May 24, 2012

The (In)Complete Jennifer Jason Leigh: 1978 - 1984

Prior to her cinematic debut in 1981 slasher Eyes of a Stranger, Jennifer Jason Leigh had a handful of guest spots on TV shows, and was in a couple of TV movies [The Young Runaways and Angel City] which I intend to review if I can get my hands on them. Aside from a few cinema roles, which included her great performance in classic teen movie Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Leigh spent the late 1970's and early 1980's on the small screen, racking up roles large and small in TV movies and specials (one I'm trying to source, called I Think I'm Having a Baby also boasts Helen Hunt and a debuting Ally Sheedy amongst its cast). If her work was sometimes uneven in this period so were the scripts she was working with, but there are frequent glimpses of a great actress, and a handful of fully realised performances which still, sometimes more than 30 years later, stand alongside the best of her work.

I've not been able to see absolutely everything absolutely in order, so this post will be updated with new reviews as an when I see the films, watch Twitter @24FPSUK for updates.

With that said, let's dive right into the films.

NOTE: Huge, huge thanks are owed to reader and fellow JJL superfan Derek Purtell, who has sent me almost every rare piece of Jennifer Jason Leigh footage I can think of (there are certain things, like the scenes she shot for Eyes Wide Shut, which we'll never see). Cheers Derek, there will be a load of DVDs coming your way soon.

The Young Runaways (1978)
Dir: Russ Mayberry
You couldn't, honestly at least, call The Young Runaways a great film. It's a simplistic and often preachy TV film about a couple of terrible parents, C.L. and the otherwise unnamed 'Mamma' who place their two middle children in foster care while they and their eldest; Rosebud and her mute little brother Joseph T go on the road to move to Alaska. Largely treated as baggage by their Mum and Step-Dad, Rosebud and Joseph T sneak into a motor home headed back to Los Angeles where, with the help of some local kids, they try to kidnap their brother and Sister so they can all be together again. Of course they also get caught up in a convoluted plot about stolen money.

The Young Runaways may not be great, but it is good honest fun. As Rosebud, Alicia Fleer is no Jodie Foster (who had put Disney behind her with Taxi Driver), but still she makes for a spunky and reasonably appealing lead and the film moves at a pretty relentless pace, seldom lacking in fun and generating a few good slapstick moments as the bad guy whose motor home the kids hitched a ride in looks for them and his missing money (which, apparently, a 13 year old thought was play money... yeah... not buying it, Kid)

The sexual politics leave something to be desired, as a male cop treats a colleague (to whom he turns out to be married) with barely masked professional contempt, and it gets worse as the ending essentially informs us that women can't have both a career and kids... that would be silly, but frankly the film is such a romp anyway that it's silly to think those things through, the target audience wouldn't have.

A sixteen year old (and very young looking) Jennifer Jason Leigh comes a LONG way down the credits, but actually has a slightly larger part than I'd expected. As Heather she's the girl next door who is infatuated with Eric; the kid helping out Rosebud and Joseph T. The character is an aspiring TV personality, but even so, Leigh's breathy performance often comes off as silly. Looking at it in isolation it's amazing to think that just three years later she'd have performances as good as those in Eyes of a Stranger and The Best Little Girl in the World. Like so many very early roles, this is inauspicious, but the film is enough fun to make it a worthwhile curio for fans.

Angel City (1980)

CBS Afternoon Playhouse: I Think I'm Having a Baby (1981)
Dir: Arthur Allan Seidelman
At only 21 minutes this after school special, which plays rather a lot like a video intended to be shown so a bored teacher can excuse themselves from planning a sex ed lesson, has to cram a lot of plot into a very little time. Because of this, as well as its design as a teaching aid, it is perhaps no surprise that it's about as subtle as baseball bat to the face, but it is a shame, because made a little more realistically and subtly many of its points are worth making to most 15 year olds, as much now as in 1981.

For me (and I'm guessing, since you're reading this, for you) the main interest that this relic of American broadcasting holds is that it contains Jennifer Jason Leigh's first on camera leading performance. She plays Laurie, a 15 year old who is in love from afar with her friend Phoebe's (Helen Hunt, yes, that one) boyfriend Peter (Shawn Stevens). One night at a party, Phoebe and Peter argue and Laurie goes off with him, we see them kiss, and it's implied that they go much further. Laurie begins to suspect that she's pregnant with Peter's child.

I can't hold this up as one of the shining moments in Jennifer Jason Leigh's career but, given the abysmal dialogue shoved into her mouth, she acquits herself reasonably well here in quiet moments. She conveys a sense of how lonely Laurie feels and, as shown much better in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, you can't help but want to reach out and give her a hug whenever she seems hurt. It's not much, and she's pretty damn dreadful when she has to speak, but at least you can see her trying to make something of what is a thunderously stupid and obvious script.

I'm not against media being used to convey a message, but stopping a TV show to essentially deliver a sex ed lecture through the mouths of teenagers (including a very young Ally Sheedy, seriously, everyone did an after school special in the 70's and 80's) really isn't the way to do it either in dramatic or educational terms.

There's not much else to say, other than that the A word does get brought up, slightly less judgmentally than you'd expect, though only slightly, and that - obviously - Laurie's not pregnant and finds the strength to tell Peter he's a cock (though not in those words). This is thoroughly rubbish, but also pretty funny 31 years on.

Eyes of a Stranger (1981)
Dir: Ken Wiederhorn

Eyes of a Stranger is a pretty obscure title by any standards. Its UK release suffered cuts for an X at the cinema in 1981, and the surrounding video nasty panic of that time probably attests to why it was in limbo until sneaking out on video, with 1 minute and 25 seconds of cuts, in 1986 (ironically it would probably have a much higher profile now if the distributor had tried to sneak it through in '81 or '82, when it almost certainly would have landed on the video nasty list).

Ken Weiderhorn's slasher is pretty unpleasant at times, it's about a serial rapist and murderer who is terrorising a Miami beach community, and the film is pretty unflinching when it comes to depicting the attacks. However, beneath what sometimes feels like a mysogynistically leering camera style, there are some really effective things going on here. A TV reporter named Jane (Lauren Tewes) becomes obsessed with the case and believes that her neighbour (John DiSanti) is the killer (and, in one of the biggest mis-steps it makes, the film never even attempts to fake us out in this respect). Jane's sister Tracy (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is deaf, blind and mute; a condition brought on psychosomatically following a traumatic incident in her childhood, this obviously makes Tracy vulnerable, and Jane's obsession with the killer makes them both targets.

For much of its running time, Eyes of a Stranger sort of plods through the motions, finding the odd arresting image (the killer seen through a shower screen; a too easy, but nicely done, decapitation courtesy of effects by Tom Savini) and a handful of scenes which, while we always know where they are headed, play out in pretty creepy fashion. Other moments fall far below their potential, such as a scene where the killer gets his car stuck in some sand while dumping a body. A creepy set piece could have been made out of the moment when a good samaritan gets out of his car to help, but instead it just serves to provide a bit more gore, which is fine as far as it goes, but definitely less than what the scene could have delivered.

For the bulk of the film, Leigh's Tracy is a side character, coming to the fore only in the final act, but as ever, Leigh doesn't let the size of the role give her any excuses to offer up less than 100% effort. Most of the time you can see that people playing blind are merely playing blind. You'll see their eyes catch something, take note of it. It may just be for a moment, and it may be a totally natural thing for the rest of us, but it just breaks the illusion. You'll never catch Jennifer Jason Leigh falling into that trap here, it doesn't even really occur to you that she doesn't share her character's afflictions, so profoundly natural is her performance, and that also goes for Tracy's deafness as she also manages to suppress all those tiny natural reactions we have to sound around us.

The fact that Leigh is so good is what makes the film's last twenty minutes take a huge jump in quality, as Weiderhorn has the blind Tracy menaced by the killer in her apartment. It's a brilliant sequence; terrifying because you can always see just how close the danger is, and just how helpless Tracy is. Adding to this is the fact that the 18 year old Leigh looks even younger and incredibly delicate here, and we've already seen this killer dispatch victims who should be much more able to fight back, it all adds up to a brilliant suspense scene. Weiderhorn also throws a reasonably predictable but nevertheless effective twist into this final sequence, which throws up some great images and, thanks to Leigh's sensitive playing of the moment, turns what might otherwise be a totally gratuitous moment of nudity into something that says a lot more than 'look, boobs'.

Eyes of a Stranger is no lost horror classic, but it certainly has quite a lot to recommend it, all of the performances are solid, and while Ken Weiderhorn's direction is wildly variable, the scenes he gets right are beautifully self-contained mini-movies, most notably that fantastic final sequence. It's recommended for horror, and especially slasher, fans, and is an essential watch for any Jennifer Jason Leigh fan, as her remarkable performance really holds the film together.

The Killing of Randy Webster (1981)
Dir: Sam Wanamaker
A fairly typical 'ripped from the headlines' type TV Movie, The Killing of Randy Webster is about a young man who was shot dead by Police after stealing a van. The case appeared open and shut; there was a gun lying right next to him, but Randy's Father (Hal Holbrook) refused to accept that his son would have either had a gun or attacked a Police officer, his determination led to the prosecution of the officers who shot Randy and covered up what really happened.

With the film now 31 years old, and the events of the case having happened 35 years ago, The Killing of Randy Webster has really lost what impact it might have had at the time, and now appears as something of a curiosity largely for the presence, some way down the cast list and a year prior to Fast Times, of both Sean Penn and Jennifer Jason Leigh. It's a terrible shame that Penn doesn't play Randy Webster, because if there's one especially glaring problem with this film it's that Gary McCleery, who has made a grand total of nine films since this, is appalling in the role, making Randy even less sympathetic than he might otherwise be, and delivering his dialogue with little or no intonation. Penn has little to do as one of Randy's friends, but he's Sean Penn, there's something that just jumps off the screen about him.

Jennifer Jason Leigh has three scenes, and only the third is anything more than functional, but despite a ropey script that fills her mouth with trite dialogue, she plays well off Hal Holbrook. She's not bad as Randy's shellshocked girlfriend, but the reason she's been so upset doesn't quite have the weight it should because we hardly get to know the character or see their relationship.

The rest of the performances are solid, with a dignified Holbrook providing a strong centre, and a better performance than the rather bald script and visuals deserve. The Killing of Randy Webster is a competent, rather than a great, film, but it tells its sad story reasonably well, and is interesting enough for fans of the cast.

The Best Little Girl in the World (1981)
Dir: Sam O'Steen
It may have a screenplay as subtle as a punch in the face, but The Best Little Girl in the World, following the promise of Eyes of a Stranger, was perhaps the film that really confirmed Jennifer Jason Leigh as a young actress worth keeping an eye on. She inherited the role of anorexic 17 year old Casey Powell after Jodie Foster turned it down, in favour of continuing her studies at Yale.

Leigh, as became her custom, began the process of utterly transforming herself for the role. Under medical supervision she dieted her then 98 pound, 5 foot 3 frame down to under 90 pounds (sources quote weights from 89 to 83 pounds). The physical transformation is striking; Leigh, always a delicate looking woman, seems tiny, emaciated, almost breakable. There's an especially shocking scene when she takes her shirt off at the doctors (from behind, it's a TV movie) and we see ribs and spine jutting out frighteningly. However, the transformation is more than physical. The emotional distance between Casey and her family is what really comes across, along with a very convincing depiction of her illness. She's especially outstanding when, the morning after her parents have found diet pills and laxatives in her room, she makes breakfast for the family. Leigh's robotic performance here absolutely nails Casey's calculating and desperate deception, and the way she's sleepwalking deeper into her illness. It's a performance much affecting and much more subtle than the film around it suggests or even earns.

Taken as a whole there are a lot of things that clunk here; a cliche riddled script which moves mechanically through every expected scene and Charles Durning's bombastic and overblown performance as Leigh's frustrated Father among them, but at times, thanks to the strength of the central performance, The Best Little Girl in the World transcends these problems. She would do much better work soon after, but this is still another impressive early hint of the actress Jennifer Jason Leigh would become.

The First Time (1982)
The Man With the Deadly Lens [a.k.a: Wrong is Right] (1982)

Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)
Dir: Amy Heckerling
[Slightly revised version of a previously published article]
In 1982, three raunchy American teen comedies came out. Porkys was ribald, and held the promise of loads of nudity, The Last American Virgin - while interesting and underrated to this day - never quite reconciled its comedic first and dramatic second halves, but Fast Times at Ridgemont High got it just right. The backstory is quite famous now. Aged 22, Cameron Crowe, then a journalist for Rolling Stone, returned to high school for a year to research a novel. That novel (notes for which were often taken, apparently, during frequent bathroom breaks at parties) became Crowe's first screenplay, and fortunately for Crowe and debuting director Amy Heckerling it came to Hollywood just when a glut of young talent was also arriving.

Fast Times at Ridgemont High IS the 80's, aside from the brat packers, everyone is in it. Sean Penn, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Judge Reinhold, Phoebe Cates, Nicolas Cage, Eric Stoltz, Forrest Whitaker, Amanda Wyss and Anthony Edwards are all familiar names, and then the cast is filled out by 'oh, it's THAT guy' actors like Scott Thomson, Robert Romanus, Brian Backer, Ray Walston and Vincent Schiavelli. It's a great cast, and it's easy to see why such talent gravitated towards the film (well, leaving aside the ever present need of young actors to no longer be living on their best friend's floor), because the screenplay gives them all sharply defined (even archetypal in some cases) characters, and fantastic dialogue, as well as an effective mix of comedy and drama to play. That's perhaps why it's such a joy to watch, because you can see how much fun everyone is having, how much they are enjoying these characters and these words.

This is especially true of the two leads. Sean Penn is now known as an incredibly intense and serious dramatic actor, but here, in his first really significant role, he's playing Jeff Spicoli; the stoned surfer dude that every stoned surfer dude since, in movies or otherwise, has to live up to. He brought his customary intensity to the set; insisting that everyone call him Spicoli, even when they called him at home, but his on screen performance is totally relaxed, and hilariously funny (perhaps more so now, viewed through the prism of 30 years of absolute seriousness). His rivalry with Ray Walston's authoritarian history teacher Mr Hand is the comedic gift that just keeps on giving from the beginning of the film ("You DICK") to the end ("What Jefferson was saying was, Hey! You know, we left this England place 'cause it was bogus; so if we don't get some cool rules ourselves - pronto - we'll just be bogus too! Get it?").

And then there is Jennifer Jason Leigh, also in her first really significant cinematic role. Ever the method actress, Leigh got a job at the exact pizza place where her character works, and worked there for a month between getting the part and filming. She doesn't so much act Stacy - the most challenging role in the film, as she has the most happen to her, and does the most growing up in the course of the story - as become her. She does this so completely that, when reviewing the film, Roger Ebert 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?' Now, I'm sure he's right that Leigh is 'fresh and cheerful', but one thing the last 30 years made clear she's not is delicate, or afraid of immersing herself in a scuzzy world for the good of a movie. What Ebert's done here, essentially, is mistake the actress for the character. That is how good she is here.

But I don't want to get too serious here, because Fast Times doesn't get too serious, oh sure, it deals with the trials of being a teenager, from disappointing sex, to shitty McJobs, from awkward dates, to break ups and even to abortion, but for the most part it deals with everything with a smile on its face and a really good joke not more than a minute away. Crowe crafts the dialogue beautifully, but Heckerling's direction often proves equally droll, be it the graffiti she focuses on as Stacy loses her virginity or the comically huge chairs she uses to make Stacy and her nervous date Mark Ratner (Backer) look tiny as they eat together, Heckerling packs the film with fun little visuals. Visually though, there's one thing most people remember from this film. Well, no, two things; Phoebe Cates' twins. Cates (who I wish had kept working after she had a family with Kevin Kline) plays Linda; Stacy's outwardly worldly wise friend, but plays her with the implication that, actually, she's far less experienced and worldly than she portrays herself. Her nude scene, a dream sequence in Brad's (Reinhold) masturbatory fantasy, is the scene that launched a generation on the way to puberty, and in the age of VHS you could hardly rent a copy on which the tracking remained sound in that moment.

Fast Times does have an overarching story (two really; Stacy's and Spicoli's) but it is more a film of moments, and that's fine, because actually that's being a teenager; you aren't thinking about the grand overarching scheme of things at 15, you're living from one moment, one experience, to the next. In this respect the film, written as it clearly is, is a good reflection of that time in your life, and while the fashions and the soundtrack (especially the soundtrack, and especially Somebody's Baby) have dated massively, the film itself still feels fresh and relevant as it passes its 30th birthday. The laughs haven't dated either (I don't want to live in a time when the fact that someone has written Big Hairy Pussy on a bathroom mirror isn't funny) and the performances are strong all round. Among the cameos Vincent Schiavelli's science teacher may be my favourite (his opening line "I just switched to sanca, so, have a heart" is one of the film's biggger laughs), but just about everyone gets their moment to shine here.

I wish there were more American high school movies this good (the last one to get close was perhaps the still underrated 10 Things I Hate About You), but this one remains a real joy and even though my heart sinks every time we hear Somebody's Baby it still makes me laugh, and, actually gets me on an emotional level too, because it's easy to feel, so well written and acted are these characters that you know, and largely like, these people. That's why it's endured

ABC Afterschool Special: Have You Ever Been Ashamed of Your Parents? (1983)

Easy Money (1983)

There's only really one question that matters in considering any comedy film: did you find it funny? You can't really argue the point with somebody because, more than the question of whether or not a shot is technically competent, or whether a dramatic performance is delivering the required emotion, there really is no 'right' answer. I don't think Rodney Dangerfield is an especially funny man, you may, I don't, and that's a real problem for someone trying to enjoy Easy Money.

The story is basically a riff on Brewster's Millions only when his Mother in Law dies Dangerfield doesn't have to spend money in order to get the big inheritance, he has to give up junk food, alcohol, gambling and many of the other things he loves. It's not a terrible framework on which to hang a script that is, largely, a selection of one-liners, but the problem is that it's so very flimsy. Dangerfield doesn't so much play a character as he plays himself (or at least his comedy persona by another name, Monty Capuletti, and would that the film had done more, or something, with that Romeo and Juliet nod). The dialogue seems, for most of the running time, to be verbatim gags from Dangerfield's one-liner heavy stand up, and much of it isn't even directed at anyone, Dangerfield is just talking out loud, throwing 'zingers'. This would be a smaller problem, but for the fact that most of the gags would have been considered dated in 1883, never mind 1983, and that the film boasts an occasional, but nevertheless troublesome, streak of casual sexism and racism.

For Jennifer Jason Leigh fans, she's cast - barely credibly - as Dangerfield's 18 year old daughter, and the opening half hour of the film is set in the run up to her wedding. In just one of many disappointments her wedding cake is used for a joke you can see coming from across an ocean, but the issue is never addressed after the slapstick moment has been had. The better news is that the scenes between Leigh and screen husband Taylor Negron are some of funniest in the film. sequences set on their disastrous wedding night and when Julio comes to win back Allison boast by far the film's funniest lines, thanks especially to Negron's ineffective attempts to be a badass "Allison, I am bad. I am so bad I should be in detention". Leigh, not a natural comedienne, is really the justification for Negron's comic antics, and is given little opportunity to stretch, though she nabs the odd funny line, and delivers them well. Like many of her early films though, Easy Money fails to use Leigh to her, and its, best advantage.

There are good things here; the friendly and comic chemistry between Dangerfield and Joe Pesci as his best friend, and the always amusing Jeffrey Jones playing, another of his buttoned up authority figures (though he's nowhere near scheming enough here), but the clanging predictability of every joke just killed the film for me - how can you be expected to laugh when you arrive at every punchline before the comedian does? There's a lot of love for this film out there, but I'd only recommend it to fans of Dangerfield's comedy and Jennifer Jason Leigh completists (Hi).

Death Ride to Osaka [a.k.a: Girls of the White Orchid] (1983)
Dir: Jonathan Kaplan
The two titles for this film exist because it exists in two different cuts. Girls of the White Orchid is the original TV movie cut, while Death Ride to Osaka is the video version, with some added nudity (including some by the never shy Jennifer Jason Leigh). The version I was able to get my hands on is the extended, very much R-Rated, cut.

Death Ride to Osaka has a pretty functional story and, like a lot of TV movies, seems to attempt a little commentary on what is perceived to be one of the issues of the day. If anything the human traffiking theme, though addressed in little depth, feels more pertinent now. The film centres on Carol (Leigh), a young singer trying to make it in LA. Having had no luck, Carol applies for a two month contract at a nightclub in Japan, but when she arrives she discovers that she's expected to supplement her income by sleeping with customers at the club, and that the triads who run the club and the girls have taken her passport. At the same time, having just left the Air Force, Carol's boyfriend (Thomas Byrd) is looking for her.

What lifts the film comfortably out of the run of the mill is threefold; a screenplay which - for the most part - rises above its origins as a social concern film, a solid directorial job from Jonathan Kaplan, who would later make The Accused, and, predictably, a shining lead performance from Jennifer Jason Leigh. I've read other reviews that say Leigh, with her apparent youth and innocence, is miscast here, but nothing could be further from the truth. Carol has to seem the wide-eyed innocent for us to believe that she would fall for such an obviously dodgy job offer as the one she receives to take her to Japan, and indeed for us to believe that she can see herself making it, under any circumstances. Despite her estimable acting talents, singing is not Jennifer Jason Leigh's forte, she appears to be doing her own vocals here, and the overwhelming impression you're left with is that she's slightly, but not much, better at singing than your average mentally divergent X Factor contestant.

Where Leigh really succeeds here is in making Carol naïve and trusting rather than simply dumb. From her extremely naturalistic performance you get a sense of this young girl who is too trusting, and perhaps too quick to brush things off (early in the film the Police pull her over, apparently assuming she's a prostitute, and Carol remains as cheerily unaffected as ever as she demonstrates that she is not). Even without her description of it there's a sense of history here; that she's been looking for an audition without success for some time. One of Leigh's best moments comes early in the film when the agent for the Tokyo club asks if she has an agent of her own, she says 'I'm between agents' but then, in a moment that tells a lot about both her innocence and her integrity, and really sets the tone for her character, confesses that this is a lie, and that she actually has no agent. In the Japan set bulk of the film, when it becomes clear that Carol is expected to prostitute herself, it would be all too easy to slip into melodrama when she steadfastly refuses (we've seen that in the opening scenes with another girl), but Leigh keeps the scenes totally grounded, and the character totally consistent.

It has to be said that the film, while not the racist 'beware of forrins' message movie it could have been, devotes rather less time and effort to making rounded individuals of its Japanese characters than it does the white ones. However, that's not to say that there isn't some good work from the Japanese cast, especially Richard Narita as Shiro, who recruits Carol, but seems to take a liking to her and has at least some sympathy when she refuses to go along with the extra things expected of her. Mako also appears, ever his inimitable self, playing a mid-ranking yakuza and Soon Tek-oh is at least entertainingly eeevil, even if all his character really lacks is a moustache to twirl. The most disappointing aspect of the film comes from the story involving Carol's former boyfriend trying to find her. The storyline is underwritten, and the whole history of the relationship is meant to be implied just because they both have the same photo of themselves as a couple on their respective bedside tables. It also somewhat undermines Carol's status as a strong character when, ultimately, she has to be saved by this man who really has no other function in the story.

Death Ride to Osaka is an oddly mixed bag; an unsubtle script about the evils of exploitation, anchored by a strong female lead, yet liberally splashed with nudity. It's saved from an inconsistent tone by a very down to Earth performance from Jennifer Jason Leigh, which gives the film moments of resonance that it really fails to earn. It's definitely recommended for fans, and is a fine early example of how Leigh would go on to bring class and quality to many exploitation films that could have been totally uninteresting without her.

Grandview USA (1984)

No comments:

Post a Comment