigh’s entry, by realising that I’d seen several of her films, and not made the connection that it was the same actress in each of them.
That’s, for me, Leigh’s greatness. She isn’t so much an actress as she is a changeling. Like DeNiro in his heyday she throws herself body and soul into her parts, she doesn’t so much play a person as she becomes her. She’s changed her body for roles, written extensive in character diaries, worked her characters jobs (including one at the same pizza place her character in FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH worked at). She’s never the same twice, and is perhaps the only actor I can watch and, despite having seen her in more than 40 films and knowing a good deal about her, still catch myself not watching Jennifer Jason Leigh but instead her character.
Genius is not too strong a word, or at least it hasn’t been. Lately Leigh has dropped off the radar somewhat. In 2005 she married Noah Baumbach, and since she’s made fewer and fewer screen appearances, more often than not in small parts (four minutes in SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK, ten in GREENBERG). Can she still be called the greatest working actress? Taken as a whole does her body of work back that up? I’m going to try and figure that out for myself.
DIR: Ulu Grosbard
CAST: Jennifer Jason Leigh, Mare Winningham,
Ted Levine, Max Perlich
I first became aware of GEORGIA through the Oscars. I watched the 1995 ceremony, during which Mare Winningham was up for Best Supporting Actress, and though Winningham didn’t win (Mira Sorvino did) and I wasn’t at that time aware that Jennifer Jason Leigh was in the film, it stuck in my mind. Of course after I discovered that Leigh was in it, and that this is generally rated as perhaps her finest performance, I knew I HAD to see it. Unfortunately I was defeated by the fact that, so far as I can tell, GEORGIA never had any kind of home video release in the UK. If it did ever come out on VHS then it is spectacularly rare; I’ve scoured new and second hand stores for a copy for over a decade, and have never even seen one. It’s taken me the best part of 15 years, but I’ve finally seen GEORGIA and it was more than worth the wait.
The story is pretty basic. Two sisters, both singers. Georgia (Winningham) is a country music star with a loving husband (Levine) and a young family. Younger sister Sadie (Leigh) is an alcoholic and drug addict, scraping by from band to band and gig to gig, she’s got the passion for music, but lacks her sister’s real talent. The film is essentially about Sadie, her ever downward spiral, and the way the people around her (including Georgia and a sweet young man named Axel (Perlich) whom Sadie hastily marries) are affected by her.
What really makes GEORGIA the rather extraordinary piece of work that it is isn’t the story, which is familiar, nor even the screenplay (by Leigh’s mother Barbara Turner). The quality here is in the acting. There are exceptional performances all round, from the colourful character parts in the various bands (filled by people like John Doe and John C. Reilly, both of whom have done distinctive work since) right up to the leading players.
The undervalued Max Perlich (who seems to have dropped off the planet) is great as Sadie’s naïve, gentle, 23 year old husband. He comes into her life, ever so politely, when he delivers her groceries. He’s an easy character to like and to feel for, and in that we take a cue from the other characters, who also warm to him. Ted Levine, as identifiable as ever by his one of a kind drawl, makes for another sympathetic figure as Gerogia’s solid husband Jake. His relationship with Sadie is particularly interesting; there’s real warmth between them, but he seems slightly blind to her problems. The Oscar nominated Winningham is, make no mistake, excellent. Georgia is such a straight character that she could be rather bland, but Winningham finds real depth in her conflicted relationship with Sadie. She also performs all her own vocals, showcasing a very impressive (if appropriately MOR) country voice.
And then… and then there’s Jennifer Jason Leigh. My instinct in discussing this performance is to do an impression of Wayne and Garth meeting Alice Cooper, and simply fall to my knees crying, “We’re not worthy”. Think of your favourite superlative and treble it, Jennifer Jason Leigh is still better than that. She quite simply IS Sadie, it’s not acting, it’s not even that she’s living in this person’s skin, Leigh completely and utterly becomes Sadie in a way so complete that it verges on frightening. She hardly even looks like herself, appearing tinier and more fragile than ever, having dieted her 5’ 3” frame down to just 89 pounds. She seems so breakable, as if the wind could knock her over and break one of her tiny arms, and yet she’s also forceful, almost possessed, full of vitriolic energy that takes the place of any great talent on stage. Sadie could easily have been reduced to a mass of actorly tics, but Leigh never does anything predictable. Or twice. From the first moment you see her, Sadie is a living, breathing person, and as the film’s 113 minutes pass Leigh peels back more and more layers, leaving herself, by the end, completely raw; like an exposed nerve. Like Winningham, Leigh does all her own vocals, and her live performances were staged for real. The most notable takes place at a benefit concert (an appearance granted as a favour from Georgia), at which Sadie performs an almost ten minute cover of Van Morrison’s Take Me Back. She repeats lines endlessly, yelling rather than singing, essentially spitting the song in the faces of the audience. It’s like watching a ten minute car crash, and we see and hear every last excruciating note. It is an extraordinary scene, the total breakdown of a person writ large over the duration of a song, and it may well be the single best thing Jennifer Jason Leigh has ever done.
Towards the end the film becomes a little more conventional, as we see Sadie finally confront the depth of her problems, but even this passage is lifted by the performances. Is the film itself a masterpiece? Perhaps not, but GEORGIA is absolutely required viewing if you have any interest at all in screen acting. Jennifer Jason Leigh’s work here is among the best ever put to film, full stop. How she was passed over (AGAIN) by the Oscars while Winningham, who is great but like everyone else completely overshadowed by Leigh’s virtuoso display, was nominated is one of the great mysteries. Hunt this film down. You won’t regret it.